Local photographer and recipe developer Erin Alderson dove headfirst into outdoor pizza making while working at home during the pandemic.
Her passion was largely born out of necessity: Fair Oaks, where she lives with her husband and 6-year-old son, doesn’t offer a lot of awesome pizza options. So she took matters into her own hands and started making pizza in the backyard in an Ooni Pro pizza oven, a portable oven that runs on propane or wood. Using wood (mostly almond), she can get the oven up to 900 degrees. At that temperature, it can bake a pizza in under two minutes.
Alderson used to run a vegetarian recipe blog called Naturally Ella, and she still Instagrams under that name. Her feed these days is filled with images of artful wood-fired pizzas, each one boasting a thick ring of charred crust encircling a silky vegetable center. “I like to do experimental vegetarian pizzas,” she says. “Not a lot of tomato sauce bases, because I like the vegetables to really shine.” She might pair asparagus with burrata and fennel fronds, or shaved potato with mozzarella and Calabrian chili. Occasionally, she asks her Instagram followers to suggest three ingredients they’d like to see on a pizza. That’s how she came up with a pizza topped with olives, feta and an egg. “It was amazing,” she says.
Alderson makes her dough using freshly milled heritage-flour varieties from nearby Capay Mills and LA’s Grist & Toll, where she belongs to a monthly flour share. She likes to play around with soft and hard wheats to create subtle flavors and textures. Her favorite right now is Chiddam Blanc de Mars, a white wheat that gives the crust a light, warm wheat flavor and a bready texture.
Before COVID, Alderson used to host backyard pizza parties for friends. They’d sit around, drinking wine and eating pizza as it came out of the Ooni. Now, every Saturday is family pizza-and-a-movie night at Alderson’s home. Each member of the family gets their own personal pizza. “Mine is usually the wildest,” she says. “My son goes for cheese, and my husband is somewhere in between.”
Calabrian Chili Potato Pizza
One of Erin’s favorite pizzas features a zingy paste made with Calabrian peppers. If heat isn’t your thing, substitute ancho chili peppers. In either case, you’ll end up with extra paste, which you can stir into hummus or soup, spread on grilled cheese or use as a base for grain bowls. Serves 2.
Calabrian Chili Paste:
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 dried Calabrian chili peppers, stems and seeds removed
¼ cup cooking olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Pizza dough (your recipe or premade)
1 small Yukon Gold potato
1/4 small red onion
3 ounces grated or torn mozzarella cheese
Fresh basil or dill, for serving
Good-quality olive oil, for serving
To make chili paste:
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast cumin and fennel seeds until fragrant. Place in a food processor or high-speed blender and pulse until ground. Return skillet to heat and toast chili peppers, making sure they don’t burn. Place peppers in a bowl, cover with hot water and soak for 20 minutes to soften.
While chili peppers are soaking, return pan to medium-low heat and add 2 tablespoons cooking olive oil followed by minced shallots and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Cook shallots until soft and starting to deepen in color, about 15 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Transfer soaked chili peppers and ⅓ cup soaking liquid to food processor and puree until mostly smooth. Add shallot mixture, apple cider vinegar, remaining ½ teaspoon kosher salt and remaining 2 tablespoons cooking olive oil. Blend until smooth.
To assemble pizza:
Remove dough from refrigerator, cover with a clean towel and set aside. Scrub potatoes. Cut potatoes and onions into ⅛-inch rounds. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add potato slices. Blanch for 3 minutes, just until potatoes start to soften. Remove from water and toss with ⅓ cup chili paste.
Preheat pizza oven or grill. Stretch pizza dough into a 12-to-14-inch circle. Top dough with potato and onion slices and mozzarella. Bake until done. Remove pizza from heat and top with sprinkle of fresh herbs and solid drizzle of good-quality olive oil.