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.
Soft Breadstick Recipe
I use it here as breadstick dough, but this is the same dough I use to make pizza and calzones. If you have the time, definitely opt for the longer rise time because you’ll end up with bread that has a more complex flavor and a tender texture.
For the dough:
1 1/3 cups whole milk or water (heated to 105°F to 115°F)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 packet (1/4-ounce) active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for coating the bowl*
For the topping:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
A pinch of your favorite ground spice such as garlic powder, dried oregano, paprika, etc.
Combine the water and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top; let rest until the mixture bubbles, about 5 minutes. (If the mixture does not bubble, either the liquid was not at the correct temperature or the yeast is expired and you need some fresh yeast.) Meanwhile, whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl to break up any lumps. When the yeast is ready, add the flour mixture and olive oil and mix, using a dough hook, on the lowest speed until the dough looks shredded, 1 to 2 minutes.
Increase the speed to medium and continue to mix until the dough is smooth and very elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. (To test if the dough is ready, do the windowpane test: grab a piece of dough between your thumb and forefingers and open finger to pull dough into a 2-inch square (ie windowpane). If the dough stretches, without breaking, you’re good to go. Otherwise, keep mixing.)
Turn the dough out of the mixer, form it into a ball, and put into a large, buttered mixing bowl. Turn to coat the dough in the butter then cover with a clean, damp dishtowel, and let rest in a warm place until it doubles in size and does not spring back when poked, about 30 to 45 minutes. (If you have time, refrigerate the dough and let rise 12 to 36 hours. Bring to room temperature for at least 15 minutes before using.)
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured or greased work surface and roll into a log. Using a sharp knife or bench scraper, cut into 16 even pieces. Shape each piece into a 6-inch-long rope and arrange at least 1 1/2 inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let them rest, covered, for 10 minutes to 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 400°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Meanwhile, make the topping: Brush the breadsticks with half of the butter. Bake until golden on top, light golden on the bottom, and 190°F on a thermometer, 12 to 15 minutes. Brush the warm breadsticks with the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with the spices and salt. Eat immediately.
*I use this same dough recipe for pizza except that I swap olive oil for the butter.