The ultimate kid-friendly recipe? Alice Zaslavsky’s tray-bake pizza

As a teacher in my past life, a food literacy advocate in my current, and a parent now and forever, the school holidays is the best and the worst time to talk about getting kids into the kitchen.

The best, because what better opportunity to for them to learn valuable life-skills such as adaptability, resilience and curiosity? Let alone the ability to feed themselves, while building up numeracy and literacy through measuring or calculating ingredients, and following instructions (or creating their own).

The school holidays is also the worst time, because it’s yet another thing to add to the to-do list, at a time when the bandwidth is already stretched. The last thing you feel like is yet another do-gooder telling you another thing your kids could or should be doing, while you’re just trying to get dinner on the table.

Rather than putting off starting something until it’s perfect, or getting wrapped up in the details, my recommendation when it comes to cooking with kids is just to start somewhere, with even the smallest assists. And the school holidays are as good a time as any, rather than the very best and only time ever.

When choosing a recipe to make with your kids, start from a place of familiarity. It’s a great, safe spot for them to play.

That’s why pizza is perfect. Every aspect of this recipe can be scaled up or down, depending on your spawns’ skills. Picking basil leaves, peeling garlic, squashing tomatoes between (washed!) fists in an extra large bowl to catch the splashes are all fine tasks for beginners. Get them to push buttons, oil trays, tumble out the dough and poke it down with their (washed!) fingertips. Older kids can be entrusted with snipping at the mozzarella balls and portioning out slices with scissors.

Tricolore pizza al taglio (three-colour tray-bake pizza) – recipe

Dough is always fun for kids to knead – a bit like edible play-dough (or should I say, play-dough that’s actually for eating). You can prepare for mess by popping some newspaper on the ground, or avoid it entirely by using a stand-mixer with a dough hook attachment, or checking if your food processor has a plastic blade for kneading. If you don’t have a large high-sided 40cm x 20cm oven tray, split the dough in half and make two smaller pizzas.

For this recipe we’re using a wet, focaccia-like dough that’s very forgiving, with enough instant yeast to guarantee a luscious puff. I proved mine on top of the coffee machine, but any warm spot will do. Some ovens have a proving setting, especially newer models. You could give it a slower prove in the fridge overnight if you’d prefer, and splitting the recipe into two parts could be useful if your children are preschool or junior primary school-aged – their attention spans will only last so long.

(You might even use this as a teachable moment about farty yeast. “It’s eating the sugars in the mix and farting it out as gas, which helps the dough to rise,” you’ll say, to gasps and giggles.)

Unlike bread dough, you don’t have to spend any time punching this one down, because tumbling it into the tray and poking your fingers in is as good a punch as it needs. And if it does burp up a bubble, this only adds bonus texture to the final result.

The flour makes a difference. Tipo 00 is a high-quality Italian flour with a protein content that’s perfect for pizza or pasta. These days, you’ll find flour labelled as “pizza flour” specifically, so if you are a household that makes recipes like this regularly, it pays to invest. However, if you prefer to use up the plain flour already in the pantry, you can still get a great result.

The red sauce is super simple, which means every ingredient counts – especially the tinned tomatoes. It’s worth seeking out San Marzano tomatoes, which are from a region of Italy known for its rich, volcanic soil and temperate clime, which yields intensely sweet pomodoro. If you can’t track them down, or would prefer to use the ones already in your pantry, add a pinch of sugar to fake the effect (a handy nonna trick that’s useful whenever you’re cooking with tomatoes).

Buffalo mozzarella doesn’t mean you have to seek out buffalo milk cheese – it’s more about the spherical shape. These are the fresh white soft balls in brine, rather than the custard yellow vac-packed ducks. Otherwise, bocconcini is a worthy replacement.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to toppings. I’ve chosen a traditional tricolore – the green of a garlicky basil oil, the white of the buffalo mozzarella, and the red of the sauce – but you could get creative too. Pineapple is always welcome.

Makes 1 to 2 thick tray-style Roman pizzas

For the dough
1 x 7g sachet dried yeast
1 heaped tsp honey
1 cup warm water

400g tipo 00 pizza flour, plus extra for sprinkling and kneading
1 tsp fine salt
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for proving

For the red sauce
1 x 400g tin San Marzano tomatoes
1 handful torn basil leaves
, plus basil stems
1 garlic clove
, bruised
60ml extra-virgin olive oil (¼ cup), plus extra for serving
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 x 125g buffalo mozzarella balls, drained

For the garlicky basil oil
Remaining basil leaves from the bunch of basil used in the red sauce, with some leaves reserved to finish
1 clove garlic
extra-virgin olive oil (½ cup)
Pinch of salt

To make the dough, in a small bowl combine the yeast, honey and warm water (for ease, stir with the spoon used to measure the honey), and leave to sit in a warm spot for 10 minutes until frothy.

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre, then pour in the yeast mixture along with the oil.

Sprinkle a clean work surface with flour. Using your hands, mix the dough until it comes together, then tip out on to the floured bench and knead for five to seven minutes until the dough is a nice, round ball with a smooth surface. (If using a stand-mixer or food processor, mix on low with the dough hook or kneading blade for five minutes until the dough is elastic and comes away cleanly from the sides of the bowl, then shape into a ball.)

Related: Mini masterchefs: how to encourage your kids to get in the kitchen

If you’re making two pizzas, now is the time to divide the dough into two balls.

Place the dough ball (or balls) into a clean and oiled bowl, then cover with a clean and damp tea towel. Place in a warm spot until doubled in size – 30 minutes to one hour, or overnight in the fridge if you would like a slower ferment. (Just be sure to take out of the fridge four hours before proceeding to the next step.)

To make the red sauce, pour the tomatoes into a bowl and squash with clean hands. Add the torn basil leaves, basil stems and olive oil and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make the basil oil, combine the basil leaves, garlic clove, olive oil and a pinch of salt in a food processor, blitzing until the basil leaves are just flecks. Set aside.

Preheat oven to its hottest setting (around 240C/220C fan). Line a 40 x 20cm (approx) baking tray with baking paper (or line two baking trays if you’re making two pizzas).

Scoop the proved dough out onto the prepared tray and stretch into the corners. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave the tray of dough in a warm place for a second prove for 15 to 30 minutes.

Once the dough is puffy, use your fingertips to poke divots all over the surface, to create a dimpled surface like the moon.

Remove the basil stems from the sauce. Schmear the tomato sauce all over the pizza, evenly to the edges. Bake for 15 minutes until the pizza is puffed and golden, with a few charred bubbles. If the middle is still a little soupy, bake for another couple of minutes. The pizza is ready if you lift a corner, and it’s also set and golden underneath.

To serve, remove the pizza from the oven. Arrange or tear the mozzarella balls across the pizza, then generously drizzle the basil oil over, and sprinkle with some basil leaves to finish.

Use scissors to snip the mozzarella into mouth-sized chunks, and use the scissors again to cut the pizza into square slices. Serve with extra basil oil on top if you wish, or dip your pizza crusts into the basil oil.