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The Perfect Prize: Pan Pizza

28 Aug

It doesn’t take knowing me very long to realize that I’m kind of a nerd, a title I wear with pride. Let’s be real, I went to graduate school for library and information science, so reading and research are my jam. I’d say that a lot of this stems from having parents who read to me and who encouraged me to read from a young age.

One of the perks of being a kid who already LOVED to read was Book It!, a program that Pizza Hut has been running since 1984 to promote literacy. When I was a kid, you’d receive a badge and for every book you read, you’d get a sticker to put on it. Once it was full, you could present the completed badge at a Pizza Hut and get a free personal pan pizza. And man, was that an awesome reward in my mind. I loved those little pan pizzas. They were thick, super cheesy, and had awesome crispy edges from the cast iron pans they were baked in. I remember my cousins and I nearly emptying the shakers of parmesan cheese onto our pizzas and gleefully devouring them as we contemplated how to convince our parents to give us more quarters for the arcade machines in the front of the restaurant.

Adult-me still loves books (especially cookbooks!) and definitely still loves pizza. But I have my own beloved cast iron pan now, and my love of reading and research have most certainly led me to learn how to make that cheesy, chewy, crispy delight right in my own kitchen. And with a husband who has an extensive collection of video games, I don’t even need quarters to play games while I wait for my pizza.

Want to make one? Here’s how!

Pan Pizza


  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups bread flour
  • ¾ cup warm (110-115 degrees F) water, divided
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt


  • One 15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tsp. dried herbs (I like a mix of parsley, oregano, and basil)


  • 9 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Whatever you like on your pizza!


  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 8-10 in. cast iron skillet

Begin by making the pizza dough.

Combine 1 tbsp. of the flour, ¼ cup of the water, and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for about 5 minutes, or until foamy.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup water, 2 tsp. olive oil, and salt and stir to combine.

Slowly add the flour ½ cup at a time until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic.

Roll into a tight ball and then place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat in the oil.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough ball doubles in size. It will take about an hour.

Pour 2 tbsp. of olive oil into the cast iron pan. Place the risen dough on top and then stretch it to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 2 hours.

While the dough is rising, prepare the sauce. Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees F.

Lightly press down on the dough in the pan to remove any large air bubbles, and then spread the sauce on top, going all the way to the edges.

Top with the cheese and any other toppings you might wish to add.

Bake the pizza for 15 minutes and then carefully remove from the oven and then cook on the stove top over high heat for 1 minute.

Just look at that cheesy goodness:

To remove the pizza from the pan, run a knife or palette knife around the edges, and then use a large palette knife, tongs, or a spatula to lever it out of the pan and onto a cutting board.

Allow the pizza to rest for 2-3 minutes before slicing.

The crust is thick and chewy with crisp edges from the olive oil and high heat, and the cheese is beautifully broiled on top and gooey underneath. It’s a little decadent and a LOT delicious.

It just goes to show that if you bury your nose in a cookbook (or many), you too can always relish the rewards of reading.

Ciao for now,


Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.



Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.


Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.


Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.


After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:



This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.


Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!



Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,


The Planning Principle (plus bonus cake!)

24 Jul

I call him the mouse that ran up the clock. He says good morning to all!

Yesterday, as I threw the last of my apple butter bars into my work bag it occurred to me that the evening ahead would call for copious amounts of baking in order to replenish my protein meal/snack supply.

After a fruitful trip to Harris Teeter, I was armed with the necessary ingredients and a few new things to experiment with. Dinner was first on the chopping block, and because I had plans for baking later I decided to keep it simple. Let me tell you, this is the best tortilla pizza yet. I’m calling it “Summer Pizza” because I honestly believe it’s at its prime when made with herbs and tomatoes picked straight from the garden.

I began by dicing up the first roma tomato from my vine and added fresh basil, fresh parsley, one diced baby bella mushroom, a teaspoon of olive oil, pinch of kosher salt, a grind of black pepper, dash of onion powder, and about a tablespoon and a half of my homemade marinara sauce. After mixing it all together, I let it sit on the counter for about 20 minutes to let all of the flavors come together. It smelled heavenly as I spooned it onto a multi-grain tortilla which I then topped with 1/4 cup of shredded part-skim mozzarella and a few small dollops of fat free ricotta. After ten minutes in a 425 degree oven, I was treated to one very delicious 200 calorie pizza. Yum!

Close-up for texture!

My plan for the evening was to make a batch of banana-nut protein muffins and a protein apple cake that I would cut into bars. While considering this, it reminded me of another important lesson that’s been drilled into me at this point: Plan Ahead.

When Joe and I had to stop in Breezewood for a bite to eat on our way to Pittsburgh (after being stuck in traffic all afternoon), we had a myriad of fast food options. While I don’t eat fast food very often, there is the occasional stop while traveling or night when I don’t feel like cooking or actively going out to dinner. I prepare myself by researching nutrition information on restaurant’s websites and making a list of the best options available. For instance, Wendy’s chili, or half of an oven roasted Twister wrap with no pepper-mayo from KFC. It’s surprising how well you can eat at most places if you simply plan ahead. If I’m invited to dinner somewhere that I can’t find something that fits my diet, I generally resolve to choose the healthiest option and eat only half of it. But I decide that in advance, because if I don’t then I continue eating because “it tastes good” and not because I’m hungry.

I apply the same planning principle to my everyday meals. I know how many calories I want to have during the workday and plan 2 meals and 2 snacks accordingly. My evening consists of another meal and snack with a total daily calorie count somewhere between 1,000-1,200 and a daily protein intake of 65-80 grams.

After doing some calculations, I knew that the banana-nut muffins would yield 8 decent sized muffins at 151 calories, 6 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbohydrates, and 8 grams of protein. They would be good for a filling snack. The apple cake would yield 6 bars at170 calories, 10 grams of fat, 15 grams of carbohydrates, and 10 grams of protein. Those would make a good breakfast or dessert treat with some protein ice cream.

The banana nut protein muffins were a delicious success (I just had one for a snack). You can find the original recipe at Shelly’s blog. The changes I made were to use a regular muffin tin, two tablespoons of SF caramel syrup and 1 tablespoon of SF vanilla syrup, replace one of the tablespoons of almond butter with a tablespoon of apple butter, and make a batch of 8 larger muffins (instead of 24 small ones). Because the muffins are larger, I also extended the cooking time to 18 minutes, or until the tops spring back when poked with a finger.

Then it was onto the apple cake. During my Harris Teeter excursion, I came across an apple type I hadn’t seen before, labeled as “Sweet Jazzy Apples.” Yes, yes it’s probably a marketing term for some apple I’ve already had, but I decided to give them a taste test anyway so I’d know if they’d make good applesauce for canning season in the fall. Anyway, you came here for apple cake, so here’s the recipe and method:

Neen’s Apple Cake Bars

1/4 cup almond flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup soy flour
1 scoop Nitro vanilla protein
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp spiced apple preserves (I use homemade—if you buy, try to find all fruit preserves)
1 tbsp SF caramel syrup
1/2 apple, sliced
2 tbsp almond butter
1 egg
2 tbsp no sugar added apple butter
1/2 graham cracker’s worth of crumbs

Set your oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk almond flour, half of the rolled oats, soy flour, half of the protein powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Add the syrup and preserves and mix until combined. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the almond butter with the egg until smooth.

Combine the two mixtures and then add the other half of the protein powder and the other half of the oats. The batter will be very sticky, so oil whatever you’ll be using to spread it in the pan. I just spray my hands with non-stick spray.

Line a loaf pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper. If using aluminum foil, be sure to spray it with non-stick cooking spray. Spread the batter evenly in the pan and then top with apple slices. Spread the apple butter over the apple slices, creating an even glaze.

Bake the cake for 20 minutes and then sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs over the top. Bake 5 more minutes and then remove from the oven.

After the cake cools, remove it from the pan (this is where the parchment/foil really comes in handy) and cut into 6 bars.

Wrapped in plastic, they’ll keep on the counter for 4-5 days. For longer storage, keep them in the fridge for up to two weeks.

In light of what I’ve shared about planning ahead, here is my food plan for the day:

Breakfast: 3/4 Luna Chocolate Pecan Pie protein bar (it was very good—a bit sweet for my taste)
Morning snack: Banana nut protein muffin
Lunch: Deli turkey, fresh tomato, and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese wrapped in a large lettuce leaf.
Afternoon snack: Apple protein cake bar
Dinner: Thin cut loin pork chops, lightly breaded and sautéed hot and fast in olive oil.
Evening snack: NSA fudgesicle or a protein bar

I also plan to buy my books for school and beginning my research for the fantasy football draft (I’ve been slacking big-time).

If you have a plan or goal for anything today, (work, food, school, exercise…etc.) share it in the comments section! It’s worth giving some thought to, because sometimes a plan is the only motivation needed to get things done. Ciao for now, friends!

The Italian Job

7 Jul

I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like Italian food. There’s nothing that makes a house smell better than a fresh pot of sauce simmering away on the stove all day. But what do you do when bread and pasta make you feel awful suddenly? Let me take a moment to explain why this happens.

Because a good portion of the small intestine is bypassed during the RNY procedure, a meal rich in simple carbohydrates can be a ticking time bomb. Those carbohydrates get digested too quickly and move directly into the bloodstream causing a spike in blood sugar. This is known as “dumping syndrome” because the sugars are literally dumping into the bloodstream. Symptoms include intense nausea, faintness, weakness, sweating and cramping. This is the main reason why RNY patients avoid bread and sweets like the plague. It’s just not worth it. Trust me.

So, as I contemplated Italian food, it seemed to me that I’d have to somehow remove those simple carbohydrates and replace them with something that would be flavorful, filling, and most importantly, rich in some kind of lean protein.

I tackled filled pasta first. There are a lot of different vegetables that work well as a replacement for pasta. For instance, replacing the noodles in manicotti with grilled or sautéed zucchini works well. But early on, I found that the one I liked the most was also the very simplest. I call it the ricotta bowl!

Just cut a small tomato in half, scoop out most of the insides and season it with salt and pepper. Next, fill it with about a 1/4 cup of ricotta (also seasoned) and sprinkle young asiago cheese and fresh parsley on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil. You can throw it under a broiler if you wish, but I find it a perfectly refreshing summer snack when served cold. When made with part-skim ricotta, it’s all of about 95 calories when finished.

As for non filled pasta dishes, it was my father who gave me the idea of replacing elbows or penne with cauliflower. Cauliflower is one of those wonderful foods that takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Thus, a slow braise in a mix of canned tomatoes, homemade marinara sauce, herbs, sautéed onions, mushrooms imparted so many of the flavors of the dish it was based on that I didn’t even miss the noodles. I usually serve mine over a spoonful of seasoned light ricotta for extra protein, and finish the top with grated parmesan and fresh parsley.

And then there was pizza. Or pizza crust at least. It wasn’t the toppings that were the problem, it was their method of delivery. Whole wheat pizza dough was delicious and rich in complex carbohydrates, but it was so heavy that it often felt uncomfortable to eat it. However, a whole wheat tortilla was just enough to deliver a thin, crispy crust while withstanding the weight of any toppings.

After preheating an oven to 425 degrees, I brush both sides of the tortilla with extra virgin olive oil and then add sauce, herbs, cheese, and whatever might be on hand in the fridge. It’s a great way to get rid of left over cut vegetables and meats. After 10 minutes in the oven, this is what you have:

Nope, I’m definitely not missing out on anything.

Mangia bene!