Masala – Marsala

This week’s confession is truly astounding, even for someone like me, who has committed so many kitchen atrocities over time that I am sure I will end up in Kitchen Hell, when it’s all said and done.

All kidding aside, this was truly a remarkable faux pas.  I’m the sort of person that likes to be the smartest kid in the class and, if it’s obvious that I am not the smartest, I like to the one that says the most clever things.  Earlier this week I confused Masala with Marsala. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads, wondering what the difference is between the two, I’ll tell you.  The difference is “R”.  (See what I mean about trying to make up for a lack of intellect by attempting to be clever?)

Masala is a mixture of many spices.  It’s a term used by people from India and Pakistan, among other places.  It is not just one particular spice mix.  The mix can contain any number of spices.  Masala is the flavor foundation for many dishes.

Marsala is a sweet, fortified Italian dessert wine, often used for cooking. 

An innocent mistake, for sure.  And, if that was where my story ended, I could have laughed it off and gone on with my life with nobody being the wiser. 

Several months ago, while visiting my favorite Indian spice market, I struck up a conversation with the proprietor, as I usually do.  He is always willing to stop and talk with me and he has been a tremendous guide, while I attempt to unravel Indian cuisine.  On this occasion, I told him that I was considering making a masala pizza, at least that is what he probably heard.  I actually said Marsala, because I was thinking about making a chicken Marsala pizza.  That was the moment I ran off the rails. 

You see, I have made chicken Marsala before and I have made many dishes with masala, although I’ve never really thought about calling the spice mixture, masala.  I must have had a bizarre synaptic short-circuit which caused me to switch masala with Marsala.  The proprietor, being the gentleman that he is, just stared at me when I suggested the masala pizza.  He gave me a sort of quizzical, pitiful look.

Well, months later, here I am ready to make the pizza.  I wanted to try a test run with the chicken Marsala, before moving on to the pizza.  I went back to the Indian market to pick up some items for other dishes and when I saw the proprietor, I told him that I was really going to make the masala pizza, but I what I actually said was, “Marsala”.  I told him that I was deliberating on how to approach the pizza.  I didn’t want to use traditional Italian marinara and mozzarella because I didn’t think they would pair well with the Marsala sauce.  I asked him if he had a suggestion for a creamy sauce that I could make, instead of using Mozzarella.  After a moment, he suggested coconut milk and followed that with suggesting tapioca starch to thicken the coconut milk.

Coconut milk?  I’ve taken some interesting turns while creating new food but coconut milk didn’t seem like a very good idea for pizza but, I told him that I would give it a try.

As I left the store and headed to the wine store, to pick up some Marsala wine, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been utterly confused.  You see, the proprietor of the spice market speaks perfectly.  Despite the tell-tale Indian accent, his diction and vocabulary is precise and clear.  He speaks better English than most people I encounter, on any given day. 

“Masala”, was what he was saying, and he made sure to say masala each time after I said “Marsala” to him.  The nerve cells in my brain finally made the jump.  I had been enlightened!  I also suffered from incredible embarrassment. 

As I drove to the wine store I convinced myself that the only way to redeem myself was to perform an act of penance.  I would make two pizzas.  One would be inspired by masala and the other would be inspired by Marsala

One final interesting event rounded out the day and convinced me that fate is a very real thing.  I was checking out some other blogs and I came across this blog, .  It’s tagline reads, “The Biggest and Only Indian Blog on Italy”.  Ishita is the author and she has produced some very interesting posts.  One post in particular struck a chord with me…

In the blog she offers some words of encouragement, including the following: “It is okay to be vulnerable.”

And that was exactly what I needed to hear.  It is what I needed to remember.  I am an imperfect human and so is everybody else.

I will work on these recipes with an open heart and an open mind.

Make Your Own Pizza

Recently, I was expecting dinner guests and I didn’t have a plan for the meal.  This happens every now and then and, when it does, I usually resort to something I can practically do in my sleep.  Maybe tacos.  Maybe spaghetti.  No, let’s do pizza again. 

I know what my family likes on their pizzas so I normally just make them according to what I know to be their taste preferences.  If I’m making two pizzas, I might make one with half pepperoni and the other half pepperoni and Italian sausage.  The other pizza might be an “everything pizza”, meaning all of the veggies and assorted meats.  I might slip some anchovies in on the other half of the “everything pizza”, but I have to make sure to put up warning cones around that half of the pizza and announce, “this side has anchovy!” 

It never fails, someone always inadvertently gets a slice with some anchovy.  Life is unfair sometimes.

But, this time I didn’t know what all of the guests like on their pizza…or even if they liked pizza at all, for that matter.  So I thought, why not lay out all of the toppings and allow the guests to dress their own pizza.

I prepared the vegetables and meats and cheese and I even put out a container or marinara, so that they could add as much as they wanted.

It turned out that the dinner party fizzled out and it was just my wife and I.  We wound up making nearly identical pizzas…go figure.

I still think this is a pretty neat idea for a party.  It allows people to congregate in the kitchen, which seems to occur naturally, anyway.  And, it gives everyone the illusion of being able to control their own destiny.  I like that.


“Great pizza and bad pizza have one thing in common…they are both unforgettable.”

Suffice it to say that I am a big fan of pizza.  Any pizza can be a great pizza if it is made with passion and bravado.  New York, Chicago, Des Moines…it doesn’t matter which particular city or which style you prefer, pizza has become our Great Unifier.  Even when we argue about which type of pizza is the best, we are really acknowledging the existence of all forms of pizza.  The love of pizza embraces every culture, every race, every nation.  Pizza knows no boundaries.  Pizza brings us all together and we owe pizza a debt of gratitude.  Make pizza, not war!

Being a humble, home cook, I don’t have a wood-fire brick oven, I don’t make my dough with semolina flour and I don’t use buffalo mozzarella.  But, that doesn’t prevent me from producing some satisfying pizza pies.  I try to include at least one ingredient that elevates a common pizza to the next level and I put my heart and soul into each and every one.

Today’s pizza experience is somewhat typical for me.  By that, I mean that I used some ingredients that I have not used before and I employed some techniques that I did not see coming, until inspiration struck me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely make a recipe the same way twice and pizza fits my philosophy perfectly. 

We’re making two pizzas. 

I usually use tomato sauce from a jar, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  There are some really good sauces available and I use an inexpensive brand, flavored with basil and garlic.  But, now that I have fresh tomatoes from the garden, I am making my own sauce.

Ingredients for the pizza sauce:

2 cups diced ripe tomatoes

4 smashed garlic cloves

¼ tsp red chili flakes

Directions for sauce:

Cook the tomatoes, garlic and chili flakes in a large skillet until tomatoes are completely softened.  Strain the solids and reserve the sauce.  Reduce the sauce by half.  Set aside.

Prepare pizza dough.  See my recent post on pizza dough here:

Heat oven to 400°.

Pizza #1

Ingredients for the toppings:

1 cup tomato sauce

1 small fresh tomato – thinly sliced

3 Tbs stuffed green olives – sliced

3 oz Italian Speck (similar to prosciutto)

2 oz baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced

4 oz sliced mozzarella cheese

½ sweet yellow onion – julienne cut

2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese

A big handful of fresh arugula

Directions for making pizza:

Spread tomato sauce on cooked pizza dough.  Lay tomato slices around the outer edge of the pizza.  Sprinkle olives across the pizza.  Drape the speck capriciously across the pizza, gently.  Allow the cured meat to rise and fall…resist the urge to press it down.  Distribute the mushrooms and scatter strips of mozzarella across the pizza and finish with the julienne onion and Parmesan. Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Use a blowtorch to blister the mozzarella.  Toss fresh arugula on top.  Cut and serve. 

Pizza #2

Ingredients for the toppings:

1 cup tomato sauce

3 oz pepperoni slices

6 oz sliced mozzarella cheese

2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese

Directions for making pizza:

Spread tomato sauce on cooked pizza dough.  Scatter strips of mozzarella across the pizza.  Top with pepperoni.  Bake for 10 minutes and remove from oven.  Use a blowtorch to char the pepperoni.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Cut and serve.

The homemade tomato sauce makes both pizzas special.  It is a straightforward sauce…sweet and simple. 

The speck and arugula was my favorite of the two pizzas but both pizzas benefited by the blowtorch. 

Since speck is a dry, cured meat I layered the mozzarella on top, to keep the speck from becoming too dry.  Blistering the mozzarella with the blowtorch made the mozzarella sizzle and gave it a special saltiness. 

For the pepperoni pizza, I laid the pepperoni on top of the mozzarella, giving me an opportunity to put a char on the pepperoni with the blowtorch, which made it as crispy as a brick-oven could produce.

Now, go make some pizza but, for goodness sake, make it good! 

Pizza Dough, a la Cucina di Toothpick

I thought I was going to submit a post about how I make pizza but I became overwhelmed.  And then, it occurred to me that when I make pizza I am really doing two things.  First, I make the dough and then I make the pizza.  As a result, I felt the need to break this topic up into two parts.  So, this post is about making pizza dough and I will make a separate post about dressing up the pizza.

I usually approach cooking with a sense of whimsy, as if whatever will happen, will happen.  But making dough is a different thing for me.  I am not a baker.  I’m just a home cook that wants to make something tasty for my family.  So, when I step into a baker’s shoes, I get a little bit nervous. 

When I make dough I become serious.  If you have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie you might recall how the clown of the troupe, Harpo becomes very serious when he sits down, to play the harp.

That’s how I imagine I look as I start to make pizza dough.   Intent.  Focused.  Resolute.

But, I don’t stay that way for very long.  At some point, during the process I begin to relax.  Maybe it happens when I start kneading the dough.  The sensation of the soft, pliable dough under my palms and fingers gives me satisfaction and I feel like a kid again.  Maybe that’s why I used to bring my young kids into the kitchen when I made pizza.  They would stand on a chair, next to me, and knead the dough on the counter top and then they would help me roll it out into a wide circle and they would “paint” the pizza dough with tomato sauce, smearing the sauce with a large spoon grasped by their tiny hands.

Pizza needs to be fun.  Making pizza should be a celebration.

Maybe that’s what Harpo Marx felt when he spent time with his kids.

This recipe will make 2 large, 14” thin crust pizzas

Ingredients for the dough:

3 cups all-purpose flour (you will need additional flour throughout the process)

1 packet of Instant Dry Yeast

1 ¼  cup warm water

2 Tbs olive oil

Note: I use Instant Dry Yeast, which can be added directly to the flour, rather than Active Dry Yeast, which is added to warm water.  Either way is fine, but I have found the Instant Dry Yeast method to be the easiest and most reliable. 


Whisk the flour and yeast together in a bowl.  Set aside.

Heat the water to about 100°.  You can do this in a microwave oven or just use very hot tap water. 

In a separate large mixing bowl, add the water and add about ½ cup of the flour mixture.  Whisk until smooth. 

Gradually add more flour and mix with a spatula.  Keep adding flour and mixing until all 3 cups of the flour has been added.  At this point, you might want to mix by hand.  Keep adding flour in small amounts and mix by hand until the dough forms a ball and does not stick to your hands.  The additional flour needed might be anywhere between ¾ cup to 1 cup…you will know when the dough is ready to knead when the dough ball becomes easy to pick up and rolls around in your hands, without sticking.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and dust your hands with a little bit of flour.  Knead for about two minutes.  You should feel the dough becoming more pliable and supple. 

Put the dough ball back into the mixing bowl and cover tightly with aluminum foil.  Some people suggest covering with a damp towel but I prefer sealing it with the foil.

Put the bowl in a proofing cabinet and allow the dough to rise for at least a half hour. Oh, what’s that?  You don’t have a proofing cabinet?  Well, neither do I.  In warmer months, I put the bowl on the seat of my pickup truck and roll up the windows.  It works perfectly.  The dough should double in size within a half hour to an hour.

When I made pizza today the outside temperature was 91° with 64% humidity (heat index at 105°), which is perfect for dough that needs to rise but is miserable for anyone wanting to mow their lawn…which is why I chose to make pizza today, instead of mowing the lawn!

During cooler months, I set the bowl on my stove top and set the oven at 250°

I prepare the pizza toppings while the dough rises but I will skip that part for now…

When the dough has risen, heat the oven to 400°. 

At this point, I should mention that I use a standard, conventional oven.  In fact, my oven broiler stopped working over a year ago but the rest of the oven works just fine.  Since I don’t have a pizza oven, or any other fancy trappings, I use a two-bake method for the pizza dough.  I bake the dough first and then add toppings and bake again, to finish.  I use insulated aluminum cookie sheets…no fancy pizza stones, or perforated pizza pans for me!

Divide the dough in half and turn out one of the halves onto a lightly floured surface.  It’s time to get a feel for the dough again.  Roll the dough and knead it.  The dough will probably be a little sticky.  Add some flour and knead.  Bring the dough back to a silky and pliable consistency.  It should be easy to handle and feel sturdy, but not dense, or hard. 

Pat the dough down into a disc, with your hands.  Press the dough out and widen it.  Add a little more flour to the work surface and flip the disc over.  Press it again with your hands.  When you feel that the dough is ready, roll it out with a rolling pin.  If the dough falls apart or if you feel that something isn’t right, don’t worry.  Pick it up and start again.  Roll the dough out enough so that it is just a bit larger than your baking sheet.  (I have done this up to three times, just to get it right).  Gently fold the dough over in half and pick it up and place it on the backing sheet.  Unfold the dough onto the sheet and center it as best as you can.  It’s tricky work, to be sure.

Curl the edges of the dough with your fingers.  It’s not necessary but I like to have a definable crust.


Repeat the process with the other half of the dough and then, place both cookie sheets in the hot oven.  Bake for about 10 minutes.  Take the pizza crusts out and flip them over.  Brush a little olive oil on the back side of the pizza crust and bake for a few more minutes.  This will give you a nice, crisp crust.

We’ll make some pizza next time…