I used to love frozen pizza rolls as an after-school snack. Back then, I thought they tasted pretty good—tomato-and-cheese filling, wrapped in a sort-of-crispy crust. They were easy to heat up, and the bite-sized rolls hit the spot.
I recently picked up a box of pizza rolls from the freezer at my supermarket, anticipating a nostalgic trip down middle-school lane. The first disappointment came when I read the ridiculous, marathon-length ingredient list (as a kid, I hadn’t bothered to take note). The second came when I pulled the rolls from the oven: More than half of them had split open and oozed their sketchy filling all over my sheet pan. After I waited for the molten filling to cool I gave them a taste and was surprised at how awful they really were. There was filling in there, but it didn’t taste like pizza, and the dough was soggy and chewy. It was time to figure out how to make my own.
A good, pizza-flavored filling seemed straightforward: cheese, tomato, and seasoning. I knew the filling had to be dry enough not to leak out of the pizza roll as it cooked (because yes, I was going to deep-fry these to make them extra crispy and better when reheated from the freezer).
Sure, these pizza rolls are a bit of a project, but the recipe makes a lot, and they freeze well. Give these a try, so that the next time you’re craving a crispy, cheesy pizza roll, you can pass on the supermarket fare and grab them from your own freezer.
Dust a lined baking sheet with cornstarch (to prevent pizza rolls from sticking).
Add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil to a 12-inch nonstick skillet and heat over medium until it shimmers. Add tomato paste to the skillet and sauté it to give it an intense tomato flavor (and help bind the filling).
Cook the tomato paste, stirring constantly, until it’s rust colored, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and ground fennel and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. The fennel gives the filling a sausage-like flavor without having to add sausage itself.
For more tomato presence, stir in canned, diced tomatoes that have been drained well and chopped finely (so big pieces of tomato won’t burst through the pizza roll), and then add the reserved tomato juice (because tomatoes are easier to chop when drained). Then bring the mixture to a simmer.
Cook the tomato mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s a thick paste and reduced to 1 cup, for 9 to 11 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and refrigerate, uncovered, until it’s cold (the mixture can be made, refrigerated until cold, and covered for up to 2 days).
Thoroughly incorporate the cheese and basil into the cold tomato mixture and season it with salt and pepper to taste. I started out with hand-shredded mozzarella, but found that a pre-shredded, Italian cheese blend gave the filling far more flavor, and the starch used to keep the cheese from clumping helped tighten the texture.
Place 1 level teaspoon of filling in the center of each wonton wrapper, then press the mixture to flatten it slightly. Use a pastry brush to lightly moisten the edges of the wrappers with water.
Fold the bottom half of the wonton wrapper over the filling.
Continue to roll the wonton wrapper and filling, so the seam is down. Press the air out of the center and press down to seal in the filling. Make sure the edges are pressed and sealed tightly.
Trim the edges of each pizza roll with pinking shears (or scissors) and transfer them to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining filling and wonton wrappers, placing parchment between the first and second layers of rolls.
After all the pizza rolls have been formed, transfer the baking sheet to the freezer, and keep it there until the rolls are firm, anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes (they can also be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and frozen for up to 1 month).
In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees.
Transfer about 16 pizza rolls to the hot oil and cook, stirring and flipping occasionally, until the rolls are golden brown, which takes between 1 and 2 minutes. Adjust the heat to keep the oil temperature between 350 and 375 degrees.
Fry the rest of the pizza rolls in batches, 16 at a time, returning the oil to 375 degrees between each batch.
Heat marinara sauce (if desired) to serve with the pizza rolls.
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