I’m a lover of la crosta—the crust. Even as a child, when my parents took me to a restaurant, I would keep busy tearing apart the contents of the bread basket. I’d devour only the toasty, chewy crusts, leaving the pale, soft innards to be swept away with the dirty plates. My table manners have improved, but my love for the earthy, robust flavor and texture of crusty breads has not faded.
Now I’m a professional baker, and hand-rolled breadsticks—which are almost all crust—have become one of my signature recipes. At the restaurant where I bake, every meal begins with a basket of these tall, crunchy breadsticks .
Olive oil and seasonings set these breadsticks apart
Besides the obvious superiority of home-baked vs. factory-produced, there are two important differences between my breadsticks and the pallid, dusty ones you find wrapped in paper sleeves and served at some restaurants: olive oil and zesty seasonings.
While olive oil is added to many breadstick recipes, I like to add more than what is typically called for. This liberal use of olive oil gives the sticks a more savory flavor and crisper crunch. Besides adding olive oil to the dough, I also sprinkle a bit—along with a little salt—on the finished breadsticks as they come out of the oven. The fruitier the flavor of the oil, the better, so a coldpressed, extra-virgin olive oil is my first choice.
Keep the flavors strong and simple. The Master Recipe for Breadsticks includes three variations that are favorites in the restaurant—fresh herb, spicy cheese, and Moroccan spice—but I’m always playing with new flavor combinations. Through many years of experimentation, I’ve found that less is usually more, and my most successful recipes often require only a few ingredients added to the basic recipe. In general, I stick with a flavor theme and only add seasonings that are appropriate. For example, when making the Moroccan breadsticks, I sprinkle toasted sesame oil (instead of olive oil) on the sticks after baking to reinforce the sesame flavor in the dough. I also like to play with the shape of the sticks to take advantage of the way different spices or herbs speckle the dough, such as black sesame seeds or chopped green herbs.
Chilling the dough means a flexible baking schedule
The key to making breadsticks that are truly crisp and crunchy is to roll out the dough thin—about 1/4 inch thick. If you try to do this with a freshly risen dough, you’ll end up wrestling with an elastic, bouncy mass that shrinks back each time you roll or stretch it. You need to make the dough at least one day in advance and, after it has risen, punch it down and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight (or up to four days) before shaping and baking the sticks. The gluten—which makes the dough elastic in the first place—relaxes in the refrigerator, so the dough is more supple and pliable. In addition, the flavors of any seasonings added to the dough will mingle and mature as it rests.
Since this dough will last in the refrigerator for up to four days, at home I often shape and bake breadsticks a handful at a time. This way I can have fresh ones for an afternoon snack or as an hors d’oeuvre a few times during the week without having to make the dough each time. Save any leftover dough rolled in a ball and covered with plastic to shape and bake within a few days. After four days the dough will start to ferment and begin to taste overly sour. If you want to keep the dough for longer than four days, simply freeze it. Just thaw to room temperature and proceed with the recipe. I haven’t had good experience cutting and shaping the sticks in advance and freezing them. They seem to rise poorly this way.
Shape the breadsticks to match your mood
The service staff at the restaurant say that they can tell my mood by how I shape the breadsticks for the day. Sometimes I leave them even and straight while other days I twist and knot them into all sorts of whimsical shapes. It’s really up to you, and it depends on how creative you feel when it comes time to roll out the dough. Whatever you decide, begin by rolling the dough into a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle. Then, after cutting the dough into thin strips with a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, give each a little pull and perhaps a few twists. The idea is to stretch the sticks to almost twice their original length, leaving thin strips that will bake up evenly crisp and brown.
Monitor the sticks as they bake. No matter how you roll and shape the breadsticks, there will always be some variation in baking times. Toward the end of the 20- to 25-minute baking time, check the bread-sticks and pull out any that are done. The best test is to gently pinch the sticks. If they feel firm, they’re done. If they’re still soft, give them a few more minutes. If you’ve tied the sticks in pretzel-like shapes, expect the thicker parts to remain somewhat soft even when fully baked.