When times are tough, gather family and friends for the comfort of pizza

Times are tough. Ever-present thoughts of politics, recession, oil prices and Mideast peace can make life seem rather depressing.

Sharing feelings and conversations, no matter how despairing, is better than agonizing in privacy. So is gathering family (and good friends) around the kitchen table to exchange remedies that will heal the world while a favorite comfort food, pizza, is fragrantly baking in the oven, awaiting its soothing effect on the soul.

A design-your-own-pizza party will please every palate, especially the kids’. Using rapid rise yeast, make the doughs just about 1 hour before guests arrive. Roll a couple doughs out in preparation of guests’ selections of toppings, which are set out in separate bowls. Mix and match lightly sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms and eggplant. Spread with sweet tomato sauce or spicy salsa. Sprinkle with herbs, cheeses and garlic.

The creative spirit will make everyone feel good. Eating with your hands and dressing in tomato-splattered aprons creates warm, convivial informality. After all, with all that’s going on, who needs to worry about which fork to use?

These are some of my favorite dough and topping combinations. Encourage everyone to design their own.

Basic Pizza Dough

1 package rapid rise yeast

3⁄4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)

pinch sugar

1 Tbs. olive oil

21⁄2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄2 tsp. salt

In small bowl combine yeast, water and sugar. Let stand until foamy layer forms on top. (This is called proofing the yeast to make sure it is active.) Add oil to yeast mixture. In large bowl combine flour and salt. Stir in yeast mixture until dough holds together. Turn out on lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and springy, about 3 minutes. Form into ball and place in oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap. Let rise in warm place about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and allow to rest about 10 minutes before rolling out.

Pizza with Eggplant, Cheese and Greek Olives

1 recipe pizza dough

grilled or sauteed eggplant slices

2 oz. crumbled Feta cheese

1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved

4 oz. grated whole milk Mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roll out dough to fit 15-inch pizza pan or two 8-inch pans. Place dough in pan and arrange eggplant in one layer over dough. Sprinkle with feta cheese and olives and then cover with mozzarella. Bake about 12 minutes. Let rest about 4 minutes before slicing.

South of the Border Pizza

1 recipe pizza dough

1 cup salsa (homemade or store-bought)

1 avocado, diced

1 cup black beans, cooked and drained

1 cup corn kernels

1⁄2 cup chopped fresh coriander

3 oz. shredded Jack cheese

2 oz. grated dry Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roll out dough to fit 15-inch pan or two 8-inch pans. Place dough in pans and top with avocado, black beans, corn and coriander. Sprinkle cheeses over filling and bake 12 minutes. Let rest about 4 minutes before slicing.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].