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What if pizza spoke Spanish?

Special to The Times

“EXPECT the expected” is usually the best slogan when you’re invited for brunch, but what a new friend had waiting on his kitchen counter a few Saturdays ago was not just a fresh idea. It could be the greatest thing since sliced pizza.

My host, a writer and obsessive cook recently back from Barcelona, Spain, had baked his rendition of coca -- a dish he had found everywhere there: a flatbread with caramelized onions, red peppers, summer squash and Spanish sausage. The dough, enriched with seriously good olive oil, had been too sticky to transfer to his pizza stone, though, so he had converted the coca into what he joked was a Catalan calzone with the topping folded inside. It wasn’t pretty, but it tasted fabulous.

A little research made a coca seem even more tantalizing, and not just for brunch but for any eating occasion. I learned that the flatbread can be topped with just about anything savory, whether mushrooms or spinach, olives or anchovies, ham, bacon, tomatoes or even a combination of onion and honey. But it is almost as commonly given the sweet treatment, baked with a topping of sugar, pine nuts and anisette, or citrus rind and sugar. The base is nearly always made with a light but rich yeast dough, something like a dense focaccia, but it can take on other forms closer to a pate brisee, with lard adding flakiness. The one hard-and-fast rule is that the quality of the ingredients is key: With such an elemental creation, only the best is good enough.

And after experimenting for a few days, I can say coca might even be better than pizza. The dough for the latter is tricky, and the super-hot baking temperature is tough to get right in a home oven. But a coca is as easy as pie filling: You mix the dough fast, knead it by hand and bake it at roast-chicken setting for perfect results.

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Colman Andrews, whose 1988 “Catalan Cuisine” remains the definitive guide to the food of a distinctive region, says a coca is rarely homemade in Spain. Shops there bake them to sell by the piece from 2- to 3-foot-long ovals. “Making bread, making pizza -- people basically don’t do that,” Andrews says. “They buy that stuff.”

But the foundation could not be easier. “It’s bread dough that you roll out flat rather than rise into a loaf,” Andrews says. He added that toppings are generally very simple; “if you start putting different things on it, I don’t know what makes it a coca.”

Andrews, interestingly, got his recipes for coques (the plural form) from a couple of bakers originally from a town west of Barcelona who were then working at La Scala Presto in Brentwood. He says the name coques comes from the Latin word for coquere, to cook, and observes that they differ from pizza in their shape (elongated oval) and the temperature at which they are served, not hot at all.

I thought a coca would be closer to a tarte flambee, the Alsatian flatbread covered with bacon, onions and creme fraiche, but I was set straight by a food writer and recipe tester who once took a class in coques in Mallorca, Spain, where they are also ubiquitous. She agrees that a coca is a dish all its own but notes that it “must have evolved -- or devolved -- in the same way as pizza -- depends who’s making it.”

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A couple of cookbooks more recent than Andrews’ yielded good guidance on how to make a sweet coca, with lard for a flakier crust.

You can serve a coca for brunch or breakfast, but it is also the ideal accompaniment for drinks and it makes a great snack. I baked one with pesto spread over the dough and another with just tapenade made from black olives, and small squares of either would make good tapas.

The foolproof simplicity of the dough is the biggest selling point; there is no bad coca. You just soften yeast, mix it into flour, olive oil, salt and water to make a soft dough, then knead for about 10 minutes. Let it rise, stretch it out, top it, bake it and you’re done. The dough is best made by hand because a machine will overheat it.

A little anisette

Sliced, caramelized onions are the most basic topping, but they can be combined with roasted or sauteed red peppers or other vegetables. Like the dough, they need top-grade olive oil, preferably Spanish (which really has a distinctive flavor). Green or black olives or anchovies add a little pungency to the topping.

Sliced sausage or bits of ham can also be arranged over the onions.

A soft Spanish sausage called butifarra is traditional, but good kielbasa or Italian sausage works. Andouille is overpowering, though. Most coques do not have cheese.

The sweet version of coca is made with a flaky dough that calls for good lard (or softened butter). The traditional topping is just pine nuts, sugar and a sprinkling of anisette, which Andrews notes is a favorite taste in Catalonia, Spain. But my new coca connection says a mixture of sugar and orange or lemon rind with liquor is also common.

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And that may be the best selling point for coca: Anything that can go savory or sweet can start or end a brunch a whole new way.

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food@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Savory coca

Total time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours (includes rising time)

Servings: 4 to 6

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Note: Adapted from a recipe by Bruce Stutz. The topping can be varied into infinity; try adding black olives or substitute anchovies for the sausage. Botifarrita sausage is available at La Espanola Market in Harbor City; substitute Italian or spicy turkey sausage or kielbasa.

1 envelope yeast

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

7 tablespoons top-quality olive oil, preferably Spanish, divided, plus extra for greasing

4 large onions, very thinly sliced

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into thin strips

1/4 pound cooked sliced sausage, preferably Spanish botifarrita

1. For the dough, sprinkle the yeast over one-fourth cup warm water in a small bowl. Mix with a fork, then let stand 5 minutes, until bubbly.

2. Combine the flour, salt and 3 tablespoons olive oil in a mixing bowl. Add three-fourths cup warm water. Scrape the proofed yeast mixture in. Stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Knead by hand for 10 minutes to make a smooth, pliable dough.

3. Grease a clean bowl with a little olive oil and transfer the dough to it, turning to coat all sides. Cover and let stand in a draft-free spot until the dough is doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the dough rises, make the topping. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a very large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with about a teaspoon of coarse salt and cook, stirring often, until the onions are very soft and starting to caramelize, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to allow the onions to cool enough to handle.

5. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a second skillet over medium-high heat and cook the red pepper strips until they are soft, about 5 minutes.

6. When the dough has risen, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Punch the dough down and stretch it out thinly on the baking sheet into a rectangle with a low edge. Spread the onions evenly over the dough. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange the pepper strips in a crisscross pattern over the onions. Top with sausage.

7. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until cooked through and golden brown on the bottom. Serve warm, not hot, cut into squares.

Each of 6 servings: 443 calories; 10 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 11 mg. cholesterol; 513 mg. sodium.

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Sweet coca

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes to 2 hours, 15 minutes (includes rising time)

Servings: 8 to 10

1 envelope yeast

1 teaspoon plus 1/3 cup sugar, divided

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons top-quality olive oil, preferably Spanish, plus extra for greasing a bowl and the baking sheet

2 tablespoons good-quality butter

1/2 cup pine nuts

4 tablespoons anisette, or to taste

1. Sprinkle the yeast over one-fourth cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Stir to mix, then let stand 5 minutes, until bubbly.

2. Combine the flour, salt, oil, butter and three-fourths cup warm water in a large mixing bowl. Scrape in the yeast mixture and stir with a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Knead by hand until it turns smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. If necessary, add flour -- just enough to keep the dough from sticking.

3. Turn the dough out into an oiled bowl, cover and let stand in a draft-free spot until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large (about 12-by-18-inch) baking sheet.

5. Punch down the dough and knead just a minute or two. Press or stretch the dough out very thinly in a rough rectangle on the prepared baking sheet. Prick it all over with a fork. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar, evenly coating the dough. Sprinkle evenly with the pine nuts, then drizzle with the anisette.

6. Bake the coca until crisp-edged and golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool slightly on a rack before cutting into squares to serve.

Each of 10 servings: 268 calories; 4 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 2 mg. cholesterol; 170 mg. sodium.


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