Call it flatbread, roti (or chapati), Podpłomyk, piadini, manna or crisp bread. It’s really more like a cracker. Make it with rye flour and you get Finn bread or Wassa. Cover it with sautéed onions and bacon before baking and it’s Alsatian Flammkuchen. Add saffron and a pinch of cardamom and it’s a Persian Taftan. Make it with rice flour and you have a Thai version of the tortilla – Khanom bueang. Unleavened or fermented, with a touch of yeast or with baking powder, all over the world breads are the most basic essential of nourishment, and flatbreads are the true fast food of the masses.
This oniony, salty and spicy cracker is enticingly addictive. The pepper keeps people sipping and talking. The complex flavors complement just about any drink – beer, Manhattans and prosecco cocktails.
All year long you can come up with innumerable flavor combinations, drawing inspiration from whatever is fresh in the markets, in your cheese drawer (next I’ll try ricotta salata) or from your spice racks. Consider the shelves of crackers you see at the supermarket or the European style breads at your best bakery: any fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme or tarragon), snowy flakes of sea salt, a dusting of blends like Moroccan spices, vadouvan or curry, flecks of poppy, caraway, fennel or sesame seeds, or roll the dough with freshly grated aged parmigiano. This is a great recipe to use any specialty salts you have – like red Hawaiian or smoked black sea salt.
However you flavor it, flatbread is a perfect foil for soft and semi-soft cheeses, for humus and other creamy spreads, spooned with tapanade, dipped into ajvar, or dressed with a drizzle of great olive oil. Serve as a nosh with summer cocktails or winter pâtés.
Before baking, the dough is a pale spring green, the flecks of green will appear in the finished bread, but overall the finished product is golden and brown.
To crack peppercorns you can use a mallet, a rolling-pin or mortar and pestle. Don’t use a standard pepper grinder; the results will be too fine a powder.
Crispy ramp and cracked pepper flatbread
Serves 4 to 6. Doubles and triples well.
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (can be made with half whole-wheat flour or other grain or bean flour)
1/3 cups chopped ramps (greens and part of whites, approx 2 ramps) or 1 tablespoon fresh chopped herbs or fresh garlic
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt*
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup virgin olive oil
2t (or more) crushed black peppercorns (or specialty salt or other flavors)
Preheat oven to 450°F with a baking sheet on rack in middle. If you have a convection oven, preheat to 440°F, using all three racks.
In a processor combine roughly chopped ramps (or garlic) with flour, baking powder, and salt*. Process to chop ramps. With machine running quickly add water and oil. When dough balls up on the blade stop processor and turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, knead 2 or 3 times until smooth.
*If you plan to sprinkle the surface with sea salt then reduce the salt in the recipe to 1/2t.
Hand method: in a large bowl combine flour, salt and baking powder, stir well. Make a well in the center, then add water and oil, and gradually stir into flour with a wooden spoon until dough forms. Knead dough gently on a work surface 4 or 5 times.
Divide dough into 3 pieces, wrapping two in plastic wrap, set them aside. For a more festive presentation, divide each ball of dough into 6 equal parts, for a total of 18 smaller rounds, suitable as individual servings.
Dust the board lightly with flour and roll out 1 piece. Turn and flip dough a couple of times to prevent sticking. On the final roll, sprinkle with coarsely cracked black pepper (or other herbs), rolling the seasoning into the dough. The large rustic round should be about 10” in diameter (4 inches for the smaller rounds). You can get away with rolling thinner but not thicker.
Place the round on the sheet of parchment paper and carefully slide the paper and dough onto the hot baking sheet. Bake until pale golden and browned on the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Gently lift the hot bread from the tray– it should be firm and almost crisp throughout. If it is still a little soft, turn oven down to 400 and return to the pan to bake for another 2 to 4 minutes.
Transfer flatbread (save the parchment) to a rack to cool, and then make 2 more batches (1 at a time unless you have a convection oven – then you can bake all three pans at once.)
Flatbread can be made 2 days ahead. Cool completely, then store in an airtight container at room temperature. Break into shards to serve with appetizers.