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How to make perfect flatbreads

The last few times I attempted flatbreads, they baked up anything but flat. Perhaps it was the way I shaped them. Or maybe it was the amount of yeast I used. Or the length of time I let the dough rise before baking it. But as soon as I put them in the oven they inflated like little basketballs, not the most convenient shape for wrapping sandwich ingredients or for dipping in hummus.

Another issue -- they tended to be a little crustier than I would have liked. When I bake a baguette or a boule, I like a crisp exterior. But with flatbreads I want a softer, more yielding result, which I wasn't getting by placing my breads on a preheated pizza stone or an oiled baking sheet and putting them in the oven.

Humans baked flatbreads on hot rocks, in embers and in primitive wood-fired ovens 5,000 years ago, but it wasn't authenticity I was after. I just wanted bread that was flat and soft. I took one look at my panini press and a lightbulb went on. If I placed my dough on top of the press' grids and then closed the cover, there's no way they could puff up. Enclosed within the press where all of their moisture couldn't escape, they would become bubbly and brown but wouldn't develop a hard crust.

For the flattest flatbreads, I used a minimal amount of yeast, one teaspoon as opposed to the 2 ¼ called for in many recipes. I didn't want to give this small amount of yeast a lot of time to proliferate, so I let my bread dough stand for a mere hour, so it just started showing signs of activity but did not double in volume. Rather than shaping them into tight rounds as I do when making pita breads, I simply used a bench scraper (a sharp chef's knife will also work) to cut the dough into six equal pieces. This casual shaping prevented me from introducing large air bubbles into the centers of the dough pieces. After a brief rest, the dough was easy to pull into rustic oblong shapes, two of which fit easily into the panini press at once.

My press has nonstick grids, but even so I brushed my breads with olive oil before grilling. This gave their exteriors extra flavor as well as tenderness.

Don't have a panini press? You can get a similar result by using a cast-iron grill pan set over medium-high heat. Place your breads in the preheated pan and stand by with a spatula. If they begin to puff up voluminously, gently press with the spatula to deflate the large air bubbles (small bubbles are desirable). Flip after a minute or two, when the bottoms are golden, and cook a minute or two longer until both sides are bubbly and browned in spots.


Garlic and Yogurt Flatbreads

Chopped garlic added directly to the dough gives these flatbreads an assertive but not overly strong flavor and aroma, since it mellows during baking. If you'd like, you can skip the garlic, and/or add ½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley to the dough.

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water

1 teaspoon instant yeast

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon plain Greek yogurt

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for oiling grill grids

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

Flaky sea salt for sprinkling

1. Combine water and yeast in the work bowl of a food processor and process to dissolve yeast. Add the yogurt, garlic, sugar, 2 tablespoons oil, flour and salt and process until a smooth ball forms, about 1 minute. Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand until slightly puffed (it won't rise much), about 1 hour.

2. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured countertop and divide into 6 equal pieces. Drape with plastic, and let stand 15 minutes.

3. Preheat a panini press. Flatten, stretch and pull the dough into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Brush panini press grids with olive oil. Grill breads, 2 at a time, until bubbly and lightly marked by grids but still soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Wrap in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm. Makes 6 flatbreads.


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