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RECIPES: Flatbreads let your creativity flow with myriad toppings

Top this! by Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS) | February 24, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.
Chicken, Cheddar and Barbecue Sauce Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

It isn't quite pizza.

But it sort of is.

Flatbread is pizza's flamboyant cousin. There is a strong DNA connection, and they often look alike. But there is a difference, and after considerable thought and reflection I think I have determined what it is: tomato sauce.

Pizza has it. Flatbread does not. If flatbread has tomato sauce, it is pizza. If pizza does not have tomato sauce, it can still call itself pizza, but deep in its heart it knows it is really just flatbread that is putting on airs.

I am speaking here of the common use of the word "flatbread." Broadly speaking, flatbread is any bread that is thin and flat, such as pita or lavash or naan. But the flatbread I am talking about is the one that looks and acts like pizza, but isn't.

The flatbread I am talking about has toppings, which means the variety you can make is endless. You could even bake a flatbread crust and smear it with peanut butter and jelly if you wanted, and now that I think about it that would taste pretty good.

I made several flatbreads with different toppings and they were all, if I may dispense with my customary modesty, awfully good. Kind of spectacular, actually.

But before we get to the toppings, we first must discuss the crust. I tried two different recipes.

The first was thinner and crispier. The dough took just one hour to rise, but it does take a little more work to make, and it has to be kneaded for five to seven minutes.

The second was a bit thicker, chewier and heartier. It also had a more developed taste, but to achieve that taste it took two hours to rise. On the other hand, it required no kneading at all.

I recommend either one. If time is a concern, you can make and refrigerate the dough one day before you cook it; flatbread doughs also freeze particularly well.

For the toppings, I began with a couple of flatbreads for breakfast. The first one, Steak and Eggs Flatbread, is versatile enough to be enjoyed at any meal. Here, the flatbread acts more or less as toast, but with a superior flavor, on which to enjoy a hearty meal of steak and a fried egg. It's best when you pierce the yolk, which spills sensuously over the meat and crust.

A handful of cooked whole cherry tomatoes adds extra pop — not only of flavor but also the physical soft popping sensation in your mouth when you bite into them. I couldn't stop eating it, which was unfortunate because I had six more flatbreads to go.

I used the same general idea of flatbread topped with eggs and meat for my next breakfast-oriented dish, Sausage and Eggs Flatbread. This time, the eggs are scrambled, which makes a vital difference in flavor and texture. I cut up the sausage first and scrambled it into the eggs.

It is remarkable how easy it was to make something so deliciously distinctive.

I stayed with the general breakfast theme one last time for a dish I call Everything but the Bagel Flatbread. You completely bake the flatbread first — which you do with most of these recipes — and then smear it with cream cheese and top it with slices of smoked salmon, a sprinkling of capers and a light scattering of thin slices of red onion.

I would never suggest that anything could be better than a bagel with lox, so I will just say that a flatbread with lox is every bit as good.

For a more substantial meal, I made a flatbread with chunks of juicy chicken, melted cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, plus a few more slices of that red onion. Photographer Hillary Levin, who took the pictures that accompany this article, took one look at it and suggested I was copying a popular dish from California Pizza Kitchen.

I cannot tell a lie. I copied a popular dish from California Pizza Kitchen. But it is just so good — theirs and mine. And mine is cheaper.

The last three flatbreads I made are all vegetarian.

Caramelized Onions and Fontina Flatbread took a minor investment of time in order to caramelize the onions. Cooking them in a bit of oil over a low heat tempers the onions' sharp notes and brings out a rich, mellow sweetness. There is nothing quite like it, but it takes about a half-hour to cook and you have to stir it frequently.

Still, it is well worth it, especially when you string the slices across a piece of flatbread with gooey, melted Fontina cheese.

Fennel Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Fennel Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Fennel Flatbread is basically the same idea. The licorice-tasting bulb of fennel is sliced thin and mixed with olive oil and Parmesan, which here takes the place of the Fontina. The fennel is not caramelized, but roasting it on the flatbread for just a few minutes makes the flavor richer and warmer.

It also melts the parmesan, which acts in a small way as a sharp counterpoint to the rounded tones of the fennel.

And finally I took the unbeatable pairing of figs and gorgonzola cheese, and applied it to the top of flatbread. There is something about figs that bring out the best in gorgonzola (it's a blue cheese), and vice versa, but it is all even better when topped with a drizzle of sweet honey.

The figs sit in a creamy puddle of melted cheese, and the honey turns it ambrosial. It is not exactly what you want for a meal, but served at a party it would be an hors d'oeuvre that would be long remembered.

Crispy, Thin Flatbread Dough

  • 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water, about 110 degrees
  • Pinch granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating bowl
  • 2 ½ to 3 cups all-purpose flour, divided use

In a large bowl, mix yeast, water and sugar, and stir well to combine. Set aside until foamy, about 5 to 10 minutes. (If the mixture does not foam, discard and begin again with new yeast.) Add the salt, olive oil and 1 ¼ cups of the flour, and mix well to thoroughly combine. Add another 1 ¼ cups flour and mix well with your hands, working to incorporate the flour little by little. The dough should be slightly sticky to the touch.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 to 7 minutes, adding additional flour as necessary to form a smooth and elastic dough that is not sticky. Transfer to a lightly oiled 2- or 3-quart bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Divide dough into 4 equal portions and form into balls. Use immediately or wrap individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one day. Can also be frozen.

Makes 4 flatbreads.

Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, via Food Network

Homemade flatbread dough is the start of a creative meal. (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Homemade flatbread dough is the start of a creative meal. (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Hearty Flatbread Dough

  • 3 ¾ cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons instant dry yeast (not rapid rise)
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt
  • ¾ teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups water, room temperature (around 72 degrees)

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until blended, at least 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the dough has more than doubled in volume, about 2 hours. Divide into 4 equal portions. Use immediately, refrigerate for up to 1 day or freeze for up to 6 months.

Makes 4 flatbreads.

Slightly adapted from a recipe in "My Bread" by Jim Lahey

■ ■ ■

Chicken, Cheddar and Barbecue Sauce Flatbread

  • 1 portion flatbread dough
  • ¾ cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup cooked chicken, cut into small cubes or shredded
  • 2 tablespoons barbecue sauce
  • 1 or 2 thin slices red onion

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out flatbread dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. If dough puffs up while cooking, deflate by pricking more times with a fork.

Sprinkle with cheddar cheese and top with chicken. Drizzle with barbecue sauce and scatter red onion on top. Return to oven and cook until the cheese melts, about 2 minutes.

Makes 1 flatbread.

Homemade flatbreads with creative toppings, like this Caramelized Onions and Fontina Flatbread. (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Homemade flatbreads with creative toppings, like this Caramelized Onions and Fontina Flatbread. (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Caramelized Onion and Fontina Flatbread

  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced thin
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2 portions flatbread dough
  • 5 ounces Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced thin

Heat oil in medium pan over medium heat until hot. Add onion, reduce heat to low and cook slowly, stirring frequently, until slices are sweet and caramelized, about 30 minutes. Salt to taste.

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place one pizza stone or a baking sheet in the upper third and a separate pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or upside-down baking sheets, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stones or baking sheets.

Bake until dough turns a light golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Top with cheese and then caramelized onion. Return to oven and cook until cheese melts, about 2 minutes.

Makes 2 flatbreads.

Everything But the Bagel Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Everything But the Bagel Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Everything but the Bagel Flatbread

  • 1 portion flatbread dough
  • 1 tablespoon cream cheese
  • 1 ½ ounces smoked salmon
  • ½ teaspoon capers
  • 1 or 2 thin slices red onion
  • 1 teaspoon everything-bagel mix (sesame seeds, poppy seeds, onion flakes), optional

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out flatbread dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. If dough puffs up while cooking, deflate by pricking more times with a fork.

Allow flatbread to cool for a couple of minutes, then spread with cream cheese and cover with smoked salmon. Sprinkle capers on top, and scatter with thin pieces of red onion. Finish with everything-bagel mix, if desired.

Makes 1 flatbread.

Fig and Gorgonzola Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Fig and Gorgonzola Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Figs and Gorgonzola Flatbread

  • 1 portion flatbread dough
  • ¼ cup Gorgonzola cheese
  • Heaping ¼ cup sliced dried figs
  • 2 teaspoons honey

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out flatbread dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. If dough puffs up while cooking, deflate by pricking more times with a fork.

Scatter gorgonzola on top of cooked flatbread. Add figs and drizzle with honey. Return to the oven and cook until the cheese has melted, about 2 minutes.

Makes 1 flatbread.

Sausage and Eggs Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Sausage and Eggs Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Sausage and Eggs Flatbread

  • 1 portion flatbread dough
  • ½ tablespoon butter
  • 2 ounces sausage, cut into small pieces
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Salt and ground black pepper

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out flatbread dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. If dough puffs up while cooking, deflate by pricking more times with a fork.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add sausage. Cook until done. Season eggs with salt and pepper, and scramble with the sausage in the skillet. Spread scrambled-egg mixture on top of cooked flatbread, and serve.

Makes 1 flatbread.

Steak and Eggs Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Steak and Eggs Flatbread (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Steak and Eggs Flatbread

  • 1 portion flatbread dough
  • ½ tablespoon oil
  • 6 ounces New York strip or sirloin steak
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • About 6 cherry tomatoes
  • ½ tablespoon butter
  • 2 eggs

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place pizza stone or a baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Roll out flatbread dough until thin. Place dough on a parchment-lined pizza peel or an upside-down baking sheet, prick several times with a fork and slide parchment onto the hot pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 9 to 10 minutes. If the dough puffs up while baking, prick with a fork to deflate.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a skillet large enough to hold the steak. Season the steak with salt and pepper and cook to desired doneness. When you flip the steak, add the tomatoes to the pan.

Remove the steak and tomatoes from the pan and allow to rest while cooking the eggs. Heat a separate skillet over medium-high heat (the steak pan will be too hot). Melt the butter and then carefully crack in the eggs. Cook gently until the eggs are done sunny-side up, with runny yolks.

Slice the steak across the grain and place the pieces on the flatbread. Scatter the tomatoes and top with the eggs.

Makes 1 flatbread.

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