I have a thing about garlic bread. Achingly soft butter, a scattering of herbs, pungent, sharp garlic paste, spread thickly on sourdough baguette and broiled until the butter bubbles and browns and the garlic takes on a toasty depth; what’s not to love? I make it in the oven, I make it on the grill, I’ve even tried turning it into a sandwich. But all too often, the process of toasting leaves the edges of the bread blackened and the crust just too crunchy for my taste. I want crisp toastiness, but I don’t want mouth-scraping shards of bread shrapnel.
Enter flatbread. I don’t mean the dry, cracker-like stuff carelessly sprinkled with toppings and served up as an appetizer. I mean something a little puffier, a little richer, a little cheesier. A few months ago, I dabbled with a Food Network recipe for Spinach and Cheese Flatbread, and was delighted by the elastic dough that bubbled up into a soft-but-crisp rectangle. It is chewy and golden, but not quite as sturdy as a pizza dough. The bottom, slapped against a well-oiled sheet pan, gets just crisp enough to support all but the most ridiculously sized slices (don’t ask me how I know this. Thank you), so you aren’t left with a square that wilts as you hold it.
As soon as I ate the FN version, I realized this was the answer to my garlic bread dreams. The dough would be smeared with a loving, excessive layer of garlic-butter-herb-are-you-drooling-yet?-paste, sprinkled with fontina, which melts beautifully and has a mild funk I really enjoy, and baked until crispy toasty nirvana resulted.
My results approached sublimity, and the shortcomings were entirely human error, which seems fitting. The paste didn’t spread very evenly because this is a soft dough: it threatened to tear when I applied a spatula, so I ended up smearing and dolloping my mixture with my fingers. You could easily solve this by melting your butter instead of just softening it, and then pouring the mixture evenly over the dough. Then, because I was afraid the butter and garlic would burn at pizza-cooking temperatures, I was pretty liberal with my cheese application, which meant that the toasty roasty golden color I was expecting didn’t quite happen. Another minute or two in the oven might have helped, but we were hungry. A little less cheese might have helped too, but seriously, less cheese? Totally unreasonable.
In any case, the bread itself was puffy and buttery and decadent. The garlic loses some of its pungency during baking, but retains that addictive sharpness and bright tingly aroma that makes it so good. The dollops of butter became dimples of puddly richness that, upon reflection, reminded me a little bit of the center of a really good bialy. The bottom of the crust is like an old-style pan pizza: golden with burst air bubbles and just oiled enough to leave your fingertips in need of a napkin.
This is a great happy hour snack. Since it heats up the house, it gives you a great excuse to sit out on your patio, or deck, or picnic blanket, or camp chair. It pairs well with a crisp, summery wine, and equally well with a frosty pint of beer (or maybe, since, you know, Cinco de Mayo, a classic Corona with lime, or a salt-and-cayenne-rimmed margarita). You can use any combination of herbs you like. I chose what was happening right outside my back door:
Basil – back in late fall, I relocated a few stalks of basil from the supermarket clamshell container to a vase of water, and instead of wilting, they grew roots! I shook my head, still in Oregon mindset, while planting them – they would never make it through the winter – but this is Southern California, so of course they did, and are now flourishing. I’ve read that plucking the blossoms off encourages them to keep producing leaves, so every day or so I faithfully scatter the delicate white blooms.
As for additional toppings, you could add sundried tomatoes or thin rings of bell pepper or even jalapeno to the butter paste if you want to get fancy about it, and it would certainly fare well dipped into a bubbly saucer of marinara, if that’s your thing. Either way, I think you should make this.
Are you making it yet?
adapted from Food Network’s Spinach and Cheese Flatbread
For the dough:
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (it should feel just slightly warmer than body temperature when you dip your finger in to test it)
2 ¼ – 2 ½ cups bread flour
1 tsp salt (I like coarse sea salt)
1-2 TB olive oil
For the toppings:
8-10 cloves garlic, minced (about ¼ cup in all)
1 stick very soft butter (1/2 cup)
2 TB each chopped fresh parsley and basil
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1-2 cups grated fontina cheese
- Sprinkle the sugar and yeast over the warm water, stir gently to combine, and set aside to proof for 5 minutes or so. The yeast will begin to bubble and smell like warm bread.
- In a large bowl (I use the bowl of my electric stand mixer), combine 2 ¼ cups of flour, the salt, and the olive oil, and whisk together briefly. The olive oil will create little streaks of moistness, like barely dampened sand.
- Once the yeast mixture is bubbly, pour it into the flour and mix with the paddle attachment or a wooden spoon just until a sticky dough comes together. Then, if you are using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed for about ten minutes. If the dough is still relentlessly sticky by minute six, smearing tackily across the sides of the bowl and schlopping stubbornly on the bottom, add an additional ¼ cup flour to make it more manageable. If you don’t have a stand mixer, plop your dough out onto a floured board and knead by hand.
- After about ten minutes, the dough should be smooth and elastic, though still fairly sticky. That’s okay. That stickiness will keep it moist and supple and lovely.
- Place the dough – more or less sticky as it is – into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set it aside in a warm place until doubled. This may take about an hour and a half, but my kitchen was about 80 degrees on the day I made this, so it only took mine an hour to puff triumphantly.
- Gently deflate the dough and let it rest for ten minutes. Then, stretch and spread it carefully on a well-oiled baking sheet. If it stubbornly snaps back against itself and refuses to form a nice rectangle, let it rest another ten minutes and try again. The gluten needs to relax a bit after all that rising work it has done.
- When you have the shape you want, cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and leave it to rise again for half an hour, until it has doubled yet again.
- While the dough rises, preheat your oven to 450F and prep your toppings.
- In a medium bowl, combine the butter, garlic, herbs, and red pepper flakes into a chunky paste. I haven’t added any salt here, because the cheese is salty, but if you are a sodium fiend sprinkle in some salt to taste.
- Approach your risen dough with caution: you may be able to smear on the garlic butter paste with a spatula, but you may have to carefully coat the surface with just your hands. It will depend on the texture and elasticity of your dough. If it won’t spread the way you want and you get frustrated with it, microwave the paste for a few seconds until the butter is melty, then pour the mixture on instead of smearing.
- Top your buttered dough with an even sprinkle of cheese, keeping in mind that where the cheese completely covers the buttery garlic paste, not much toasting will occur. I’ll leave determining quantities and coverage up to you and your preferences.
- Place your topped flatbread into the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the dough are puffed and nicely browned, and the cheese has turned golden and sizzles. Let it cool on a countertop for 5-10 minutes, just to let the cheese cool from molten temperatures a bit, then slice and serve.