Sometimes I get annoyed when people say they made the BEST chocolate cake or the BEST short ribs or even the BEST soup. Soup? Seriously people? There are so many small nuances in most recipes (especially soup) that no two people will ever make it the same way twice. Take bread for instance. Even precisely measured flour, exact rising times, and a perfectly calibrated oven will not ensure my Best Italian Flatbread is the BEST for you. Everyone cooks differently and personally, and especially with bread you have to feel the dough in a very personal way (and no I am not trying to dirty here). Yet, all these things considered, I am willing to go out a limb for this bread and say it is the best for me and I hope it will be the best for you.
Let me tell you why.
1.) A few simple ingredients combine in a way that is so much more than the sum of their parts. And when I say 'simple' ingredients, I am really not kidding: flour, salt, italian herbs, and olive oil. And of course, yeast. With the exception of yeast, I am quite certain you already have these ingredients in your pantry. (At least I hope you do.)
2.) The dough is incredibly easy to work with. If you are a bread newbie, this would be a fantastic dough to start your bread adventures. If you routinely make bread at home, you know that sticky dough is your worst enemy. You also know that over-dry dough makes for bread more similar to a rock than a pillow in texture. This dough is neither, and as you knead the dough it turns from an uneven mess like this:
To a smooth, springy dough like this:
Let it rise for awhile and you are ready to shape it into your flatbread.
3.) You don't need any fancy equipment to make this. No bread machine, no mixer with a bread hook... Just your two hands, a floured counter top or board, and an oiled baking sheet.
4.) Lets talk good looks. Because the bread is flat and brushed with olive oil before baking, the entire top bakes to a stunning pale golden brown color. You know what else I love? The small indentations on the top of the bread. They make it look interesting...and are sort of like little bread belly buttons. (Or at least if bread had a belly button, I bet this is what it would look like.)
5.) Now how about the texture? Well, the edges (or crust if we can call it that) are a bit more crispy than the rest of the bread and I really like the extra crunch. But the highlight for me is absolutely the light, airy, and almost spongy crumb of the bread. It is filled with loads of nooks and crannies, and if you are willing to play hide-and-seek you can discover shrouded italian herbs within.
6.) I don't have any photos to depict what are undoubtedly the two best things about this bread: the smell and the taste.
Even as you are kneading the dough, you can already start to feel like you are in the Italian countryside as the herbs come in contact with the yeast. Yet nothing compares to the singular scent of bread baking in the oven: if you could smell comfort, it would smell like bread. It is tough to decide if the smell or the taste is more pleasant, but I would obviously go with the taste. The herbs are not overpowering, but this bread is definitely good enough that it can be enjoyed alone; it would also pair perfectly with homemade hummus (um, I have eaten it this way 4 times?) and it is thick enough that it could be sliced horizontally and used for a sandwich.
I would be remiss if I didn't end this post and tell you reason why this bread is personally the best for me: I started testing this recipe when I was at home for Christmas visiting my family in Ohio, and we all know food is best enjoyed with family. Don't think I am crazy, but I made this bread for them 3 times. The first and second time I made it for them, but the third time I made it for myself as comfort and relaxation following cancelled flights. Each time it was devoured and loved... and overseen by the head Chef of the house: my Dad.
We made the bread while we were putting up the Christmas tree, and the serious Chef got to have some fun.
In the end, my dad and the Christmas tree made us all smile, and so did the bread.
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Best Italian Flatbread
1 cup warm water (90-110 degrees Fahrenheit)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp garlic powder (optional)
1-1 1/2 tsp dried Italian herbs, use your choice of:
-McCormick Perfect Pinch Mediterranean Herb Seasoning
-substitute fresh herbs if you like
1/4 tsp salt
Extra olive oil (for greasing bowl, baking sheet, and brushing top of bread)
Coarse sea salt (for sprinkling on top of bread)
Pour warm water into a bowl and sprinkle the active dry yeast over the top. Stir to mix in the yeast, and then let stand for about 8-10 minutes until yeast is dissolved. Once yeast is dissolved, add 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil to the bowl.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together flour, garlic powder, and italian herbs. Make a well in the center, and pour the wet ingredients (water with yeast and oil) into the well. Use a spoon to stir the wet and dry ingredients together, until everything is just incorporated. (Dough will be lumpy.) Transfer the dough to a floured board or counter top, and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 7-10 minutes. Add extra flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the countertop or your hands. The dough should be soft and pliable, but not sticky; at the same time, avoid adding too much flour so it does not become dry and tough.
Add about 1 tbsp olive oil to the same bowl you had your dough in, and use your hands to brush it around the bottom and sides of the bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, and cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a draft-free area until it is doubled in size. (About 1 hour for rapid-rise active yeast, and about 1 hour and 30 minutes for regular active yeast.)
Add about 1 tbsp olive oil to the center of a baking sheet, and use your hands to spread it out to cover a circular area of about 12 inches. Punch down your dough, then transfer it to a floured surface; use your hands and fingers to spread and shape the dough into a 10-11 inch round, and transfer this to the oiled baking sheet. Cover again with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until it is doubled again, about another 30-40 minutes. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Press your fingertips into the top of the dough, then brush dough with about 1 tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with a few pinches of sea salt. Bake bread in a preheated oven for about 27-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. In an airtight container, bread will keep for about 3-4 days, though it is best enjoyed right after baking.