UPDATE (03/28/2010): Thanks to all who commented for some nice ideas!
Step 1: Prepare
If you don't want to make dough at home, see if your grocery sells fresh dough (usually in bags, usually near the deli). It may not be easy to find a good brand, even if it's made in-store or locally. I've never tried the frozen bread dough, nor the stuff that comes in a tube. Call me old-fashioned, but good pizza does not start in a tube! If you're at a loss, try your local pizza shop. A dough ball will probably cost only a couple of dollars.
Here's a general rundown of what you need:
1. Dough (a.k.a.: flour, water, yeast, and salt) Also see step 2
2. A pizza pan, or baking stone and pizza peel (if you're using a peel, you need fine corn meal or dried bread crumbs), plus an oven to put it in.
3. Toppings: crushed tomatoes, cheese, veggies, meats, etc.
Step 2: Make the dough (skip if you buy your dough, read if you're curious)
I won't take credit for this dough recipe. Google "5 minute artisan bread" for the recipe that inspired this instructable. Again, this dough needs a little time in the fridge to "age." I find that after a week, the dough takes on a wonderful sourdough quality and the texture at least equals some of the best pies I've had. Anyway, on to the dough:
1. 6 cups flour
2. 3 cups warm water (temp. about 115 degrees F) Add some olive oil or other vegetable oil to the water (2-3 Tablespoons). Standard vegetable oil is fine. Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil for a little more flavor. Optional: Replace a half-cup or so of the water with milk. It makes for a more tender crust without sacrificing texture
3. 1 tbsp kosher salt (coarse sea salt is good too. If you're using table salt, reduce by half (not positive, but it sounds about right).
4. 1 1/2 tbsp instant dry yeast (I buy yeast in a big bag, so I don't know how many of those packets this translates to)
5. In a large bowl, mix water, oil (optional: milk), yeast, and salt. Add flour and stir. You may find that mixing it with wet hands is easier than stirring. I don't recommend breaking out the mixer for this, as it doesn't have to be kneaded. You'll be making a mess for only a few minutes' work.
This is a very wet dough, so it will not form into a ball. It should not be liquid, though. It should be sticky, but able to stand in lump without slumping into the sides of the bowl. If it's too dry (forms a tight ball), add a little water and massage it into the dough with wet hands until it loosens up. It is not necessary to knead the dough if you can leave it in the fridge overnite or for a few days.
6. Cover lightly (not airtight: use plastic wrap). Stick it in the fridge for 2 hours before using. For best results, make this a day ahead and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Or let it sit in the fridge for a few days. It will keep for more than a week, and the longer it sits, the more flavor and chewiness (gluten) it develops. The slower rise in the fridge prevents the gluten from breaking down as the action of the yeast expands it. I have had very good success with this: it has a less "fluffy" texture than rising at room temp.
Step 3: Prep
Step 4: Let the dough sit for a bit
2. Flour the work surface liberally. Scrape the dough out onto the work surface. Remember, this dough is very sticky, it will almost pour out of its bowl.
3. Divide the dough evenly. For 18" pizzas, I cut the dough into three lumps. They are about 1lb. each.
4. Flour the dough and your hands and form the dough into balls. Forming a ball is a challenge because the dough is so sticky and the lumps are usually misshapen. Put a little flour on your hands, take two opposite sides of a lump and stretch them out, then fold them back over the center of the lump and push them together with your fingers. Rotate the lump 90 degrees and repeat for the two sides perpendicular to the first stretch. You'll now have a vaguely square lump. Pick up the dough, flip it over, and and curl the edges underneath and into the center until it makes a fairly even ball. It will "tighten" a little. Flip the ball over and squeeze together the loose edges that you had tucked under. Flour the work surface and let the dough rest. Let it sit until the oven is preheated. It will do a little rising again. To keep the dough from getting a dry crust, you can rub a little oil on it, or let it rest under a damp towel.
Step 5: Stretch - don't toss
1. If you're using a pan, coat the bottom and sides with oil (olive oil will do, but it's cheaper to use veggie or canola or similar). If you're using a pizza peel and a stone, liberally cover the peel with corn meal or dried bread crumbs. This will allow the dough to come off the peel as if on "ball bearings."
2. Flour a dough ball and put it on a floured work surface with a little room to work with. Flatten the dough with your fingers, trying to leave a little bit at the edge for a crust. Try to push from the middle out to the edges, all around. Every so often, flour the top, scrape up the edge, flip it over, flour it some more, and keep stretching.
3. With your fingers together, carefully pat the dough, stretching it as you go. It may be necessary to flip it over now and then. It helps to have a dough scraper to help to keep it from getting stuck to the work surface (did I mention this dough is wet and sticky?). Use flour liberally. If the dough is cold, it will be easier to pick it up by the edges, stretching very gently.
Step 6: Top it off
2. Top as you like. Personally, I don't do "gourmet." I try to make it as if it came from the pizza place down the street: I use good crushed tomatoes (see note below), basil & oregano (fresh is best, dried will do), a dash of salt, a whisper of Parmigiano Reggiano, grated mozzarella, and toppings like mushrooms, meatballs, onions, or pepperoni.
For my wife, who's not much into meat and can't have cow's milk, I use olives, marinated artichoke, red onion, feta cheese (goat or sheep's milk), and a bit of soy-based Parmesan. She's also fond of a white pizza with sliced potatoes (microwaved to soften), feta, garlic, rosemary, and olive oil.
Experiment, go nuts. The only people to complain will be whoever you serve it to.
A note on sauce: I avoid using any canned spaghetti or pizza sauce, as I feel that the sauce winds up dominating the toppings and the flavor of the dough. And although I really like the Pastene brand crushed tomatoes, I have a hard time finding them in my local supermarket. Lately, I've been using the Angela Mia brand, which is a ConAgra product and might be more universally available (I get mine at Sam's Wholesale Club). The quality of the tomatoes really makes a difference in the finished product.
In a pinch, stewed tomatoes (whole tomatoes cooked with celery and onion) ground up with my submersible blender or crushed by hand will serve nicely. Hint: Don't get "Italian style" stewed tomatoes. Yechhhh!
Step 7: Bake it
2. For peel and stone, pick it up and shake it a few times to try to loosen up the pie. If you were very liberal with the cornmeal, it should start moving around very easily. Put the end of the peel near the back end of the stone, tilted slightly downward. Very gently shake the pie off of the peel, moving the peel back as the pie slides off. If it comes off in a total mess, have pizza delivered and try a pan the next time.
3. Check it after 6 minutes, but it can take 8-10 minutes for it to get nicely browned. You may want to rotate the pan halfway through.
4. If using a peel, slide it under the pie and transfer to a cutting surface. If using a pan, take it out and use a spatula or something to slide the pie out of the pan onto the cutting surface. If it's stuck (to the pan or to the stone), work around the stuck area gently and get it loose. It may tear a bit, but it will still be edible.