Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part One: The Baking)

When I've got company over for dinner, I love being able to have one dish that stops the conversation. I'm not always successful at creating that "speechless" dish, but every now and then I get my moment of awe.

This puff of crispiness created that moment for me as guests wondered what the heck it was and what they were supposed to do with it. And once they cracked them open, they were even more amazed. Because it's more than just a bread or a cracker. What you see is just the shell. Inside is something that will amaze your guests as they wonder how it's possible. Because it seems so impossible unless you tell them your secret. Like a magician pullling a rabbit from a hat, it's not magic, but just a little technique and a little bit of misdirection.

The only downside to this dish is that I don't have a name for it. I call them puffy bread things, but that's silly. They need a better name. Magic bread. Surprise Puffs. Tricky Eats.

Eh, I'll work on the name later. .

The first good thing about making these is that the baking can be done ahead of time, so you don't have to worry about getting them done when you're juggling pies and roasts and dinner rolls. Bake them a day ahead or even two, if that fits into your schedule.

The second good thing is that you can use just about any recipe for dinner rolls or a basic bread. I haven't tried this with rye dough, but I've made these with white and whole wheat and sourdough recipes, and it's worked out just fine. I have no reason to believe that rye or any other bread recipe wouldn't work as well; I just haven't tried them all yet. So if you're making dinner rolls or bread for dinner, you can use the same recipe for these.

The third good thing about this recipe is that the mistakes are recipes unto themselves. Besides the puffs, you can follow along and make Pita Bread and Pita Chips. And when it's all over, you can make some thin, delicate crackers too.

You might want to make a practice batch before you make these for a special dinner because there is a bit ot technique involved, and you might not want to tackle this under pressure. To make it simple for your practice batch, use any basic white bread recipe you're comfortable with, following the recipe until it gets to the point where you need to shape the dough. If you don't have a favorite recipe, my Semolina White is a tasty choice. Or make it really easy on yourself and buy a lump of pizza dough.

So, making these is very little about the recipe, and all about technique. Good news is that the technique isn't difficult. If you've ever made flour tortillas or pita bread or naan or any other flatbread, you're almost an expert. If you've made regular dinner rolls, you're more than halfway there. If you're a novice at yeast breads, hang on and I'll walk you through it.

Well before you're ready to shape the bread, preheat your oven to 475 degrees. If you have a pizza stone in the oven, you'll get the best results. Otherwise, you need a flat surface to bake the dough on. A baking sheet will do, but something that will retain heat would be better. A cast iron griddle, tomal, or even a large cast iron frying pan would work. Have the pizza stone or pan in the oven while the oven preheats. If the stone isn't hot enough, you won't get the puffing you need.

Cut the dough into pieces about the size of a golf ball and cover them with a kitchen towel or piece of plastic wrap as you work with one at a time. First, form the piece into a smooth ball. Then, on a lightly floured surface, roll it into a circle with a rolling pin thusly:

Try to make it as evenly round as possible.

You're shooting for something about 6 inches in diameter. More important, though, is that you don't fold or crinkle the dough, or poke any holes in it. You want a smooth, even, flat piece of dough.

You can make these any size you want, but a six-inch round makes a decent-sized puff that's still easy to wrangle into the oven. As far as the final size for your special dinner, you'll want something that will look right on your plates when they're done, because this dish is all about presentation. You'll see. Just stay with me.

Making a practice batch will give you a good feel for how thin the dough should be to give you a puff that's delicate without being too fragile after it has baked. It will also give you a good idea of how much the puffs will shrink in diameter as they puff higher. These puffs don't expand like rubber balloons that can keep stretching, they're more like mylar balloons.  

When the first round is flattened, transfer it to the pizza stone in the oven. If all has gone well, the dough will begin to expand evenly until you have a puffy dough balloon.

Here's one as it's puffing in the oven.

If it hasn't gone well, you'll get individual lumpy bubbles with some parts stuck flat, instead of one big bubble.

The first piece will give you an idea of how long they'll all take to bake, so you might want to turn the oven light on and peek through the window and watch the show.

Oops! Flatbread! Time Out!
If the round hasn't puffed completely, pull it out after about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes of baking. Yes, it's that fast, but the actual time will depend on your oven and also the surface you're baking on. But this isn't something you can walk away from while it's in the oven.

At that point, the unpuffed piece should be soft and pliable, and just starting to brown a little bit. You can use that piece as you would a flatbread or pita or a flour tortilla.

After taking it out of the oven, lay it on a clean kitchen towel and wrap the ends of the towel over it, so the bread is completely covered. Set it aside to cool. If you have more puffs that don't puff, stack them on top of each other and keep them wrapped in the towel. If they don't delflate on their own, press down gently to flatten them while they're still warm, but watch out for the escaping steam that will burn you.

Back to the Puffs
You should have time to roll out one piece of dough while the previous one is in the oven. If you can roll fast enough, you might be able to roll two or three while the previous batch is baking, and you can bake as many at a time as you can fit on the baking stone. You don't want them to overlap or hang over the side of the baking stone or you won't get a proper puff. It's better to bake fewer at a time and get them right than to bake a bunch of pitas and not have enough puffs for the next magical step.

Also, you don't want to pinch or press down on the dough after it had been flattened, or those spots could stick together rather than puff. Handle it gently and hold it on the palm of your hand rather than pinching it with your fingers. It might take a couple of tries before you get the hang of handling the dough and getting it smoothly onto the baking stone, but the ones that don't puff correctly have other uses, so they aren't failures. They're just a different product.

If your dough has puffed properly and it is a nice little balloon, it needs a little more baking time, about 1-2 more minutes more than for the flatbread. It should be able to hold the puffy shape when it comes out of the oven, but you don't want it to overbrown and get too fragile.

When it's done, it should still be pale on top, perhaps with a few lightly browned sections. The bottom will brown a little bit more. You're looking for pale hrown and hardened, not dark brown and shattery.

Remove it from the oven and let it cool completely on a rack.

You can bake these in advance, but make sure they're completely cooled before you store them. Store in a partially open bag; if you seal the bag right away, any residual moisture could soften them. Or just leave them on the rack. After a day, you can seal the bag, if you choose. They should stay crisp after that.

Pita Chips
As far as the inevitable unpuffed pieces, if you don't need flatbread, you can cut them into triangles (six per round is usually what I do) put them on a sheet pan and bake them until crisp. Brush them with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt or spices before baking, or just leave them plain. Flip them over during baking, if they aren't crisping evenly. You want them completely crisp, or they'll be hard in an unpleasant way - like gnawing on shoe leather instead of a crisp cracker.

When they're completely crisp, take them out of the oven and cool completely on a rack before storing them. Since they're completely dry, they store well, but they don't last long around here so I can't tell you exactly how long you can keep them.

The Puffs Continue
Now that you've got the puffs, it's time for the magic.

Hmmm...Puffs, the magic breadthings... Nah, still not a good name.

Stay tuned for part two.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Looks very nice, Donna! :)

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