Trial By Fire: Pizza-Oven Breadsticks

Every few feet or so I catch a whiff — it’s a campfire-esque smokiness that lingers about my head like the cloud of dirt surrounding Charlie Brown’s friend, Pig-Pen. Though I’ve washed my hair multiple times, it persists, but I guess that’s the price I pay for baking at a wood-burning pizza oven for hours on end. I spent the weekend teaching hands-on bread classes — on breadsticks and pretzels to be precise — at Eat Real Los Angeles and I logged in my fair share of oven hours.

Eat Real is a Northern California artisanal celebration that’s been going on a few years in Oakland and a Southern California offshoot launched this weekend. It was held at the historic Helms Bakery, but, ironically, it’s no longer a functioning bakery so we hauled in Olio Pizzeria‘s mobile pizza oven for the classes. While I’ve had many summers of experience cooking over a campfire, I can count on one hand the times I’ve baked out of a wood-fired oven. But the basic principle is the same: heat it super hot, bake stuff that requires high temperature (like pizza) then let it cool off and then add things that match the relative temperature (for example as breads and crackers around 450°F and finally cookies when the oven opening’s around 350°F or so).

It sounds straightforward but can get challenging quickly. Especially when you’ve got excited students who are eager to see the fruits of their labor — in this case, that’d be a few hundred breadsticks waiting for the moment in the oven. So, I rolled up my sleeves, got out some wood and stoked and tended the fire like it was my baby. I got it roaring in about 30 minutes and that was about the time I started channeling my inner Italian pizzaiolo. (I told myself that since I’m half Italian I had at least half the amount of skills needed to make it happen.)

Sure a few bits of parchment went aflame and the flames licked some breadsticks a bit more generously than others, but 4 hours and an armful of logs later, I felt I had won. Then I looked down at the breadsticks and realized the pizza oven turned them crunchier than the soft Italian-American restaurant-style breadsticks (think Olive Garden, but better) this recipe is supposed to make. But, pizza oven baking aside, this recipe is a go-to for any soft breadstick fanatic. It’s a durable, reliable dough that’s forgiving enough for beginners, but versatile enough for experienced bakers to shape into any form (not only breadsticks, but also as rolls, calzones, pinwheels). So, here it is for you to try. If you’re a fan of the soft breadsticks, don’t skimp on all the butter because that’s the trick to giving them a soft, golden crust.