Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cooking challenge: Hosting a pizza dinner party

“Have been toying with the idea of Squid Ink Ramen," I text my friends. "Thoughts?"

I'm planning my first dinner party. But as I quickly learn, if you invite your friends for Squid Ink Ramen, they will decline. (Except for Tori, who texts me: "If you really want to do squid ink I'll try it for you," followed by crying emojis. Get yourself a friend like Tori, guys.)

"We should do make your own pizzas," my boyfriend, Ben, suggests, steering the evening away from potential inky horror. Personal pizzas! Before I can suggest yet another exotic dish, my friends seize upon the idea with palpable relief. We select four recipes — one pizza for each of us, a ratio I can get behind — and get together on a rainy Saturday night.

Margherita Pizza

Things are going so well. I prepare the homemade dough in advance, with no trouble. When I was a kid, I used to help my mom make homemade pizza. As I knead my own dough, then shape it into four round balls, the technique comes back like muscle memory. By the time Sarah and Tori arrive, Ben and I have already made a 10-inch Margherita Pizza, topped with slices of mozzarella cheese and garnished with fresh basil. I proudly serve each guest a slice. Frank Sinatra croons on Pandora.

Then I notice Tori gently tapping the side of her pizza. "It's okay," she says quickly. "It's just a little doughy."

Doughy is an understatement. I had somehow turned off the oven halfway through cooking it. The pizza is basically raw.

"Raw cookie dough was a staple of my childhood," Sarah says, to comfort me.

I snatch the pizza out of their mouths and stuff it back in the oven. If you ever accidentally serve your guests uncooked food, don't panic. Just grab a bottle of wine from your fridge and mollify them with alcohol. Unfortunately, I run out of wine after pouring everyone half a glass. We switch to beer.

About 10 minutes and 500 degrees later, the crust has lightly browned. Mozzarella melts off the side. Of all the savory pizzas we cook tonight, this one is the best.

Four-Cheese Pizza

This recipe is absurdly easy: Spread tomato sauce on the dough, then dump a variety of cheese on it. (I purchased a bag of six preshredded Italian cheeses, because it was more budget-friendly than buying each separately.) As a garnish, the recipe calls for a single black olive, placed in the center of the pizza.

"There's only one black olive?" Tori says, alarmed.

"Yeah, it's going to be a little weird," I admit.

"A single black olive?" Ben says.

"A single black olive," I assure him.

"That doesn't seem right."

"Emily, that doesn't seem right," Tori echoes.

I don't want to push my guests to the brink of hysteria, so I give them a minute to breathe. Holding her pink-cased phone, Sarah reads us a Pinterest recipe for another pizza we'll make later. Tori finishes sprinkling the six-cheese mix over the dough.

"That's beautiful," I tell her. "Now we have the single black olive."

Ben narrows his eyes, skeptically. "A single black olive? I don't think that's the case."

"It makes me uncomfortable," Tori says.

Pro tip: If it makes your guests uncomfortable, give up on the single black olive. Instead, I sprinkle sliced olives over the entire pizza. Unnervingly, the black circles remind me of tentacle suckers. I offer my observation to the group.

Tori wails: "They look like tentacles — now I can't unsee it."

When the four-cheese pizza is finally done, I'm relieved to find that it cooked through. We eat it at the table, which is sadly bereft of place settings. Empty Shock Top bottles and mismatched plates are scattered aimlessly, our iPhones a ubiquitous adornment. The pizza is bland, although the crust is still delicious, and I like the saltiness of the olives.

"You know what this one needed? Green peppers," Sarah says. "For the article, you should add green peppers."

Pizza With Prosciutto and Fresh Arugula

As we prepare the pizza, I tell my friends about an apartment I viewed recently.

"Does it have a garbage disposal?" Tori asks. We've spent many nights dreaming about this holy grail of apartment amenities. I shake my head, crushing her dreams.

At the counter, Ben flips the dough between his hands like an artisan baker. Somehow, it looks less like a pizza circle and more like a butterfly.

"You must continue the path the dough has set out for you," Tori encourages him.

"I'm getting hungry again," Sarah teases. "Roll faster."

We modify the recipe according to Sarah's Pinterest tutorial, drizzling olive oil and adding dried oregano. Strips of pink prosciutto and bright green arugula adorn melted mozzarella. This pizza is the most beautiful.

I catch Ben whispering about the prosciutto. "I think it's raw," he's saying. I don't blame him. I've already served him uncooked pizza tonight.

Sarah and Tori assure him it's smoked, not raw. Still, this pizza has an unpleasantly bitter taste, perhaps from too much dried oregano. We move on to the dessert.

Nutella Pizza

We dump powdered sugar onto Nutella-smeared dough. After it finishes baking, we scatter fresh strawberries and blueberries on top. It's sweet, but not overpowering, with a nutty flavor characteristic of the spread.

"Winner," Sarah says, biting into it.

When we've licked the last of the powdered sugar from our fingers, it's time to tackle the dishes.

"Step aside," Sarah says, plunging her hands into the sink. (Get yourself a friend like Sarah.) "Do you have a garbage disposal?"

We did.

"I'm going to really savor this garbage disposal," Ben says. His apartment doesn't have one, either.

With four friends in the kitchen, cleanup is a breeze.

The verdict

Pizza parties aren't just for teens. They're the best kind of dinner party, because you don't have to worry about entertainment — part of the fun is cooking the dinner with your guests. Plus, it's budget-friendly. Because I had most of my staple ingredients already (flour, salt, etc.), the entire dinner cost approximately $35. If you make one of the pies a dessert pizza, you've got all your bases covered. And if you invite the right friends — who don't mind if you accidentally serve them uncooked food — the night is guaranteed to be a winner.

Next time, maybe I can persuade them to try that Squid Ink Ramen.

Contact Emily Young at [email protected]

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