Big, crisp flatbread fragrant with warm spices. A trio of fabulous dips -- fresh fava “hummus” garnished with a dollop of Lebanese yogurt and sprinkled with sumac; a rich, ripe-flavored cherry tomato confit; smoky-tasting baba ghanouj topped with spicy harissa. A whole new world of flavor has just opened up. It’s enough to make you forget bread and olive oil.
Rather than something just to hold you over until the first course, fantastic flatbreads -- brightly seasoned and richly textured -- are raising the bar for restaurant bread. Appearing on menus from downtown to the Westside, these flatbreads are showpieces flavored with intriguing spices and herbs, served hot from the oven with a bubbly crust or crispy edges.
Even better , they often come with an array of dips and sides. Why did we settle for white bean puree for so long?
And best of all, these flatbreads and their snazzy sides are great to make at home, where they mix and match marvelously.
Lucques and A.O.C. chef Suzanne Goin is a big fan of flatbread. “I love it as the bread for scooping up purees and messy salads,” she says. At Lucques, Goin recently served up a fabulous harissa-spiced lamb tartare with a stack of grilled cumin flatbreads. She also likes to use the grilled bread with a meze plate. Her small, round flatbreads are just crisp enough on the outside, then give way to tenderness.
Goin makes her flatbreads with a simple leavened dough that she also uses for grilled pizzas. Seasoned liberally with cumin and coriander, fresh mint and parsley, the breads are cooked on the floor of Lucques’ pizza oven -- though you can do this at home easily in a very hot cast-iron pan.
“I like that rustic look and the different textures that result,” Goin says, also noting that the North African flavors seemed to make a flatbread just “the right vehicle to eat on.”
Flatbreads also are turning up at downtown’s recently opened Tiara Cafe, where chef Fred Eric offers a fabulous “bubble bread” with an array of Middle Eastern-inspired dips. His bread is flatter than Goin’s, with huge, crisped air pockets -- the bubbles that give it its name -- that are the product of intense heat on the thinly rolled dough. The crunchy bread is the perfect medium for the dips that accompany it, such as that fava bean hummus , baba ghanouj with harissa, and cherry tomato confit.
At Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, chef Ben Ford is so taken with flatbreads that he has three of them on his menu. “What I like about flatbreads is the flexibility,” says Ford, noting that he chose them instead of pizza because people have more specific expectations of pizza. “If I’m going to be innovative,” he says, “I don’t want to be in the same sentence as Wolfgang Puck.”
To keep the breads thin, Ford proofs the dough very slowly, then bakes them twice, first for a few minutes plain, then again after topping them. Ford’s flatbreads are thin and crisp, more like a cracker than a pizza -- and nobody’s missing the pepperoni either. They’re topped with duck confit and candied leeks, or four cheeses and fresh tomatoes and oregano -- or his fabulous white shrimp and white bean hummus.
But if you don’t have the time to make a risen dough, use kitchen scissors to cut store-bought lavash triangles, and crisp it in a 350 degree oven. Stack them into an arrangement Frank Gehry would approve of -- and pair them with whatever snazzy dip or sauce you have on hand. You might take a cue from Citron, the restaurant in the Viceroy hotel in Palm Springs. Slice roasted, peeled red and yellow peppers into a thick julienne, marinate them overnight in lemon-infused olive oil, add halved cherry tomatoes, halved kalamata olives and cubes of good feta, then drizzle on a little more lemon oil and minced chives. Serve it with the oven-crisped lavash and some hummus.
Or mix it up, serving other dips. The possibilities are endless.
In the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment, mix three-fourths cup warm water, yeast and sugar, and let the mixture activate for 10 minutes.
Add 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 cup flour and 1 tablespoon salt and mix slowly on low speed. Gradually add remaining flour and mix on low-medium speed for about 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic and smooth.
Turn the dough out into a greased bowl, brush with some olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes. Punch down, divide into 16 portions and roll into rounds. Place them on parchment paper on the counter, brush with a little olive oil and keep covered with plastic wrap.
Put a large thin-bottomed baking sheet or pizza stone in the middle of the oven and heat to 500 degrees. On a floured surface (still using the pizza flour) roll out a round of dough with a rolling pin, very thinly to about 8 inches by 15 inches. Transfer the dough to another baking sheet and gently transfer the dough again to the hot baking sheet or stone in the oven. Brush very lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with cilantro, curry powder and the remaining salt.
Bake the flatbreads until golden and bubbly, about 3 to 4 minutes if using a pizza stone and 4 to 5 minutes if using a baking sheet. Remove and cool on a cookie rack. Repeat to make 16 flatbreads.
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