I have been on a long, arduous mission. A mission to find the perfect red sauce.
When I was a little girl, and a teenager then a college student, there was an Italian (a term I use loosely) restaurant in my hometown that I adored for their lasagna. It wasn't a fancy place. It wasn't in the best part of town. There were no artisanal ingredients. There were gumball machines in the lobby and the waitresses were full of sass.
There was nothing particularly special about the lasagna, but I adored it nonetheless. It was simply many layers of meat, pasta, cheese and red sauce baked until molten and bubbly in a pizza oven. I'd always order it with a couple of giant meatballs and cheesy Texas Toast (ahem) on the side, as they were material to the experience. After I left for college, I'd drive an hour from my university back home just to get my fix.
The lasagna was delicious, but it would have been nothing with out the tart and tannic red sauce. Ever since, I've been trying to duplicate it.
A great red sauce will make you swoon, but a bad one can make you cry. Red sauce should be rich, thick, a bit sweet and a bit tart, kind of smooth but sort of chunky, loaded with garlic and a little tannic from a few glugs of robust red wine.
It took years for me to create a recipe worthy of approval. I struggled with watery sauces. I agonized over the amount of onion; whether to use red, white or yellow. Should I dice or mince? I obsessively tested different wines in varying amounts to find the perfect ratio. Every iteration had more and more garlic. I toiled with adding parsley, or carrots, or celery but those were all mistakes.
In the end, I lost many battles, but I finally won the war.
Turns out the simplest recipe was the winner. The right combination of onion, garlic, sweet tomatoes and spicy red wine revealed itself.
This simple red sauce is hefty enough for lasagna and meatballs, yet bold enough to stand all on its own tossed with fresh rigatoni.
Lately, I've preferred on top of a pizza. There is no better vehicle to carry rich red sauce into your mouth than pizza. As the pizza cooks, the red sauce caramelizes and soaks into the pillowly crust.
For your next pizza, forget the special toppings and make the sauce the star of the show. Grab a slice.
Red Sauce Pizza Recipe
(makes 1 pizza)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
3/4 c spicy red wine like Tempranillo or Syrah
1 28 oz can Italian whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3/4 c (157g) lukewarm water
3/4 tsp sugar
1 1/4 tsp yeast
3/4 tsp salt
2 c (325g) all purpose flour
3 tbsp olive oil (separated)
For the pizza dough
Sprinkle yeast and sugar over the warm water. Let sit for 10m until creamy. Add olive oil to yeast and water mixture.
Add flour and salt to a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour in yeast mixture.
Stir to combine (or use the dough hook of a mixer). Once the dough becomes shaggy, transfer the dough and flour to your countertop or cutting board. Knead the dough until it's homogenous, about 5 to 7m. The dough does not have to be perfectly smooth, it just needs to have all flour incorporated.
Shape dough into a ball and transfer to bowl greased with 1 tbsp of olive oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, then a tea towel. Let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
For the red sauce
While the dough is rising, make the Red Sauce. In a small pot, heat the olive oil and onions over low to medium heat. Cook the onions until soft and translucent, about 5 to 7m.
Add the garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook for an additional minute.
Pour in the wine. Bring wine to a simmer and let reduce until the wine has evaporated but the onions are still moist.
Add the crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and let simmer until thickened, about 15 to 25m.
To finish the Red Sauce Pizza
Preheat oven to 500F (260C) or the highest your oven will go.
Once the dough has risen, knead it gently until smooth and shape into a ball.
Drizzle a sheet pan with 2 tbsp olive oil. Roll or pat out the dough on to the sheet pan. The dough should fully cover a 1/4 sheet pan.
Pour all of the red sauce onto the pizza dough and spread into an even layer. It may seem like too much sauce, but it will further reduce in the oven and some of it will get absorbed by the dough.
Bake the pizza for 15 to 20m, until crust is golden and sauce is slightly caramelized. Finish with a generous sprinkling of parmigiana.