Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

Not pancakes! Rye-sourdough crumpets with homemade bitter orange marmalade and soft salted butter!

It’s been far too long since we’ve offered a Cookbook Club post here at FQF. And since I’m trying to select a “cookbook of the week” from my (extensive) collection to avoid the ever-present malady of dinner fatigue, now seems like a good time to dust off some classics. May I present Flatbreads & Flavors, by the inimitable team of Duguid & Alford? (They’ve split now – but they did produce some stellar cookbooks together. I’d also highly recommend Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.)

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.

Hot off the comal: Hopi blue corn tortillas with fresh tomato salsa.

Obviously, homemade bread plays a key role at Quiet Farm – the vast majority of our meals include it in some form. Our “house bread” is a classic sourdough boule (sliced and frozen for quick toast), but I am constantly looking for new and interesting breads to bake, and I’m always interested in bread technique beyond traditional French boulangerie. I’m also particularly interested in flatbreads, which (as this cookbook clearly indicates) are a world unto themselves. Flatbreads might be thick and fluffy, or thin and crispy. They might require yeast, or levain, or starter, or they might have no leavening at all. They might be made and baked very quickly, designed to be enjoyed as fresh as possible, or they might be dried for long-term storage and sustenance during lean months. They could hold a variety of toppings or just be consumed plain, or as an accompaniment to a spicy, rich meal. I love flatbreads because even though I graduated from a fancy culinary school and spent too many years cooking overly fancy food for overly fancy people, what I really love is peasant cuisine – and flatbreads are the perfect egalitarian nourishment. I love flatbreads because usually, they’re not trying to dress themselves up too much; they’re not trying to put on airs or appear fancier than they really are. They’re simple and delicious, as the best food should be.

Flatbread with caramelized onions, delicata squash and Parmesan.

Since various cereal grains grow almost everywhere in the world, just about every culture has some form of bread, and I love learning about the history behind different breads. Colder climates, like northern Europe, will typically enjoy breads based around rye, barley and oats, since those grains do well without extended summer warmth. Latin and South America focus on corn, though wheat does play a smaller role. And the Middle East and Asia, where wheat thrives (the Fertile Crescent!), possess a wealth of different flatbreads depending on the region and the cuisine. Food is never just food: so much about history and geography and culture can be learned through place-specific agriculture – what grows where? – and by extension, place-specific food. Another interesting thing about flatbreads: they tend to cook quickly, without needing much time in a hot oven – unlike large loaves of bread. Many of the best, then, naturally originate in places where fuel is inherently scarce (think of the mostly treeless landscape of the Middle East). Links like these are what make food culture so fascinating.

I par-bake my pizza crust before adding toppings to ensure it’s cooked all the way through.

One flatbread that has certainly earned its place in culinary history is pizza. Most culinary historians agree upon Naples as the birthplace of modern pizza, somewhere in the seventeenth century, though similar flatbreads had been consumed around the world since the Neolithic Age. Our now-standard pizza, however, couldn’t have included the traditional tomato sauce until after the discovery of the New World, since tomatoes didn’t exist in Europe prior. Nowadays pizza is found everywhere, and while many people do make pizza at home, the results are often underwhelming. The problem, usually, is that standard home ovens can’t reach anywhere near the temperatures required for a crust that’s cooked through without being burned in a reasonable amount of time. (Commercial pizza ovens in restaurants are usually able to reach 1,200 degrees F.)

My solution to this is to crank the oven up to 550 degrees and preheat my baking sheet for about fifteen minutes. (A pizza stone or unglazed quarry tiles work, too.) I spread the thin crust on the screaming-hot pan and par-bake it for about ten or fifteen minutes – because otherwise, in my experience, that bottom crust will never cook through once the sauce and toppings are layered on. We do enjoy the traditional tomato and mozzarella pizza margherita, but I also use pizza dough as a base for just about any vegetable and cheese combination possible; crème fraiche, thinly-sliced winter squash, red onion and Parmesan is another favorite over here. There are a million good ways to make pizza dough at home; because I have so much sourdough discard, I usually opt for this one.

Soft, fluffy, garlicky, herby focaccia makes amazing toasted sammies.

Another favorite flatbread is focaccia; this Italian bread is light, fluffy and rich with olive oil. It’s typically baked in a shallow sheet pan, deeply dimpled on top, and might contain olives, onions or fresh herbs; in Italy, it’s sold in big squares wrapped in wax paper as a street snack. I make focaccia for chickpea smash or toasted sandwiches, cut into generous squares and sliced in half. The sheer quantity of olive oil used in focaccia may be a deterrent to some, but that rich flavor carries throughout the dough, turning a simple hearth bread into something rich and satisfying. I’ve experimented with numerous focaccia recipes over the years, and prefer those made with cooked potatoes, as I love the texture they impart. Flatbreads & Flavors contains a delicious “three-color” focaccia with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, or try this easy no-knead recipe from Bon Appétit. If you’re new to baking bread, focaccia is a great starting point; it’s very forgiving.

Baking naan on the comal.

The Indian sub-continent offers a huge range of different flatbreads, from thin, crispy pappadums to simple, hearty, whole-wheat chapattis; many of these are served with spicy curries and are designed to mop up the thick, flavorful sauces. Naan, leavened flatbread most often cooked in the tandoor, is one we adore and I struggled for years to produce a decent homemade version. Though the naan I make will never compare to the breads we tried in India, purchased warm for a few cents from street vendors cooking over repurposed oil drums, my homemade garlic naan is more than acceptable. We enjoy it with soups and curries, or use it as a wrap with greens and crispy tofu. Naan and pita breads also make great bases for individual pizzas and they freeze beautifully, so if you have a stockpile in your freezer you’re well on your way to an easy meal.

Fresh corn tortillas at a homestay in Belize.

Tortillas, of course, are a ubiquitous flatbread across much of Latin and South America. Tortillas might be made from either corn or wheat; as with other peasant breads, these thin flatbreads would have traditionally been cooked over an open fire or hearth. Like naan, tortillas might be eaten on their own as a simple snack, or used to wrap meat or vegetables or beans for a portable meal, or serve as the eating utensil itself. I’ve eaten tortillas in many different places, some fresh off the fire made by people who have generations of traditional cooking skills etched in their bones, and they’re a far cry from the bland bagged tortillas found in every supermarket. Sadly, tortillas are one flatbread that I’ve struggled to make well at home. It’s a food that’s so utterly basic that it seems easy; the reverse is true, I think, because it takes years and years of practice to master something so inherently simple. I’m still working on my tortillas, but until then, I’m happy to buy freshly made tortillas at any quality tortilleria I might come across. As mentioned previously, breakfast tacos are on regular rotation here, and fresh, warm corn tortillas elevate this simple meal into something magnificent.

With that, I’m off to experiment on an unusual recipe for spelt breakfast bread that originated in the Swiss Alps. Have you been revisiting favorite cookbooks lately? Or have you found something new and intriguing to spark your cooking? Please share in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

  1. Your flat breads look amazing! Have to make the blue corn tortillas, now that I know what my cast iron round is called a comal, thanks. Any tips on making them?

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    • Hi Jim! The blue corn tortillas are pretty simple – soak 1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal with 1 1/2 cups boiling water for about 15 minutes. Add 3/4 to 1 cup all-purpose flour, kneading on the worktop for about 5 minutes, to make a soft, sticky dough. I had to add extra flour to make a dough I could work with, and it was a bit of a mess to roll the tortillas on the counter. I’m still looking for a cast-iron tortilla press at thrift stores and garage sales! Even though the dough was tricky to handle, the tortillas turned out pretty good. I’m going to keep trying to improve them because I do love blue corn. Thanks for reading!

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  2. I’m way behind in reading your blogs! But I did want to leave a comment on this one. I am constantly going back in my cookbooks looking for recipes that I can adjust to be vegan. I will be checking into some of the cookbooks you have mentioned – Thanks! Also, if you ever want to try a flour tortilla that looks like the state of Texas, let me know! I have a hard time making them round!

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    • Hi Kathy! I have at least one million cookbooks and you’re always welcome to borrow any of them! I enjoy picking up cookbooks that I haven’t looked at in a long time to provide inspiration and refresh my cooking. And I love your “Texas-shaped” tortillas! Making good tortillas really is both an art and a skill. Thanks for reading.

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