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Cheap Eats Pizza: Dinner for 6 for $8. Seriously.

For those of you who have not yet been introduced to Cheap Eats, this an occasional feature about making dinner for less than $2 per person. It's possible. You don't even need to sacrifice. I try the recipes and price them out for you -- and even take pictures so you can see what the meal is going to look like.

This time, I've taken a few extra photographs along the way to illustrate the steps to making this meal. Why? I'm holding your hand a little more than normal because I'm going to suggest that you do something that will scare you: Make dough.

I can almost hear the primal screams: Dough! I can't make dough! Who do I look like, Betty Crocker? (I, of course, don't know because we haven't met. Nonetheless...)

You can make dough. It's time consuming, yes. But mostly because you need to wait for the dough to rise, which you can do while shopping, watching t.v., weeding your garden (but do wash up after). That's why we're doing this recipe right before the weekend, so you'll have a little time to get this started. But it's not difficult. Don't be intimidated. It just sounds hard.

You've tried making dough before and it didn't work out? I'll tell you why. It's because there's some twisted conspiracy in the cook-book world that has caused almost every dough recipe to leave out the step that makes the dough rise. I don't know why cookbook writers would participate in such a evil cabal.

But I do know that I followed every dough recipe in every cookbook on the planet (okay that's a slight exaggeration), but I did check the Joy of Cooking, Italian Cooking, California Cooking, and a bunch of others. They all strategically leave out the same step. How did I find out about it? I asked my mom.

My mom was once a bread-baking fiend and she never had a loaf of bread that didn't rise. When I had no success with bread, I whined and asked for her secret. What was it? Sugar.

The trick to making dough is dealing with the yeast. If the yeast isn't happy, your dough doesn't rise. What makes yeast happy? Warm water mixed with a teaspoon of sugar. Do the cookbooks tell you that? Nah. They say mix the yeast with warm water. That's it. Nobody, but my mom, will tell you that you've gotta mix a teaspoon of sugar into that water before you add the yeast.

It's magical. Without the sugar, you have sullen, listless, teenage yeast. With the sugar, you have happy bubbly I'm-in-college-now-and-life's-a-party yeast that will make your dough rise. Seriously. That's it.

Once you've dealt with the finicky yeast, dough is as forgiving as your neighborhood priest. Seems a little dry? Add some water. Too gooey? Add some flour. Seriously, it's tough to mess up. I've tried.

Ready now? Great. We're going to make pizza, which is almost like cheating in a column on cheap eats because pizza can cost you pennies per person once you get over your dough phobia. In fact, its so cheap that it's tough to price out.

Here's the deal. Pizza dough requires water, flour, yeast, a couple tablespoons of oil and a pinch of salt.

My 25-lb bag of flour cost me $5.89 at Costco. There are 94.5 cups of flour in that bag, which works out to a cost of roughly 6 cents per cup.

I also buy yeast in bulk at Costco. I've had my 2-lb bag of yeast for a long time, so I had to refer to the internet to figure out what it cost. I've linked to a piece here that puts these big bags at about $3 each, which works out to a cost of about 3.5 cents per loaf of bread. (If you buy those silly little packets, yeast costs a lot more. Don't do that. You're going to love making bread. Get the family size.)

There are 133 tablespoons of olive oil in the monster container I also got at Costco, which costs $25.54 for 2--about $13 per liter. That works out to 10 cents a tablespoon.

The 10-lb bag of sugar cost me $5.79 and contains 1,134 teaspoons, according to the package. Cost per teaspoon? 1 penny, rounding up.

Tap water? Fractions just don't go that low. Teaspoon of salt? Again, it's under a penny a teaspoon. (The container that says it holds 491 teaspoons cost me $1.) We'll add another penny for both water and salt because I'm feeling generous.

The total cost for making this dough: 50 cents. And it makes enough for three pizzas. So your dough costs you less than 17 cents per pizza.

What's it going to cost you to buy the same number of pizza shells if you do it the lazy way and just buy them in the store? At Costco, it would cost you $5.59 to get three 12-inch pizza crusts made by Mia Foods. That's more than 10 times more. And you know what? They don't taste as good.

The cost in making pizza is all in the toppings. And because a pizza shell isn't going to accommodate a lot of toppings, that's pretty cheap too. If you spend $2 a person, you've got one hearty pizza pie and you're eating enough for a truck driver.

Convinced its worth trying to make the dough now? Good. Here's what you need.

4 cups flour: 24 cents

2 tablespoons of oil (olive or vegetable, doesn't matter): 20 cents

2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast: 4 cents

1 1/3 cups of water: half-cent

1 teaspoon of salt: half-cent

1 teaspoon of sugar: 1 cent

This is the important part. You actually have to do this stuff in order.

Pull out a big mixing bowl. Put it on the counter in a nice warm place. Now, put a teaspoon of sugar in a measuring cup that's big enough for 1 and 1/3 cups of water. Run your tap until the water is hot. When the water is hot, add 1 1/3 cups. The sugar will dissolve immediately.

Pour the water and sugar into your mixing bowl and test it. If it burns your finger it's too hot--kinda like a baby bottle. But, if it's warm but not uncomfortable, sprinkle your 2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast evenly over the water.

When you're done, the water is going to be covered by the beige granules of the yeast. Perfect. Now, go away.

Read the newspaper. Do a crossword puzzle. Call a friend. Leave your yeast alone to bathe. When you come back in about 10 minutes (and you can leave it longer), you'll see a change. The yeast is bigger. Maybe bubbly. But it's definitely not the yeast that you left a few minutes ago. You're looking at happy yeast that's ready to make some pizza dough, baby!

What do you do now? Add the salt, olive oil and flour. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough is mostly mixed together. After that, you're going to knead the dough with your (clean) hands.

gooey ball of dough
Can you use your mixer, you say? Yes, princess. But if I thought I was talking to people who could afford $250 for those industrial mixers, I'd be writing a column called "Cooking with Caviar." If you've got a mixer, go ahead and use it. Everybody else can use their hands and a spoon.

If you've never kneaded dough before, this means that you're going to push forcefully with the palm of your hand to mix it up. Be prepared. Dough is sticky. If you've ever made a mud pie, you're going to love it. If not, get over it. You're saving $1.69 per pizza shell and it's going to be yummy.

Once the dough is all mixed and has settled into one big gooey ball, get a kitchen towel wet with hot water. Wring it out and place it over your bowl of dough. Go away.

This time, you need to leave the dough alone for more than an hour, and it's better if you give it two hours. What happens in those two hours? The sticky ball of dough that you left is going to double in size. Meanwhile, you can contemplate what you want to put on your pizza.

I made two with the dough I had, choosing to make cookie-sheet sized pies, one with a thicker crust. The result is enough to feed six really hungry truck drivers.
If you've got kids, pizza is a perfect chance to let them play a bit with food. You can make them the traditional way with tomatoes, sausage (or pepperoni) and cheese; with ham, cheese and pineapple; with pesto or with chicken; or with any combination that sounds good to you.

When the dough is ready, grab a healthy handful and roll it out on a floured bread board or counter. It will rise, so flatten it with your rolling pin to a point that's a bit thinner than the way you like to eat it. Then put the sheet of dough on a cookie sheet--or whatever you're going to cook it on--and add the toppings. You're going to cook your pizzas for about 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 400 degrees. The pizza is ready when the dough is golden brown and the cheese is nice and softly melted.

For the first pizza, I fried up two links of Italian Sausage: $1

Sliced Two tomatoes: $1

And topped that with about $1 worth of mozzarella cheese. (The big 5-lb bag from Costco costs $10.69) My son's a purist. He loved it.

I spread the second pizza with two tablespoons of pesto: 50 cents

Chopped up a half-can of black olives: 50 cents

Threw on a few sundried tomatoes: $1

And mixed mozzarella and Parmesan cheese to top it off. $1

In retrospect, I would have added a few more vegetables to that one. My son wasn't going to eat it anyway...

All together, our two pizza's cost $6.50. But even if you want to go wild with toppings, you can figure that the total cost is still going to come under $8, or $1.50 per person.


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