Evolve, pizza pan!

Times Staff Writer

GROWING up with neither Neapolitan grandmother nor local pizzeria (lived in Iowa, ate haggis), I learned how to make my own pizza out of pure desperation, often, and with giddy pleasure. Maybe this giddiness is why I’ve broken all four pizza stones I’ve owned. So when I saw a beautiful persimmon cast-iron pizza pan in a store recently, it was both its sturdiness and its color that caught my eye. So what if it was Mario Batali’s persimmon: I once bought a pair of Emeril clogs too. I couldn’t wait to get it home and start throwing dough.

My new pan’s charms were immediate: The clarion tones it made when I dropped it while getting my groceries through the door was a huge improvement on the sound of broken pottery. And for making pizza, it blew my old pizza stones out of the water -- well, oven.

The pan made glorious pizza, with gorgeously burnished outer crusts and a bottom crust that remained perfectly crisp under the bubbling toppings. The pizza and its attendant pan moved easily from counter to oven and back again, thanks to its handles, easy-to-grasp enamel-coated half-moons. The pan retained heat and thus kept the pizza warm; it was also pretty enough to bring to the table.

And it made other unpromised things too: sandwiches, fajitas, pancakes, crepes. As with a pizza stone, you preheat the Batali pan in the oven before laying the uncooked pizza on it. But the Batali pan is a lot easier to use than a stone: It’s smaller, and therefore it fits better in my oven. It’s much easier to transfer fragile laden pies across the expanse from counter to waiting open oven. And unlike a stone, you can actually remove a hot Batali pan from the oven, thanks to the handles.

But best of all, that crust really rocks.

The cast-iron pan cooks just as evenly as a pizza stone, and it beats the stone in speed. But the pan produces a crisper, darker crust than a stone, one that’s slightly flatter than one made on a stone, with less lift at the edge of the crust. (Not surprisingly, while it makes fantastic pizza crusts, it doesn’t work for baking bread because it cooks too quickly and burns.)


You can use your pizza pan to precook toppings. Toast the walnuts for arugula goat cheese pizza, or roast the radicchio for a sausage, radicchio and burrata pizza. Since the pan’s already hot, it’s simple and faster; you also don’t have to use (or wash) any additional kitchen gear.

The instructions say you can bake pizza on the stove top, baking the crust on both sides first like a flat bread and then adding toppings -- but pizzas baked in a hot oven (450 degrees works best) are far superior. On the stove, the crusts can deflate and even burn, and the toppings never seem to cook uniformly.


Beautiful and versatile

PIZZA is not all the pan does. In the oven, it roasts vegetables in a flash; the preheated and pre-seasoned surface needs less oil than a baking sheet would. You can toast nuts and spices on it, roast root vegetables, fennel or tomatoes, or even use it to sear steaks or fish.

On the stove top, the pan makes flatbreads, pancakes and sandwiches. It makes crepes too, though my old crepe pan makes better ones on its shopworn metal surface; the Batali pan makes rougher, crisper crepes than I generally like. But what the crepes lack in texture, they make up for in sheer size: You can make giant ones, like those you get on the streets of Paris.

This isn’t the first enameled cast-iron pizza pan on the market; Le Creuset had one but discontinued it. Lodge sells a pre-seasoned cast-iron pizza pan that isn’t enameled, but it’s not available in stores, only by mail or online. The Lodge pan makes pizza similar to the Batali pan -- perhaps slightly less crisp -- and can do pretty much everything else too. But without the pretty enamel, it’s more utilitarian, not fitting as a serving plate.

For a wonderfully flavorful crust, ignore the recipe that comes with the Batali pan (it rises too fast and never develops body) and make a simple bread dough, using one packet of yeast, about 2 1/2 cups of flour, water, olive oil and salt.

Let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator: This allows the flavor to develop and gives you time to invite friends.

The next day, form it into two balls and let it rest on the counter for an hour while you assemble toppings and heat up the oven and the pizza pan. Then use your fingers to spread out the dough on a sheet of parchment and layer toppings over it. If you don’t want to use a peel, slide the parchment with the pizza onto an inverted cookie sheet and then transfer it onto the hot pan. (Using parchment means you don’t need to use cornmeal to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter, or to the pan -- or the peel, if you use one.) When it’s done, slide the parchment off the pan and onto the cookie sheet again, or serve the pizza right on the pan.

As for toppings, you can be as creative as you want. Try creamy goat cheese paired with a handful of peppery arugula. A half-cup of toasted walnuts and a drizzle of great walnut oil make a wonderfully rich yet light pizza. Or roast some Treviso radicchio (less bitter than the more common radicchio di Chioggia) right on the pan in the oven, while you brown crumbled Italian sausage on the stove. Then strew your pizza with both and slide it into the oven. Literally at the last minute, add pieces of sumptuous burrata cheese.

Traditionalists can opt for tomato sauce and pepperoni, while the more adventurous can try duck confit and white beans, or roasted garlic and sauteed kale. You can put virtually anything that appeals on top of a good pizza crust.

Care of the pan is pretty easy: As with all cast iron, you shouldn’t use soap, only a quick scrub with water and a kitchen brush. Keep the pan well-oiled and away from rust-causing moisture. Mine now lives inside my oven -- where my pizza stone used to be.

And, by the way, you can drop it as often as you want. Just make sure you get yourself some steel-toed clogs first. Now, there’s a marketing opportunity. Bobby Flay? Anyone?


Batali pizza pan, available in persimmon at Sur La Table and Macy’s; available in red at Crate & Barrel, $60.


Basic pizza dough

Total time: 20 minutes plus overnight rising time and 1 hour resting time

Servings: Makes 2 pizzas, about 10 inches in diameter

1 cup warm water

1 packet ( 1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

Generous pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon best-quality

olive oil

About 2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1. Put the water, yeast and sugar in a large bowl and set aside for 5 minutes, until it begins to foam. (If it doesn’t, discard and start over with new yeast.)

2. Stir in the olive oil and 1 cup of flour and mix until incorporated. Then add the salt and the second cup of flour, stirring with a spoon or spatula.

3. Turn out the dough onto a floured board or, if your bowl is large and shallow enough, just knead it in the bowl. Knead the dough, incorporating the rest of the flour as needed, until it’s smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

4. Put the dough into a clean, well-oiled bowl, turning to lightly coat the top of the dough with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight.

5. The next day -- about an hour and a half before you want your pizza -- take the dough out of the refrigerator, punch it down and divide it into two balls. Lightly coat the dough with olive oil, cover with plastic, and let it rest on the counter for an hour.

6. After an hour, using your fingers, spread each ball of dough into a 10-inch disk on top of a piece of parchment paper. The edges should be half an inch thick, and the centers should be about a quarter-inch thick. Assemble your pizzas.

Each serving: 107 calories; 3 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 141 mg. sodium.


Sausage, radicchio and burrata pizza

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Burrata is available at Bristol Farms and Whole Foods stores, Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica and Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles.

1/3 pound mild Italian sausage

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 heads of Treviso radicchio

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 recipe pizza dough

Freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces fresh burrata, sliced

1. Place a cast-iron pizza pan on the middle rack of the oven and heat to 350 degrees.

2. Remove the sausage from its casing and saute with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the fennel seeds in a saute pan over medium heat, breaking apart the sausage as it cooks. Cook until browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside.

3. Trim the radicchio and cut it into three-fourths inch slices. Toss in a bowl with 1 tablespoon olive oil and one-fourth teaspoon kosher salt. Mound the radicchio on the pizza pan in the oven and roast, stirring and turning with a spatula, until it just begins to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Take the pan out, remove the radicchio and set it aside and return the pan to the oven. Turn the oven up to 450 degrees.

4. Brush the prepared pizza dough with the remaining olive oil. Spread the sausage then the radicchio evenly over the pizza. . Grind a little black pepper over the top.

5. Slide the parchment paper with the pizza onto an inverted cookie sheet or peel, then transfer both parchment and pizza to the hot pizza pan. Cook until golden and crispy, about 12 to 16 minutes, rotating it once halfway through (use the parchment to do so). One minute before the pizza is done, add the burrata slices to the pizza in the oven, so that it gets just melted.

6. Remove the pizza from the oven either by pulling out the parchment paper and sliding the pizza back onto the cookie sheet or by taking out the hot pizza pan and placing it on a trivet. Slice and serve hot.

Each serving: 273 calories; 9 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 16 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 22 mg. cholesterol; 349 mg. sodium.


Arugula, goat cheese and walnut pizza

Total time: About 25 minutes

Servings: 6

1/2 cup shelled walnuts

1/2 recipe pizza dough

1 tablespoon roasted walnut oil, divided

2 cups arugula

4 ounces goat cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Balsamic vinegar for


1. Place a cast-iron pizza pan on the middle rack of the oven and heat to 450 degrees. Scatter the walnuts over the hot pan and toast until browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure they don’t burn. Carefully take the hot pan from the oven, remove the toasted nuts, and return the pan to the oven. Break apart the walnuts if they’re large.

2. Brush the prepared pizza dough with 1 teaspoon walnut oil. Spread the arugula over the dough, then crumble the goat cheese over the top. Sprinkle the walnuts over the pizza, drizzle with the remaining walnut oil and grind black pepper over the top.

3. Slide the parchment paper with the pizza onto an inverted cookie sheet or peel, then transfer both parchment and pizza onto the hot pan in the oven. Cook until golden and crisp, 12 to 16 minutes, rotating the pizza once during baking. Remove the pizza from the oven by pulling out the parchment paper and sliding it back onto the cookie sheet, or remove the hot pizza pan and place on a trivet. Drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar, slice and serve immediately.

Each serving: 223 calories; 8 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 12 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 9 mg. cholesterol; 212 mg. sodium.