Blame it on the pita. Or maybe it was the tortillas. Certainly focaccia had something to do with it. Flat breads have become the new darlings of the bread world. Breads once considered exclusively ethnic or regional foods and eaten on holiday, have crossed all borders and become international. Flat breads can be leavened with yeast or baking powder, or unleavened, akin to the oldest breads made, patted out and cooked on hot rocks in the sun. They can be chewy and crisp, soft and melt in your mouth, plain or embellished.
On every continent you will find delicious, unbelievably simple, flat breads cooked an open flame or top of a stove. They are exclusively a homemade specialty and often “baked” outside an oven. Most of them have the most basic of ingredients-flour, water, and salt. The types of flour, oil, and other added ingredients give the different breads their character. I have found that the simpler the bread, the more skill and practice needed for handling the delicate doughs These breads are strictly a “with meals” type of food and are best eaten within hours of being made, so don’t bake them until you are ready to eat them hot and fresh.
While unleavened breads like tortillas tend to be very flat, the yeasted flat breads tend to be anywhere from paper-thin, like in lavash, to a few inches thick as with the focaccia. In between are naan, the word for bread in much of Asia and India, baked in high heat tandori ovens, and the ballooning pita, also the basic daily fare, for much of the Middle East. They are kneaded doughs, which is a task done to perfection in the bread machine. These breads need your touch to be finished to perfection, since the shaping is the key to a different taste and texture.
Flatbreads have a family and each member is perfect in their simplicity. The most famous flat bread is pizza, and it’s almost everywhere you look. Whole restaurants are devoted to crêpes, the tissue-thin flat French pancake, and flat bread sandwiches are popping up in posh establishments as well as the Sizzler restaurant chain. Tortillas are the cornerstone of the Mexican food empire. Middle Eastern breads, like lavosh, hail from nomadic desert peoples. The housewives of the British Isles make crumbly wedges of barley and oat cakes. Indian naan and chapatis, so perfect a foil to their spicy cuisine, remind one of tortillas. Scandinavians, great lovers of flat breads with great character and unpronounceable names, have the potato griddle bread known as lefse.
Soft, fresh flat breads are often used for scooping up food, rather like an edible spoon, or as a wrap around vegetables or meat kabobs. While these breads are meant to be eaten with meals, they are great for appetizers and sandwiches. Day old they are torn and used in salads. They can be served alongside soups, topped with cheese, eggs, and vegetables or pickles as open-faced sandwiches, or used to mop up a sauce.
Equipment for Flat Breads
Since the doughs will be shaped and baked outside the machine, the following equipment is helpful for making excellent homemade flat breads.
-Wooden board or marble slab (about 18-x-18-inch) for rolling out and shaping
-Metal dough scraper (consider this a hand extension) and great for cleaning the work surface of excess dough
-Heavy ball-bearing or thin wooden rolling pin
-Large plastic or metal salt shaker (like for picnics) filled with all-purpose flour or rice flour for sprinkling and dusting the dough
-Ceramic baking stone (12-or 16-inch round or 14-x-16-inch rectangle) or 12 to 16 unglazed quarry tiles (See Beth Recommends)
-Baking pans such as heavy gauge aluminum or steel 12-x-17-inch baking sheets, ceramic baking sheet, ceramic pizza pan, power pans (the 12-inch round pans that have the swiss cheese-like holes to crisp the crust directly on the hot stone), metal cake pans
-Heavy-duty oven mitts that are big enough to protect your wrists and lower arm from a restaurant supply or barbecue mitts
-Large, wide heavy duty metal spatula
The secret to recreating earthy hearth baking in a standard gas or electric home oven is to use an unglazed clay baking stone. The clay will produce a steady, moderately radiating heat and bake breads in a fashion similar to the ancient querns of Egypt, the hornos of the American Southwest, the rural village fournos of the Greek countryside, and the Italian domed brick ovens with their oak and birch fires. REAL old fashioned so to speak.
If you make flat breads regularly, consider investing in a ceramic baking stone specifically designed for the job. Your breads will look and taste better than you can ever imagine with this one little piece of equipment. They will have a real crust. It is placed on the lowest rack in an electric oven or on the oven floor in a gas range. Always leave 2 inches of air space between the tiles and the oven walls for heat to circulate. Some bakers also place a second stone on the topmost shelf, making two layers, to further imitate brick ovens. Breads may be baked directly on the stone, or on baking sheets placed on the stone. Avoid placing doughs that drip butter or sugar directly on the stone’s porous surface, as drips burn quickly and will produce a bitter smoke-filled oven and stains that cannot be scrubbed clean. The commercial pizza stones are available in two round sizes, 12-inches and 16-inches in diameter, or as a 12-by-14-inch rectangle. I just leave mine in the oven all the time and replace it when it gets too stained after a few years. I usually buy my stone from Sassafras.
Alternately use kiln shelves from a pottery supply, or new unglazed 6-inch-square quarry tiles (NOT the glazed ones used for tiling your bathroom), which are really easy to find. You can find them at any hardware/home store like Home Depot. I used to go to a pottery supply yard for them. These are 6″ x 6″ and about 1/2″-3/4″ thick, though 1″ thick is probably ideal. A dozen of them cost less than $5. A few quick tips:
* Make sure they are unglazed tiles which are a terracotta color and porous. Glazed tiles can contain harmful chemicals and metals like lead in them. Liquid should be absorbed by the tiles, not roll off of them.
*When you first bring the tiles home, clean them by wiping with a solution of water and baking soda. This works later for general cleaning purposes if they get pieces of crust stuck on them as well. Do not use soap, as it will seep into the stones and then the flavor seep back into any food you bake on them.
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016
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