Friday, March 26, 2010

Frying Pan Flatbreads

What culture doesn't have a flat, bread-like food? Tortillas, naan, pitas, wonton wrappers, crepes, lefse, pizza, matzo, english muffins, injera, pancakes, lavash, arepas, chapati, funnel cakes... okay, maybe the last one is a stretch. But I've just scratched the surface of the many flatbreads from different regions of the world.

You could spend a lifetime perfecting the flatbreads of every culture. Some require special ovens. Some use specialty flours and spices. Some rely on technique. But while all the flatbreads have their special nuances, there are similarities, too. So a failed flatbread of one type could be a perfect flatbread of another type.

A flour tortilla that's a little too thick could be a lovely pita bread. A pita that's too big and bready could make a nice pizza base. So if you're experimenting flatbreads, you can't really go wrong. Make them the way you like them, and once you're comfortable with the process you can move along to authenticity.

The other great thing about many flatbreads is that the leftovers can be transformed into easy snackfoods. When I have leftover pita-like breads, I cut them into triangles (usually 6 per pita) and I bake them until they're crispy. They're nice little crackers. And you can make them healthier by using some whole wheat flour in the dough, if you prefer.

Frying Pan Flatbreads
This flatbread has absolutely no roots in any culture except my own kitchen. To make this recipe even faster and easier, I've written it with food processor instructions for kneading. You can also do the kneading by hand, with a stand mixer, or in a bread machine, following the usual techniques for those methods.

1 cup cool water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

14 oz (3 cups) bread flour
1/4 cup instant mashed potatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (one package) instant yeast
1 tablespoon olive oil

Add the vinegar to the water. Put the dry ingredients, plus the olive oil into the bowl of your food processor, fitted with the proper blade for doughmaking. Turn it on, and pour the water/vinegar mix into the food processor through the feed tube as fast as the flour will can incorporate it. Keep the processor running until the dough comes together and a ball forms. There will still be errant clumps of dough that don't join the main ball.

Check to see if the dough is done. It should be smooth and elastic, and it should no longer be sticky.  Depending on the type of instant mashed potatoes you're using, you might feel some grittiness in the dough until the potatoes absorb moisture and soften. If it's not quite ready, give it a few minutes rest, and process again for 30 seconds. Check again. If the dough is becoming too warm, let it rest again before further processing. There's no harm in walking away from it for 10 or 15 minutes while you do something else. It's more important that the dough is properly elastic, or it will be difficult to roll it as thin as it needs to be.

The dough will be easier to work if you let it rest for about 5-10 minutes after the final processing. You can also let it rise once before continuing. If it's a short rest, you can leave it in the food processor, otherwise take it out, form it into a ball, and put it in a clean bowl. You can also refrigerate the dough at this point, and make the flatbreads later...tomorrow...the next day.

When you're ready, put a cast iron frying pan onto medium heat. You want the pan hot, but not smoking hot. I like to use a comal because it has low sides, but a regular cast iron pan, a stovetop griddle, or an electric frying pan or griddle will also work. Form the dough into rough ball, then divide the ball into quarters. Depending on what size flatbreads you like, you can divide each of those quarters into three or four pieces. Since these cook one at a time, they don't have to be exactly the same size, but it's nice to get them close to the same.

As you work, it's best to cover the dough you're not working on with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap so it doesn't dry out. Form each piece of dough into a ball. This makes it easier to roll somewhat round circles for the flatbread.

On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the balls into a flat, round circle. If you've made 12 balls, you're looking for a circle that's about 6 inches in diameter, and thinner than a corn tortilla. It will seem ridiculously thin, but it will puff up a lot as you cook them. You only need the barest amount of flour to keep the dough from sticking to the surface, if any. If you use too much flour and you don't brush it off before you put the flatbreads into the pan, the loose flour tends to burn in the pan.

As you roll each flatbread, put them it into the dry frying pan and let the first side brown a little before flipping it over. These cook through quickly, so you're just looking for a little bit of browning. If they're cooking too quickly, or are threatening to burn before they're cooked through, turn the heat down. The first side will have a more even surface, and the second side will have brown spots because of bubbles that form during the cooking.

What's fun about flatbreads is that no matter what, you'll never get two that are alike. Because of the way the bubbles form inside the bread, sometimes you'll have a flatbread that puffs up like a balloon, like this one, and sometimes you'll have a bunch of smaller bubbles that create an interesting browning pattern on the second side.

You can choose to make soft, floppy flatbreads, or those that hold their shape. If you want a crisp base, flip the flatbread over again, and let it cook until it crisps. If you're quick enough, you can have the next flatbread rolled by the time the first one is cooked. If you're really fast, you might be able to roll two and cook two at a time.