Pi Day is just around the corner, and in celebration of the good ole 3.1415....I am making pizza! Or at least a dish reminiscent of one of our favorite pie's here in the city. I love mushrooms in nearly every form, but one of my favorite ways comes atop a pizza with a little garlic, some gooey, pungent cheese, and a fried egg at Nomad Roman in Philadelphia. There, they use shiitake mushrooms, two cheeses, and truffle oil. In this rendition, I use polenta as a base and top it with sauteed onion, garlic, and cremini mushrooms, two cheeses, and an oozy egg. The first cheese, the Comte, provides a sharp, nutty bite while the second washed rind Ameribella contributes an earthy sweetness. See the notes down below for other cheese substitutions. If you get the yolk just right, it oozes out and combines with the melted cheeses and mushrooms into sheer deliciousness.
The idea of using polenta as a pizza crust has been around for a while, but I really like it because it can be prepared the day before and because I love the coarse texture and pure corn flavor that it lends, especially to the mushroom topping here. You can find polenta in your local grocery store listed as polenta, coarse grits (not instant), or stone ground cornmeal. I used a stone ground yellow cornmeal that my mom boought me from the farmer's market in my hometown in North Carolina. Whatever you use, be sure to give ample time to let the polenta base cool and stiffen so that it makes a sturdy pizza crust for all of your toppings.
Polenta Pizzas ai Funghi
4 c. water
1 1/2 c. polenta, coarse grits, or stone ground cornmeal
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 t. garlic powder
2 t. minced fresh thyme, or 1 t. dried thyme
1 1/4 t. salt
2 T. olive oil
1 small yellow onion or half large yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. cremini mushrooms or a mix of cremini, shiitake, button, maitake mushrooms, sliced in 1/4 inch slices
1 c. grated Comte cheese *
3/4 c. cubed Ameribella cheese **
3 eggs, preferably local or free-range and organic
good quality balsamic vinegar, optional, for drizzling
freshly grated pecorino or parmiggiano-reggiano cheese, option, for sprinkling
salt and pepper to taste
Begin with the polenta crusts. In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Slowly whisk in the polenta, being sure to eliminate any lumps. Reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally until the polenta is cooked, about 25 minutes. The polenta may bubble up and pop during cooking so be careful. Remove from the heat after cooking, stir in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, garlic powder, thyme, and salt. Set aside.
Prepare the pans for the crusts. For round crusts, line three 8 or 9-inch round cake pans with parchment. For a rectangular pizza, you can cover a baking sheet with parchment. For whatever method, scoop the polenta from the pot to the pan(s) and flatten into an even layer, about 1/4 inch thick. It helps to use a spatula or lightly wet your fingers for this part. Cover each crust with plastic wrap or parchment paper, ensuring that it sticks directly to the surface, and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour or preferably overnight to stiffen.
To prepare the topping, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the finely chopped onion and saute for 8-10 minutes or until softened and a little brown around the edges. Add the minced garlic, saute for 30 seconds or until aromatic, and then add the sliced mushrooms. Sprinkle everything generously with salt, a little black pepper, and stir to combine. Saute for about 20 minutes or until the mushrooms release their liquid and begin to dry out again and become golden around the edges. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Remove from heat. This can be done the day before you plan to cook the pizzas.
To assemble and bake the pizzas, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure that the baking rack is placed in the middle of the oven. Remove the polenta from the refrigerator while the oven preheats. Remove the plastic wrap or parchment from the surface and place the crusts in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until the top begins to dry out and become slightly golden. Remove from oven, and carefully flip the crusts over. I placed a piece of parchment on a baking sheet, placed the baking sheet parchment paper side down atop the polenta pans, and quickly inverted everything. The uncooked side of the polenta should now be facing up.
Return the crusts to the oven for another 20 minutes. In the meanwhile, grate the cheeses and get your mushrooms and eggs ready. When the crusts come out of the oven, turn the oven to broil (on high). Evenly distribute the cheeses, then the mushroom topping atop the crusts. Carefully crack an egg, if using, in the center of each pizza. Alternatively crack 3 eggs atop a large rectangular pizza. Return the pan to the oven and broil for 8-10 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the egg whites are cooked and yolks are just becoming firm on their outer surface. This step often depends on how strong your broil setting is, so keep an eye out on the egg, being careful not to burn the cheeses in the process. Remove the pizzas from the oven, drizzle lightly with a syrupy balsamic vinegar if it is available, and a dusting of pecorino or parmiggiano-reggiano. Serves 3-4 people.
* If you can't find Comte, you can substitute another firm, nutty cheese such as Gruyere (a bit stronger) or Emmental (a bit milder).
**If you can't find Ameribella, Taleggio is an excellent substitute. I just stumbled upon Ameribella, a pungent, slightly sweet washed-rind cheese from Jacobs and Brichford in Indiana at my local Di Bruno Bros. If you can find it, check it out because it is fantastic!