Pam Anderson cooks to foolproof perfection

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When it comes to putting together a meal for friends and family, only one word should come to mind: simplify! Pam Anderson, author of "Perfect Recipes for Having People Over," was invited to the “Today” show to share some foolproof recipes for foolproof pizza, salad and dessert.

Bake-Ahead Pizza for a Crowd
The word “party” just naturally follows pizza. Making it from scratch for a crowd is difficult, though. The problem is oven space — the crust has to be baked on the bottom rack so it will brown, which means you have to bake the pizzas one at a time.

I’ve found two tricks that make it possible to serve pizza for a crowd. First, change the shape. If you form the pizzas into long rectangles, you can bake two at a time. The smaller sizes of dough are easier to manage than a large one, and the centers will crisp up better. You can also sauce the pizzas and bake them several hours ahead.

Then, shortly before serving, top them (or better yet, let guests do it), and reheat them at the last minute in a low-temperature oven to melt the cheese and recrisp the crust.

Like good French and Italian bread, a good pizza crust is made with bread flour, which is available in health food stores and many supermarkets. If you use bleached all-purpose flour, the crust will be tough and less crisp. You can, however, substitute a higher protein unbleached all-purpose flour, such as King Arthur.

Makes 4 Pizzas
Serves 6

1 package (2-1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil4 cups bread flour2 teaspoons saltRed and/or white sauce for pizza Toppings of choice1 cup (4 ounces) grated part-skim mozzarella (or other soft cheese, such as fontina or even pepper jack; crumbled feta is nice too)1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheeseCornmeal for dusting pan

Pour 1/4 cup warm tap water into a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup or a small bowl. Sprinkle in yeast and let stand until yeast swells, about 5 minutes. Add cool tap water to the 1-1/2cup line (1-1/4 cups water if using bowl), then add olive oil to the 1-3/4 cup line (1/4 cup oil if using bowl), and whisk to mix.

Pour flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add yeast mixture and process to form a soft, supple, dough ball; pulse in another tablespoon or so of water if dough feels tight, like clay. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds longer.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for a few seconds to form a ball. Place in a large bowl coated with cooking spray. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place until doubled in size, 1/2 to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, make sauce(s) (see recipes, next page), prepare toppings (see next page), and grate cheese.

About 30 minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly sprinkle cornmeal onto each of two parchment-lined cookie sheets, at least 18 by 12 inches. (Do not use insulated cookie sheets, which would prevent crusts from crisping.) Without punching it down, turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. (It’s fine if dough deflates; just don’t work or knead it, because that will make stretching more difficult.) Quarter dough with a dough scraper or sharp knife.

Working with 1 portion of dough at a time, stretch each into a rough 18-by-5-inch rectangle. (Don’t sweat the shape. You just want 2 pizzas per sheet.) Transfer to a prepared pan; spread with 1/2 cup sauce. Repeat with another portion of dough, and bake pizzas until bottoms are a crisp golden brown, about 15 minutes. Stretch and sauce remaining 2 portions pizza dough, then bake when first pizzas come out of oven. Set aside at room temperature.

When ready to serve, adjust oven racks to middle and top positions and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Top pizzas as desired, sprinkle with mozzarella, and bake directly on oven racks until crisp and hot, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and bring to the table. Cut with kitchen shears and serve.

How can I vary it?

What should I serve with it?
Drinks
Zippy red wines, such as Zinfandel or ChiantiBeer and soda

When should I serve it?
For a casual party, especially for young peopleAs an appetizer

Any shortcuts?
Here are some ideas, but if you take too many shortcuts, something very special will turn ordinary. The dough will rise more quickly in an oven that’s been preheated to about 100 degrees, then turned off. Set the covered bowl of dough on the oven rack with a dish towel beneath to protect it from the direct heat of the rack.

If you don’t have time to make pizza dough, buy it. Many grocery stores sell it in the refrigerated section.

Although grating fresh Parmesan cheese (preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano) makes a remarkable difference in flavor, you can use a good packaged grated cheese.

Use packaged grated mozzarella cheese.

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Use as many no-prep toppings as possible.

Make just one sauce. If you’re hosting a pizza party, however, it’s nice, and more festive, to have a second type.

How far ahead can I make it?
The white sauce can be made up to 3 days ahead; since the tomato sauce is so easy, throw it together at the last minute.

The sauced pizzas can be baked up to 2 hours before topping. Most of the topping ingredients can be prepared 1 to 2 days ahead.

What about leftovers?
If you heat it up right, pizza is almost as good the second time around. To reheat a few slices, set a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. While the skillet heats, microwave the pizzas just enough to take the chill off (not too much, or you’ll end up toughening the crust). Set the slices in a single layer in the skillet and heat until the bottom crisps up and the pizza is heated through.

You can heat larger quantities of leftovers in a low-temperature oven (325 degrees), setting the slices directly on an oven rack.

Toss leftover pizza sauce with pasta or spoon over polenta.

Red Sauce for Pizza
Makes about 2 cups (enough for 4 pizzas)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil2 large garlic cloves, minced1 can (16 ounces) crushed tomatoesSalt to tasteMix all ingredients together and spread on pizza.

For the cooked red sauce
Add olive oil and garlic to a 10-inch skillet and cook until garlic starts to sizzle. Add tomatoes and salt and bring to a boil, then simmer to blend flavors, about 10 minutes. Spread on pizza.

White Sauce for Pizza
Makes about 2 cups (enough for 4 pizzas)

1-1/4 cups 2 percent or whole milk3/4 cup chicken broth or vegetable broth2 large garlic cloves, minced2 tablespoons butter3 tablespoons all-purpose flour1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheeseSalt

Combine milk, broth, and garlic in a 1-quart Pyrex measuring cup or a microwave-safe bowl (or a medium saucepan) and microwave (or slowly heat in a medium saucepan) until very hot and steamy. Let stand for 5 minutes to soften garlic. Meanwhile, melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When butter starts to sizzle, whisk in flour. Add milk mixture all at once, then whisk until smooth. Cook until thick and bubbly (since milk is hot, this will take only a minute). Stir in cheese and season with salt. Pour mixture back into measuring cup or bowl and cover with plastic wrap, placed directly on surface of sauce, for up to 2 hours, or until ready to use. Spread on pizza.

Possible Pizza Toppings
Simple toppings:
Canned chopped clams — 1/2 cup drained clams per pizza (from a 6-1/2 ounce can)Sliced pepperoni or prosciuttoCanadian bacon or ham, cut into small diceYour favorite olives, pittedCanned artichokes, drained, quartered, and tossed with a little extra-virgin olive oilJarred roast peppersJarred pesto

Vegetable toppings (1 pound per 4 pizzas)
Vegetables that need to be sautéed:
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. When oil starts to shimmer, add one of the following vegetables and a sprinkling of salt.Cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes.Onions, halved and thinly slicedBell peppers, stem removed, cored, seeded, then thinly sliced into 1/4-inch-thick stripsMushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick (or buy packaged sliced)

Vegetables that need to be steam-sautéed:
Place one of the following prepared vegetables, 1/3 cup water (omit water if using spinach), a scant 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Cover and steam over high heat until vegetables are bright colored and just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn out onto a plate to cool.Broccoli, florets cut into bite-size pieces; stalks peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick coinsAsparagus (medium-thick), tough end of stalks trimmed, spears cut into 1-inch lengthsSpinach (buy triple-washed), stems removed

Vegetables that need to be broiled:
Adjust oven rack to highest position and preheat broiler. Lightly brush both sides of vegetables with oil and sprinkle with salt. Broil, turning once, until spotty brown on each side, 7 to 10 minutes.

Zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1/3-inch-thick roundsEggplant, cut into 1/3-inch-thick rounds

Meat toppings (1 pound per 4 pizzas)
Ground sausage, beef, or turkey, brownedBacon, cut into 1/2-inch-wide pieces and cooked until crisp

Chopped Caesar Salad
Serves 12
When I want to serve the ultimate crowd-pleasing salad, I choose Caesar and make it in an enormous wooden bowl that my younger daughter gave me one Mother’s Day. For large gatherings, I mix it in something bigger, such as an ice chest. No matter how much I make, there’s barely a crouton left at the end of the night.

For the garlic croutons
8 garlic cloves1/3 cup olive oil4 cups 3/4-inch bread cubes — cut from a good baguetteSalt

For the salad
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)1/3 cup mayonnaiseGenerous 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce6 romaine hearts, halved lengthwise, cored, and sliced lengthwise and crosswise 3 or 4 times2/3 cup olive oilSalt and freshly ground black pepper1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling

To make the croutons
Heat a large (12-inch) skillet over low heat. Meanwhile, with motor running, drop garlic into a food processor or blender and process to mince. Scrape down sides of bowl. With motor running, slowly add olive oil. Continue to process for about 30 seconds. Strain oil through a fine-mesh strainer. Reserve half the garlic for salad, the remainder for another use.

Increase heat under skillet to medium. Place bread cubes in a medium bowl, drizzle with half the garlic oil and a big pinch of salt, and toss to coat. Add remaining garlic oil and toss again. Add bread cubes to hot skillet and toast, turning cubes and shaking pan often, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Return croutons to bowl and set aside.

To make salad
Whisk lemon juice, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, and reserved garlic in a small bowl. Place lettuce in a large bowl. Drizzle with remaining olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and toss to coat. Drizzle lemon mixture over lettuce; toss again. Sprinkle in 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss to coat. Sprinkle croutons over the salad and toss.

Serve, sprinkling each portion with a little more Parmesan cheese.

How far ahead can I make it?
The garlic oil can be made 2 days ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and strain the garlic from the oil just before making the croutons. The cheese can be grated and stored in a covered container, and the lettuce chopped and placed in a cool place or refrigerated, covered with a damp towel, 3 to 4 hours ahead.

The croutons can be sautéed up to 1 hour ahead. The lemon-mayonnaise mixture can be made 2 hours ahead.

When should I serve it?
When you need a salad that pleases nearly everybody all seasonsAs a first-course salad for a sit-down dinner or as a buffet side salad

Any shortcuts
Since the salad calls for 8 garlic cloves, using ready-peeled garlic helps. Parmigiano-Reggiano makes a superior salad, but you can substitute coarsely grated Parmesan.Don’t cheat on the croutons — the boxed versions are vastly inferior to homemade.

How can I vary it?
Turn it into a main course by adding grilled chicken or shrimp.

Molten Chocolate Cakes with Sugar-Coated Raspberries
Serves 8

These decadent, oozy flourless cakes are drop-dead terrific and even easier than brownies. They are baked in paper liners in a muffin tin, so you don’t have to worry about having matching ramekins. That also means you don’t have to unmold the cakes — just lift them from the muffin pan and set on the dessert plates. And since the cakes bake for only 8 minutes, you can pop them into the oven when you’re clearing the main course and making coffee. Use extra-large baking cups for the cakes. These liners extend above the muffin cups, making it easy to lift the baked cakes from the pan. If your baking cups are foil-lined, remove the foil layer and reserve for another use, or discard.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter1-1/3cups (8 ounces) chocolate chips or semisweet chocolate, cut into small chunks5 large eggs1/2 cup sugar, plus a little more for coating raspberriesPinch of salt4 teaspoons all-purpose flour1 half pint (about 6 ounces) raspberries

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Line 8 cups of a muffin tin (with 1/2 cup capacity cups) with extra-large paper liners (they should extend above cups to facilitate removal; if papers are foil-lined, remove foil layer). Coat papers with vegetable cooking spray. Melt butter and chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth; remove from heat.

With an electric mixer, beat eggs, sugar, and salt in another medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Beat egg mixture, then flour, into chocolate.

Divide batter among muffin cups. Bake until batter puffs but centers are not set, 8 to 10 minutes. Let stand in tin for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, flick raspberries with a little water and roll in sugar to coat. Carefully lift cakes from tin and transfer to dessert plates, removing paper liners. Top each cake with sugared berries and serve.

Recipes excerpted from “Perfect Recipes for Having People Over,” by Pamela Anderson. Copyright © 2005 by Pamela Anderson. Published by Houghton Mifflin. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.