A Work in Process
Behold my latest obsession. I have no idea what to call it. If I knew its name, then I'd have at least a hope of finding a recipe for it. Last weekend, at the very beginning of a wonderful dinner in Pazo, a Baltimore tapas restaurant (I did not write in detail about the dinner because it would have exposed my monstrous hypocrisy. In these very pages not long ago, I whinged about spending $100 for three of us to eat at the local Belgian bistro on their prix fixe night. When we ate at Pazo, there were also three diners, and we spent nearly $150, and I didn't mind at all. I could claim that this discrepancy of reaction was due to Pazo's vastly superior interior, and there would perhaps be some validity to that claim. When you're sitting on an upper level interior balcony and you can look down on a busy dining room and a very busy kitchen and you can see a whole legion of chefs working hard on the fifteen or so tiny dishes you've ordered, then you really feel like you're getting your money's worth. Also, the wine was really good and not very expensive. But the sad fact is that I didn't mind because someone else was picking up the tab. I'm a bad man. But, you know, I'm okay with that.) the server brought to the table a small container of something that seemed to be a cross between crackers and flatbread. It was very dark, slightly sweet, and it was topped with a dense layer of sunflower seeds, which appeared to be held on by a very thin layer of light brown caramel. Absolutely delicious and like nothing else I'd ever had before. The rest of the meal was also swell, but it's the flatbread that has come to haunt me.
I suppose that the sensible thing to do would have been to ask the server what the stuff was called. The server was extremely knowledgeable about the menu, and when I asked her what the deal was with the "rustic bread of purgatory" (that's the English translation) she told us that it was a simple wheat bread but that mothers used to tell their children that for every crumb they wasted, they'd spend a year in purgatory. Serve them right, too. Or at least I presume that it would have. I didn't order the purgatory bread, opting instead for the rosemary fougasse, which was yum, yum, yummy. I'm pretty sure I could find a recipe for that, somewhere. Alas.
Anyway, the sunflower seed-studded flatbread/cracker (hereinafter ss-sf/c) was hard and crisp without being either tough or crumbly. It was about as dark as that cocktail pumpernickel bread that comes in long square loaves, but each piece was only about an eighth of an inch thick.
I've made flatbreads before, with varying degrees of success. You can make an unleavened flatbread by making what's essentially a pasta dough (with some extra ingredients, usually) and baking it. You can even roll it out in a pasta machine (assuming, of course, that your pasta machine hasn't been devoured by the Cellar of Doom, which appears to have eaten much of my cookware, not that I'm bitter, of course). You get a bread with a lot of substance that way. You probably wouldn't want to give up your traditional yeast breads for that sort of flatbread, but you can certainly make something edible, and possibly even good, in that manner. So when I tasted the ss-sf/c, I figured that I'd make a batch of dark flatbread, brush on a little bit of butter or oil mixed with molasses or honey, sprinkle on some sugar, add some sunflower seeds, and put it in the oven. While baking, it would rise very slightly, the sugar would caramelize, the sunflower seeds would brown, and the whole thing would be crunchy and delicious. Surely something that I could get on the first try, right?
Not so much.
I think my first batch started with a cup of whole wheat (King Arthur White Whole Wheat; it's what I had around) flour, two tablespoons of canola oil, a tablespoon of honey, a pinch of salt, and enough water to make a rollable dough. I rolled it into a thin circle (maybe ten inches in diameter), brushed it with some butter, sprinkled on a couple teaspoons of sugar and a few tablespoons of roasted sunflower seeds, and baked it at 375 for twenty minutes or so. The dough didn't rise at all (I don't know why I thought it would; I didn't add anything that would cause it to rise, and I didn't do anything to work any air into it), the flatbread wasn't half dark enough, the sugar didn't caramelize, the sunflower seeds didn't stick. It wasn't awful per se, but a slightly sweet, decidedly tough cracker with sunflower seeds falling off it wasn't what I'd had in mind.
Before my second attempt, I tried to do some research, but I didn't find any comparable recipes. I pulled out Beat This, one of my favorite cookbooks, because I remembered that Ann Hodgman wanted me to make my own giant graham crackers so that I could crumble them up to make a cheesecake crust, and while a graham cracker wasn't what I wanted, I at least got an idea of how much baking powder might produce a more crackery texture. The second trial had butter in place of oil, slightly more honey (I didn't measure this time, but I was generous with the squeeze, I think), and a quarter teaspoon of baking powder. This time, I baked the cracker without any topping on it, then when it came out of the oven, I brushed it with a mixture of melted butter and honey, then sprinkled it with some sugar, and put it under the broiler to caramelize. And it sort of caramelized, but I clearly hadn't used enough sugar, and by the time I got it out of the oven and put the sunflower seeds on, the caramel, such as it was, was no longer sticky.
Before attempt #3 (the results of which you see above), I decided that I needed to start with a darker dough and use a slower (probably 325) oven to get more even browning. I decided to use molasses instead of honey. I also decided to increase the proportion of butter slightly, so I went from 1 cup of flour and 2 T. of butter to 1.5 cups of flour and 4 T. of butter. I didn't actually use molasses, though, because when I went to the store to buy some, there wasn't any on the shelf.
I beg your pardon?
That's right, I'm talking to you, Giant. I live in Olney, Maryland. I realize that this is not exactly a happening place, but it's an affluent suburb. How does anyone in such a place stop carrying molasses? I can get twelve kinds of mustard, but there's no molasses. Giant is now carrying maple syrup in several different grades in multiple sizes, but they don't have a foot of shelf space for molasses? Is this some sort of sick joke?
Anyway, I got some dark corn syrup, a substance for which I have never before had any use, and for which I still don't have any use because it didn't really seem to have all that much more flavor than light corn syrup, which, we all know, is a tool of the devil. The dark corn syrup really didn't make the dough all that dark, so in future, in addition to using molasses, I'm going to use a darker flour.
But back to attempt #3. I was tired of monkeying around with various failed ways to stick my sunflower seeds to the dough, so I decided to bake the dough, cover the baked dough with a thin layer of caramel, and sprinkle the seeds on the caramel. Caramel is nothing if not sticky.
Attempt #3 was a big improvement over its forebears, but it was still nothing like the ss-sf/c that I had at Pazo. I didn't, however, feel moved to throw this particular batch away. Instead, I broke it into pieces and munched on it over the next couple of days, during which its flavor improved somewhat. The problems with attempt #3 (in addition to the dough not being dark enough) indicate that I should substitute another fat for the butter; increase the fat content a bit more; use roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds (the ones I used were raw, and even though they were tossed onto hot caramel and returned to the oven for several minutes, they still tasted raw); make a slightly lighter caramel; and improve my skills in working with caramel. I needed to be significantly faster. I was only moments away from losing the caramel's tackiness, though a substantial majority of the seeds did stick, and my layer of caramel was too thick. The ss-sf/c seemed like it was all of a piece, even though you could make out the caramel. Attempt #3 seemed decidedly layered.
I have not had a lot of experience with caramel in the past, but lack of experience is not the sort of thing that makes me do something sensible like look in a cookbook for a recipe. But while my skills at handling caramel may not be everything they ought, the caramel itself was very good. Here's how I made it
1 T. butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. light corn syrup (oh stop looking at me that way; I don't even believe in the devil)
2 T. heavy cream
Put a six-inch cast iron skillet on a medium to medium-low flame. Add the butter. When the butter has melted, stir in the sugar and the corn syrup, with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring until the butter melts. Continue cooking until it turns the color of caramel. When you begin to see a trails of darker brown caramel in the wake of the spoon, turn off the heat.
Taking care to avoid getting burned, pour in the cream. There will be a great deal of spattering. Stir the caramel and use immediately.
I did not actually measure either the devil syrup or the heavy cream. I think that 1 tablespoon is a fairly accurate representation of the amount of syrup, however. I added the syrup because Alton Brown (or, more accurately, Alton Brown's food chemist) says that having a small amount of a second kind of sugar inhibits crystallization. Or something. I just poured the cream directly from the carton, so the amount there is a guess.
Have I mentioned how much I love my cute little cast iron skillet? It's really perfect for making a small batch of caramel, and I intend to play around with the process some more. There is something that is just kind of kick ass about making caramel without using water. I think that by adding significantly more cream, I can end up with something more like a thick caramel sauce. The caramel I made this weekend hardened admirably. I spread it as thinly as I could across the flatbread, but it was still thicker than I wanted. I think that by more carefully coordinating the various elements of the recipe and by procuring a large offset spatula and keeping it very hot, I can get a thinner layer of caramel and keep it sticky long enough to get my seeds down.
Because I'm not giving up on this ss-sf/c. One way or another, I'm going to get the result I want (by the way, if you have any idea what this stuff is called or any idea how to make it or where to find a recipe, I'd sure appreciate it if you'd pass that information along to me) and then serve it to my amazed guests. They'll ask me where I bought such a treat, and I'll say that I made them myself and that it was really no big deal.