I was taught in school that two wrongs don’t make a right. But this same school is also where I learned the midday supremacy of Pizza Lunchables. And that’s why we don’t deal in black and white; life is full of nuance. For if we have learned one thing from Pizza Lunchables, it’s that four to six wrongs, combined just so, can approach the sublime.
My Catholic school had hot lunch once a month (twice if there was a field trip!), so the day-to-day brown bag situation took on singular import. And under such cloistered circumstances, a locker-temperature approximation of pizza was basically the grade-school equivalent of Noma. To you, Lunchables pizza might be an indicator of the industrial-driven cratering of childhood nutrition. To me, it was Smørrebrød dressed in a Hanes Beefy T.
Look, it’s August as I type this. It’s hot as fuck. Chicago is literally founded on a swamp. We could all use a break from 550-degree pizza ovens.
We’re gonna mess around with the oven a bit, but only to make something we can later assemble into room-temperature pizza. And hey, we’ll throw in a fun-sized candy bar if you’re good.
I threw this bit of nostalgia out to Twitter, asking if anyone had memories or stories about Pizza Lunchables, because those of us raised before the internet can never tell if something was hyper-localized to our own elementary schools or part of a wider movement. I didn’t need to worry.
The first and most important point is that every component of Pizza Lunchables sucks. How so? Oh, buddy, you’re going to wish you hadn’t asked:
- The dough is somehow flabby and undercooked, yet crumbly. A completely unique state of matter that hates you as much as you hate it.
- The sauce is disgustingly sweet, and served in a travel toiletry pouch with a cafeteria-friendly perforation. It has a weird, honeylike sweetness, but on inspection mostly depends on tomato paste, water, sugar, and the industrial machinations of Kraft Heinz. It has seasoning, but only in a faded, yearning sort of way akin to someone haltingly describing garlic powder in their third language.
- The grated mozzarella (and cheddar, in the cheesy pizza iteration) is where American dairy meets the U.S. Marshals Federal Witness Protection Program. If you are not currently eating it, you can remember eff-all about it. Entirely anonymous, the spacebar of the cheese world.
- The pepperoni is somehow way too oily AND disgustingly crumbly. The effect is like eating a cured meat as you’re pushed too close to the edge of a rain-drenched cliff in the first act of a Hardy Boys novel. You reach back, but it’s already too late. Frank and Joe will need to seek your justice now.
I think the esteemed Jason Bowman said it best:
Combine each one of these industrial crimes against nature into a “pizza,” and suddenly everything changes. The weird crust offers a perfect, pliant bite. The beige-flavored cheese enriches and tones down the candylike sauce. The pepperoni adds vital salt and tang (the cheese pizza really makes an argument for the necessity of pepperoni) and hides its sins under cover of the rest of the crowd.
It just works, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. My reporter pal Kelly Bauer still takes Pizza Lunchables to outdoor concerts as a bit of mobile charcuterie.
And sometimes you get a Capri Sun pouch, too. It’s in times like these that we see a glimmer of the promise America was said to offer.
If there’s one trap that copycat recipes like this fall into, it’s that they want to elevate everything. We’ve replaced the tomato paste slurry with San Marzanos, and this duck prosciutto stands in nicely for that unpleasant pepperoni. NO. STOP. We came here for GARBAGE and we are gonna GET IT.
Here’s how to make a Lunchables Pizza that tastes, as Bowman put it, as good as you remember and worse than you remember at the same time.
This one’s the hardest to crack. The bread has to be pliant and bite-able, but relatively firm and flat. Not quite a cracker, not quite flatbread. And in an era of crispy frico and leopard-spotted crusts, it needs to have the blinding, fish-belly paleness of me doing shirtless yard work.
The crusts are precisely six millimeters in thickness, a fact I found out using a protractor that my engineer father bought me back when he assumed I would be doing something other than this with my life. I ran through all manner of store-bought options to find just the right size and texture to approximate Lunchables Pizza disks.
- Pocketless pitas were too thick
- Pilot crackers (purchased from weirdo survivalists) were too crunchy, and now I get upsetting marketing emails
- The hardtack I made two years ago (and that my kids will one day inherit) was too brick-like and hateful for this particular task
- The cheap store-bought thin pizza crusts looked promising (one came with a desiccant packet dent in it!) but were both too dark and too soft to do the job
- The idea to use communion wafers came up a couple of times on Twitter, but those are too thin and brittle to really work (thanks, Catholic school!)
Ultimately, I pulled out some of my go-to pizza dough and treated it like I resented it. That did the trick.
Taste-wise, you may want to add another 12 grams of both salt and sugar if you’re making new dough anyway. We nailed the size at 16-gram dough balls rolled out to 4" circles and docked well on both sides. Cure it in the fridge uncovered for four hours if you like, or just bake at 325 for 25-30 minutes on a rimless baking sheet. When they’re pale and a little overbaked, you’re good to go.
This one is likewise maddening to hit. I roped in my wife, my kids, and their babysitter, and was one more round of sauce away from snagging the mail carrier. Luckily the fifth time was a charm.
We worked ONLY with what we were given on the Lunchables ingredient list, which is water, tomato paste, sugar, and <2% of modified starch, garlic powder, salt, onion powder, citric acid, spice, xantham gum, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate. We’re going to use ... some of those. Prepare to cook a tiny amount of sauce.
- 4 Tbsp. (1/4 cup) tomato paste
- 2 tsp. tomato sauce
- 1 tsp. water
- 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1/8 tsp. Italian seasoning you should have thrown away two years ago
- 1/16 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/16 tsp. onion powder
Stir everything together and simmer, stirring frequently, until visibly darkened. Should be about 5 minutes.
Note: I got a lot of feedback from folks about the sauce having a ketchup-adjacent kind of sweetness. But various dosages of ketchup in the larger recipe proved way too distracting and, well, ketchupy. We’re confident that ketchup doesn’t enter the equation here.
Dairy subsidies being what they are, I’m confident you can find some completely forgettable part-skim mozzarella cheese without the kind of effort you need for the rest of this. They sell it at my CVS!
But the one vital piece of guidance here is to shred it yourself; do not buy the pre-grated stuff with the coating on it. The Lunchables stuff lists cellulose powder as an ingredient, but it’s not as apparent when the product is mashed into that tiny plastic well. The hand-grated stuff stood in much better than the shredded bagged stuff. Who knew?
Likewise, don’t buy anything nice here. All you need is some pork-and-chicken stuff that makes a pretty compelling case for veganism if you stare at it long enough. Pre-cut slices? Fairly oxidized? Unpleasant when tasted on its own? Perfect!
A miniature candy bar on the side, preferably from at least two Halloweens ago, brings the whole thing together. I’m a Krackel man myself, but opinions vary. It’s important to treat yourself for having such a balanced meal.
“I am really surprised by how these two things taste the same,” my wife Emily said as she ate the homemade and store-bought Pizza Lunchables in tandem. I still don’t know how to take that, but the important thing is that we cracked the code.
As a top scientist, I also included an experiment in here, adding a little bit of fresh Parmesan onto one of the pizzas.
“Did you sneak something into this one?” Emily asked. “It tastes like there’s something extra.”
Busted. I’ll say it again: DO. NOT. ELEVATE.
We did throw some giardiniera on one of them (giardiniera is not elevated; I can get it at 7/11), and the oily, spicy kick does quite a thing to the overall effect. I loved it. Emily was not a fan.
There you have it: love/hate knuckle tattoos dredged up from childhood and writ on a pizza crust. I’m proud of what we shared here today.