A casual, rustic, crisp-topped, chewy, yeast-risen flatbread is a delicious vehicle for a multitude of flavors. Often that flavor is nothing more than good olive oil, salt and pepper.
Occasionally, it is the mincings of fresh herbs, chopped nuts, grated cheese, bits of hot peppers or olives within the soft dough. And sometimes that flavor comes from savory, aromatic toppings such as sun-dried tomatoes or thin slices of ripe plum tomatoes.
The charm of a flatbread is in its fresh-from-the-oven taste and easy-going appearance. Looking like a big plate of baked dough, this bread is easy to pass around at the dinner table for each eater to rip off a warm, scraggy-edged chunk.
Basic flatbread dough is made from simple and pure ingredients -- glistening olive oil, snowy unbleached white flour, salt and yeast. What makes this crusty yeast bread with a soft center even more appealing to the cook is the fact that it is not too time consuming. A fat, bubbled round of dough can emerge from an oven as bread in just a few hours, accomplished by the use of "quick rise" active dry yeast available at the supermarket.
Rapid-rise yeast shortens the rising time by at least half; on some baking days, I found the time to be cut by two-thirds. Of the brands of quick rise yeast available, I have had the best results with packets of Red Star yeast. Flatbreads made with this yeast are light, have a good crumb, and excellent crust.
Flatbread dough is made in several stages and each is easily accomplished. First the yeast is combined with a little sugar (sugar is the food yeast feeds on) and warm water, then left to sit for a few minutes. In that time the yeast will dissolve and bubble away, and the liquid mixture will look slightly swollen. This having happened, about one-third of the total amount of flour (1 cup) is stirred into the liquid to create a wet, sticky dough of medium thickness called a sponge.
Left alone to rise for about 1 hour, the sponge will have tripled in volume, and the surface will take on the appearance of a kitchen sponge -- mottled with holes. At this point, oil, seasonings, and more warm water is added along with the balance of the flour. All of this gets kneaded into a soft, satiny dough which feels alive and resilient in the hands.
The dough can be kneaded in a food processor (use the steel knife) for 1 minute and finished off by hand on a lightly floured work surface 1-2 minutes, or, the kneading can take place in an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment (this takes about 4 to 5 minutes), if you are not up to kneading the dough entirely by hand.
Now the dough is ready to sit in a bowl for a 45-minute rise. Then, the dough gets pressed out or rolled into a shapely round form. Once expanded and pushed out, the dough now rests under a damp towel to rise softly for 30 minutes while the oven is preheating. Flavoring the top of the dough and baking the thick disk in a very hot oven turns this lively flour mixture into real bread.
The soft dough holds its shape amazingly well, and for that reason may be baked on (or in) several kinds of pans: a flat baking sheet, a ceramic baking stone, or blued steel cake pans or shallow tart forms.
To use a baking sheet, choose one that is made of heavy-gauge stainless steel; if the long sides of the pan are rimless, it will be considerably easier for you to position the dough in the pan and remove it after baking.
A heavy unglazed ceramic baking stone (round or square) acts as an excellent intense conductor of heat, and flatbreads baked on the stone emerge from the oven crisp and puffy. The stone gives the best initial blast of heat when the uncooked dough is slid upon it. The stone, which gets a 30-minute preheating in the oven, may be placed directly on the oven rack or may be centered on a baking sheet. After baking numerous flatbreads in various oven configurations, I prefer to have the stone sitting on a baking sheet because it is much easier to maneuver the dough onto the stone if you can pull it out of the oven halfway; also, the baking sheet is a good oven rack protector if your aim is not on target.
Of the darkened black steel or blued steel equipment available at kitchenware stores, the blued steel round baking pans and shallow tart pans work best for baking this dough. The blue-black steel, called "blue" steel can be identified by a label that distinguishes it as such; the exterior surfaces of this type of bakeware do not peel off onto the dough at high temperatures, a problem I've been having with the jet black pans.
Flatbread, hot from the oven, wants to be broken apart immediately after it is removed from the oven, very fresh. Failing that, eat it warm or tepid, or at room temperature just a few hours after baking. It is wonderful with many summer entrees, especially grilled food, and is easy enough to make that you can time its outburst from the oven to just about coincide with dinner.
Several large flatbreads look particularly appealing on an alfresco buffet table, waiting for each guest to break away his or her own portion.
Following is the basic recipe for flatbread, along with seven toppings to be chosen according to the kind of food served with bread: FLATBREAD (Makes 1 large round flatbread, about 12 inches in diameter, serving 6)
This is the bread of summer -- when flavorings such as fresh herbs can be kneaded into the dough, and piquant toppings of olives, onions, and jalapen o peppers add distinction to a plain yeast dough that is so good with all kinds of savory food.
FOR THE DOUGH:
1/4-ounce package quick-rising active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup plus 1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon warm (115 degrees) water
2 3/4 to 3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
3 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons good quality olive oil plus extra for pans
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
Place the yeast and sugar in a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl; stir the two together to blend. Slowly blend in 3/4 cup warm water. Let the mixture stand, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Beat in 1 cup flour to form a wet dough; scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl well, beat again for a few seconds, then cover the bowl with a sheet of plastic wrap.
Let the sponge mixture stand for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it has tripled in volume. Uncover the bowl, beat in the olive oil, 1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon warm water, 1 3/4 cups of flour, and salt. Begin kneading the dough in the bowl with your hands, then transfer to a lightly floured wooden board and add up to 1/4 cup of flour to form a soft dough. This dough should not be stiff. On damp and humid days, you will need to add the full 1/4 cup of flour, if not a little more.
Knead the dough by hand for 10 to 12 minutes, in a free-standing mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment for 4 to 5 minutes, or in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife for about 1 minute.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled medium-size bowl (preferably glazed pottery or glass), and roll the dough over the oiled sides to coat the surfaces of the dough in the oil. With a very sharp knife, cut 2 deep slashes in the dough. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or piece of plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
When the dough is well risen, remove it from the bowl and knead on a lightly floured surface for 1 minute.
If you are baking the dough on a baking sheet: Roll or press the dough into a 10-inch circle on a lightly floured or cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. Cover with a damp towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees during the 30 minute rise time.
If you are baking the dough on a baking stone: Follow the directions for assembling the dough on the baking sheet (above); after the 30 minute rise time, the dough will be transferred to the stone. Preheat the baking stone in a 475-degree oven during the 30 minute rise time.
If you are baking the bread in a "blued" steel baking pan or shallow tart form: Choose a round baking pan or tart form that is at least 12 inches in diameter. Thoroughly oil the inside of the baking pan. Press the dough into a round to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover loosely with a damp towel and leave to rise for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees at the during the 30-minute rise time.
When the oven has been preheating for 30 minutes and the dough is puffy from a short rise, indent the top of the dough with your fingertips to form small valleys. Drizzle 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil over the top. Using a pastry brush, smooth over a little oil on the outer top edges of the dough to moisten. Sprinkle the top of the bread with salt and pepper to taste.
If you are baking the bread in the tart form (or round baking pan) or on a baking sheet: Place the bread on the lower third level rack of the preheated oven.
If you are baking the bread on the preheated stone: Loosen the dough from the baking pan, then quickly slide it onto the baking stone.
To encourage an extra-crisp bread, I like to mist the top of the bread with water 3 times within the first 5 minutes of baking. To do this, fill a plant mister or other spray bottle with water, and spray the dough 3 times.
Bake the bread for about 20 minutes or until the top is a nice golden color, and the flatbread sounds hollow when the edges are rapped with your knuckles.
Immediately transfer the baked bread to a metal cooling rack, using a long wide spatula.
The following variations on the theme can be obtained by adding the flavorings to the bread in two ways -- first to the dough mixture at the point that the olive oil is blended in (before the second rise), and then to the top of the dough just before it is oven-baked. Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves) and 1 teaspoon dried oregano.
For the topping: Sprinkle 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons finely slivered sun-dried tomatoes on top of the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed. Poppy Seeds, Parmesan Cheese, and Onion Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 2 teaspoons poppy seed and 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese.
For the topping: Saute' 1 small onion, thinly sliced, in 2 tablespoons olive oil until completely softened. Scatter the onion slices over top of the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed. Scallion and Sesame Seed Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 1/3 cup finely sliced scallion rings and 2 teaspoons sesame seed.
For the topping: Sprinkle 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seed over top of the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed. Oil-Cured Black Olive Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 1/4 cup finely chopped, oil-cured black olives and 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper.
For the topping: Scatter 2 tablespoons roughly chopped oil-cured black olives over the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed. FRESH Plum Tomato Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, and 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil.
For the topping: Thinly slice 3 small ripe plum tomatoes; drain on paper toweling for 10 minutes. Place the tomato slices on top of the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Brush the top of the tomatoes with a little olive oil. Scatter 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves over the tomatoes. Bake as directed. Toasted Pine Nut and Rosemary Flatbread
Along with the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 3 tablespoons finely chopped toasted pine nuts, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves.
For the topping: Sprinkle 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves over the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed. Jalapeno Flatbread
To the olive oil in the dough mixture, add 1 tablespoon minced jalapen o peppers, 1 teaspoon cumin, and 1/4 teaspoon paprika.
For the topping: Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon crushed cumin seed over top of the oiled, salted, and peppered dough. Bake as directed.