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Baking a Flatbread with an Inlay of Herbs

Tame a sticky dough with a brief rest, a thorough knead, and a long rise for tender bread with a crisp herbal crust

Fine Cooking Issue 29
Photos: Ben Fink
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There are all sorts of flatbreads called focaccia, ranging from dense, cakey squares to topped, pizza-like rounds. One of the best I’ve ever eaten was in a small neighborhood bar in Italy where my husband and I once stopped for a quick lunch. A sheet pan of thick focaccia, just brought over by the local baker, sat on the counter next to the cash register. Sprinkled with salt, pocketed with little pools of olive oil, the bread was amazing and just what we wanted.

Back home, I craved more—but I also wanted to add my own twists. So I created my ideal flatbread, light and thick enough to be split for sandwiches, with a thin, crisp crust. I used durum flour, a kneading technique I learned from a European master baker, and an herb-lamination technique that I developed to get an attractive inlay of herbs in the top crust. The result is as beautiful and as delicious as the process is satisfying.

Durum flour for tenderness and flavor

I’m using durum flour here because I love the results: bread that’s tender and light, with a direct, almost buttery wheat flavor and an appealing yellowy hue. You’ve eaten durum flour in pasta—actually pasta is made from semolina, a coarser, granular grade of durum—but what I use here is flour made from double-milled durum semolina. Though durum wheat is considered “hard” (the double-milling is necessary because the grain is so hard), durum flour is tender because its gluten is actually very weak compared to wheats milled for bread. I also add some all-purpose flour to lighten the dough and get a softer, moister bread.

Sources for durum flour

Be sure to ask for extra-fancy pasta flour or farina grade, rather than semolina:

The Great Valley Mills

King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue

A short rest, a short knead, and a long rise

I knead this dough by hand because it’s just too small an amount for a mixer, and besides, it’s really satisfying to start off with a wet, goopy dough and end up with a smooth, satiny ball that’s easy to shape. A short rest called an autolyse comes right after mixing the flour, yeast, oil, and water. It will cut down on your kneading time and allow the dough to bake into a lighter bread with a more open crumb. Here’s how an autolyse (pronounced ah-toh-leez) works.

  • It allows the flour time to fully absorb the water, so the dough is less sticky when you knead it.
  • It helps the gluten to both bond and break down, resulting in a dough that’s quicker to knead and easier to shape.
  • It gives the yeast time to rehydrate fully so you don’t end up with yeast bits in the dough.

You’ll notice in the recipe that the salt goes in after the autolyse. This is because salt causes gluten to contract and toughen, preventing the gluten from absorbing as much water and thus fully benefiting from the autolyse.

Knead with a squeeze and a flip

Bakers have so many different opinions about kneading. Here’s a great technique I learned from Lionel Vatinet, a French master baker in San Francisco. It’s quick and elegant. The dough develops fast, but there’s actually a minimum of body motion involved with maximum results. And the great thing is that it works just as well on four or five pounds of dough as it does with the pound or so we’re kneading here. You may have trouble at first (the dough may be sticky and loose), but after a few times practicing with this wet and sticky dough, you’ll find this way of kneading is faster and more thorough than any other.

Squeeze and flip. Hold the dough with both hands. Starting with the part closest to you, squeeze the dough, extruding it through the space between your thumb and index finger. Once you’ve squeezed all the way through, move up the dough so you squeeze oblong-shaped holes along its whole length. Then, when the dough looks like it’s been hole-punched, you flip it over to smooth it out, and squeeze again. Lionel stresses that it’s the squeezing that really strengthens the gluten. You’ll feel the work in your hands.

Persevere. The first couple of times you try, the dough may still be sticky and loose after 10 or even 15 minutes of kneading. This is okay: just proceed to the long rise, which makes the dough more manageable. With a little practice, your dough will look as smooth as the dough in the photos.

A long rise improves the bread’s texture and flavor. This recipe contains a small amount of yeast to give the dough a long, slow fermentation. This extra rising time lets the dough build up lots of flavor. The long rise also gives you a dough that’s more extensible—meaning it’s less likely to rip during shaping—and that bakes into bread with well-formed air holes (or “crumb structure”). During the long rise, you’ll need to turn and fold the dough twice—once 30 minutes into the rise, and again after another 30 minutes.

I like to shape the dough on a sheet of floured parchment so I don’t have to move it once it’s shaped. Also, baking the dough right on the parchment eliminates the need for a peel. Don’t worry—in a 450°F oven, parchment will darken, but it won’t burn.

Thirty minutes into the rise, turn and fold the dough for the first time. Lightly flour the dough and work surface, turn it out, and gently flatten it.

Fold the dough into a tight square package and return it to the rising bowl. After another 30 minutes, repeat the flattening and folding a second time.
Let the dough ferment for 2 or 3 more hours. It’s ready when it’s doubled in volume and full of large bubbles. It should spring back when you press it.

An herb inlay for garnish and flavor

The laminating technique I’m using here was inspired by a story I actually saw in Fine Cooking by Alan Tardi on handkerchief pasta with an herb inlay (Making Handkerchief Pasta). I combined this technique with the classic French tabatière, or tobacco-pouch shape. I roll out a thin lid of dough from the main piece, blanket the main piece with herbs, and then laminate it with the thin sheet of dough.

Use one kind of herb, or a mixture. I love the way a mixture of herb leaves looks, but for pure flavor, I prefer one kind of leaf, such as rosemary or sage. I’ve tried just about every kind of herb you can find and they all work well; just remember to remove twiggy stems, which will poke through. Resinous herbs such as rosemary or sage have stronger, clearer flavors that will make more of an impact. More delicate herbs such as parsley and basil look pretty but taste subtler.

A thin sheet of dough keeps the herbs green during baking

Shape the dough into a 10×6-inch rectangle, and then roll out a flap to cover the herbs. Use a long, thin rolling pin to roll out one quarter of the long side of the dough.
Lay fresh herb leaves over the surface of the thick portion of the dough. It’s okay to crowd them, but don’t overlap them.
Fold over the thin sheet of dough to cover the herb leaves completely. Tuck the edges under and pat gently to push out any air bubbles.
Starting from the short end, roll lightly with a floured rolling pin to remove trapped air. Be gentle during rolling, even though you’ll end up deflating the dough, and aim for an even shape.

Dimpling is for more than just looks. By poking the dough with holes, you’re keeping the flatbread flat (otherwise it would balloon in the oven). Dimpling also creates delicious wells of olive oil, flavoring the bread even more. Remember that when it comes time to dimple the bread, you’ll be poking deep into the dough, but not clear through to the other side.

Just before baking, dimple the loaf all over with your fingers. Push down to the bottom of the dough, but don’t break it.

This flatbread likes a short, hot bake. A short bake keeps the crust thin, and it helps the inlaid herbs stay green. The high heat helps the dough to expand quickly, before the crust has time to set, for the lightest possible bread. The bake is so short that if you want to double the recipe, the second shaped loaf can wait while the first one bakes. Although you can cool this flatbread on a rack, you may not want to—it’s irresistible when it’s warm, and I think it tastes best that way.


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