My oven is getting dusty. It’s only reasonable, of course, that I am reluctant to turn it on in the summer, when all it does is add 20 degrees to the inside temperature, causing my old air conditioner to work that much harder. Besides, who needs a casserole or a cake between, say, May and September, when just-picked tomatoes and ice cream are on the menu?
Fresh bread, however, is a year-round necessity, as far as I’m concerned. When there’s a nip in the air, I love to churn out crusty loaves of rye, fill sheet pans with dimpled focaccia drizzled in olive oil, and knead mashed sweet potatoes into my Thanksgiving dinner roll dough. But once the combination of heat and humidity results in Code Orange days, my oven goes on hiatus, and I turn to the griddle, or even the barbecue, to make breads that won’t turn the kitchen into, well, an oven.
My introduction to a homemade stovetop bread was none other than the humble English muffin. I’ll admit that I had no idea how it was made until I was visiting family in California many years ago and saw my sister-in-law making some for breakfast on a griddle. Coming from Florida, where my home bread-making was limited to a couple of cooler months a year, it was a revelation to me that there was another way to get my fill.
Just like the commercial variety, those English muffins had a golden brown exterior and all the requisite nooks and crannies on the inside, but their yeasty scent was as intoxicating as anything baked. Once I started making them myself, the store-bought variety just couldn’t compare, and they inspired my foray into the wider world of stovetop breads.
Every culture has some kind of a flatbread that can be baked without an oven. For those looking for gluten-free options, there’s a Punjabi tortilla-like version, makki ki roti, made with fine cornmeal and studded with cilantro and carom seeds. Germany’s flammkuchen is a pizza-like flatbread that takes well to the barbecue to provide its traditional slightly burnt crust before being topped with creme fraiche, bacon and onions. I’ve been more than a little intrigued by Palestinian taboon, a flatbread baked on hot stones, since recently seeing “The Great British Baking Show” contestant Brendan Lynch utilize the decorative river rocks found in craft stores to replicate the time-honored cooking method.
The advantage to the wide array of quick-cooking flatbreads that can be made without turning on the oven is that they pair well with summer vegetables, fresh dips or soft cheese packed with herbs, and as a base for grilled pizzas or avocado toast. They taste best when eaten fresh, but can also be stored for a few days and refreshed in a toaster oven or even the microwave. Some, like a fast, yeast-free naan, can be made in well under an hour, and a puffy, beer-based flatbread takes only slightly longer and cries out to be slathered with mustard and topped with slices of grilled sausage and onions.
In the same way that any muffin batter can be quickly changed up with, say, blueberries or walnuts or pumpkin puree, flatbread dough — often just a combination of flour, a leavening agent such as yeast or baking soda, salt and water — takes well to mix-ins such as fresh herbs and spices, hot peppers and olives. Brush the griddled tops with olive oil and then sprinkle with za’atar, sumac or nigella seeds. Roll the dough into larger rounds, layer half with cheese, roasted garlic or sun-dried tomatoes, and then fold over and seal the edges before griddling to add even more depth of flavor.
But it’s the simplest treatment that is sometimes the best of all. At Supra, a Georgian restaurant in Washington, chef Malkhaz Maisashvili briskly rolls out rounds of a basic four-ingredient dough that is then shaped like a canoe and slapped against the walls of a cylindrical clay oven called a tone. Brushing the exterior of the shaped bread, called shoti, with salted water helps the dough stick to the clay surface but also adds a pleasingly salty crunchiness.
Although cooking bread in the tone adds a distinctive flavor that can’t be exactly replicated on a stovetop, the basic dough still lends itself to being griddled — a floury salt-flecked crust surrounding a fluffy interior that pairs perfectly with smoked cheese and a pile of pickled vegetables. Its baton-like shape calls to mind a French baguette, the supporting character of most summer picnic baskets, but which is often, sadly, a chewy breadstick that’s been languishing at the neighborhood grocery store and has lost its joie de vivre. It only takes a little more planning to make fresh bread the star of your next picnic.
Good friends, cold wine and fresh bread. Really — what more could you need on a sultry summer night?
MAKE AHEAD: These are best if served right away, but can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 day.
Adapted from MyFoodStory.com.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
½ cup whole-wheat flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt (regular or low-fat)
¼ cup water, or more as needed
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
¼ cup sesame seeds
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup freshly chopped herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and/or mint
Whisk together the flours, baking soda, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Mix together the yogurt, water and oil in a large measuring cup.
Add the yogurt mixture to the flour a little at a time, kneading as you go. If the dough seems too dry, you can add more water, a teaspoonful at a time, or, conversely, some extra flour if the dough seems too wet. You’ll knead the dough for a few minutes total, until it is soft and supple, then cover with a damp towel. Let it rest for about 20 minutes.
Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the rested dough into 6 equal portions, then gently roll out each piece on a lightly floured surface to about ¼ -inch thick (the shape doesn’t matter). Brush the tops lightly with water, press in some sesame seeds, then turn them over and brush the other side with a little water.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. To cook the naan, place the side without the sesame seeds down on the hot pan (depending on the size of the pan, you’ll be able to cook one or two at a time). Cover immediately with a lid; the naan will start bubbling up. Wait 45 seconds, then flip the naan and cook for 30 seconds on the second side, which should be lightly browned.
Remove from the pan; quickly brush the side of the naan with the sesame seeds with melted butter and then sprinkle with the fresh herbs.
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