Almost everyone knows a Margherita pizza, or at least a cheese pizza. For me, that widespread familiarity was an opportunity to exceed people's expectations, to check off the requisite boxes but go above and beyond with optimal ingredients.
For the dough:1.
Combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Give the yeast a stir to help dissolve it, and let it do its thing for 5 minutes. You're giving it a little bit of a kick- start, giving it some room to activate, to breathe.2.
When the yeast has dissolved, stir in 3 cups of the flour, mixing gently until smooth. Slowly add 2 cups more flour, working it in gently. You should be able to smell the yeast working. Add the salt (if you add the salt earlier, it could inhibit the yeast's growth). If necessary, add up to 1/2 cup more flour 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl but is still sticky.3.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Slap the dough onto the counter, pulling it toward you with one hand while pushing it away with the other, stretching it and folding it back on itself. Repeat the process until the dough is noticeably easier to handle, 10 to 15 times, then knead until it's smooth, stretchy, soft and still a little tacky. This should take about 10 minutes, but here, feel is everything.4.
Shape the dough into a ball and put it in a lightly greased big bowl. Roll the dough around to coat it with oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest in a warm place until it doubles in size, 2 to 2½ hours. When you press the fully proofed dough with your finger, the indentation should remain.5.
Turn the proofed dough out onto a floured work surface and cut it into 4 pieces. Roll the pieces into balls and dust them with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let them rest for another hour, or until they have doubled in size.6.
The dough is ready to be shaped, topped and baked. If you don't want to make 4 pizzas at a time, the dough balls can be wrapped well and refrigerated for up 8 hours or frozen for up to 3 weeks; thaw in the refrigerator and let come to room temperature before proceeding.
For the tomato sauce:
Empty the can of tomatoes, with their juice, into a large bowl. Add the olive oil with the basil and salt (if using). Then, using your hands, crush the tomatoes. Discard any bits of skin, hard yellow "shoulders" or cores. Let sit for about an hour for the flavors to combine. Refrigerate extra sauce in an air tight container for a few days or freeze for several months.
For the pizza:1.
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven (remove the rack above it) and place a pizza stone on it. Turn up your oven to its maximum setting, as high as it will go, and let that baby preheat for a solid hour.2.
Once the oven is preheated, grab a pizza peel and give it a nice, light dusting of flour. This will help prevent the pizza from sticking when you slide it from peel to stone (if you don't have a peel, you can use a cookie sheet or an inverted baking sheet).3.
Shape and set the prepared dough on the peel. Jerk the peel to make sure it's not sticking. If it is, lift the dough and dust the underside with extra flour (or, if no one is looking, blow under it very gently). Tuck and shape it until it's a happy circle.4.
Spoon the tomato sauce evenly over the pizza, using the back of the spoon to spread the sauce, starting from the center and stopping about 3/4-inch from the edges (with a hand-crushed tomato sauce, the consistency of the sauce over the pizza's surface will be uneven). Sprinkle the Parmigiano, if using, over the sauce. Let the spots where the tomato sauce is thinner guide you as to the placement of the mozzarella. Hit those drier spots with a bit more mozzarella. If your sauce and cheese aren't quite as salty as you'd like, sprinkle the pizza with some salt. Then give it a very light drizzle of olive oil.5.
Open the oven and, tilting the peel just slightly, give it a quick shimmy-shake to slide the pizza onto the pizza stone. Bake the pizza for 10 to 15 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden brown.6.
Remove the pizza with the peel and immediately add the basil leaves, laying them evenly across the top. The heat of the pizza will wilt the leaves slightly and release their heady fragrance. Enjoy immediately!