My husband has taken to giving me baking challenges. I have to admire his timing. Just when the tedium of kitchen work begins to bring me down, he comes up to me and asks me if I think I can replicate this or that dessert from his childhood, or a favorite dinner he ate at university. He doesn’t give me easy assignments. I still haven’t figured out how to make a vegan version of a chocolate and peanut butter fudge a childhood friend’s mom was famous for. But when he suggested that I try my hand at baking the crazy bread from Little Caesar’s Pizza, I felt totally up to the challenge. I love bread, and I know bread. My head was full of ideas, and I eagerly set out to experiment.
Since this challenge was more technical than usual, I’m going to go over what I did in more detail than perhaps the average amateur baker would like to read about. If that’s you, we’ll likely part ways here. You can skip straight down to the recipe, which is actually a simple one, no more demanding than a basic pizza dough.
In fact, my trusty recipe for pizza dough was where I started. The first change I made was to use high-protein bread flour instead of all-purpose flour. Little Caesar’s crazy bread is quite chewy, and it’s gluten (a protein) that gives bread this quality. Surprisingly, crazy bread is also very light and soft, with almost no crust. I had to scratch my head for a while before I thought of a way to turn the sturdy bread flour dough I had into an airy, almost delicate baked bread. I decided to make the dough very wet. From previous baking mistakes I learned that a wet dough bakes into squat but very airy loaves. Since I didn’t have to worry about creating a high loaf, I could afford to make the dough almost uncomfortably wet to encourage many air bubbles to form and expand in it during baking.
Even a wet dough, however, will dry out and become crusty if baked in thin strips in a very hot oven, as I intended to do with my crazy bread. This is when I remembered a trick I read long ago in Gourmet to create feathery, moist biscuits: bake them close together on the baking sheet so that they steam a little (the moisture that evaporates from the biscuits gets trapped in the small spaces between them) and thus don’t dry out. So after I shaped the dough and cut it into strips, I didn’t separate the strips (it would have been hard to do so anyway because the dough was so soft) but baked them as one. Also, as soon as they came out of the oven, I brushed them with garlicky butter to soften the light crust that formed on top.
The exact baking time was tricky to figure out. Once I overbaked the bread, though I must say I loved the toothsome rust-colored crust that formed on top of it. Once I underbaked it, and my husband remarked on its pleasant softness. The key is to bake the dough until you see a mere blush of golden brown forming on its surface. That’s the sweet spot, and you can catch it only if you keep a close eye on the bread in the last five or so minutes of baking. But you know what, it’s not a big deal if you don’t. We polished off both the overbaked and the underbaked batches like they were the most delicious freshly baked bread in the world. And in the moment, they were.
Makes about 16 bread sticks
- 2 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
- 1 tsp. granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
- 2 TBSP. olive oil
- non-stick cooking spray
Buttery Garlic Topping
- 3 TBSP. Earth Balance margarine
- 1 whole clove garlic, slightly crushed
- vegan parmesan topping, optional
In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine the flour and salt.
In a measuring cup, mix together the water, sugar and yeast, and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast bubbles up a bit. Add in the oil.
Pour the water and yeast mixture into the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely hydrated. The dough will be very wet.
Using the hook attachment on the standing mixer, knead the dough for 3-4 minutes. Once again, the dough will be very wet; resist the temptation to add more flour.
Spray a medium bowl with non-stick cooking spray, then coat your hands with the spray as well. Transfer the dough to the oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at least 1 1/2 hours.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or with aluminum foil lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.
Oil your hands a bit to make it easier to work with the dough. At this point the dough will be very airy and soft, of an almost pourable consistency. Press the air gently out of it by running your fingers around the edge of the bowl and folding the dough over itself. Shape the dough into a ball.
Divide the dough in two. Shape each piece into a rough oval, approximately 11 x 8 inches, and a little over 1/4 inch thick. It should look like a thick pizza crust. Place the shaped dough on the cookie sheets, spray it with non-stick cooking spray, and cover it with plastic wrap. Let it rise for 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to bake it, preheat the oven to 400F. Using an oiled pizza wheel, cut each oval of prepared dough into strips about 1 1/2 inches thick. Do NOT separate the strips.
Place the cookie sheets in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the bread has just started to turn golden brown.
While the bread is baking, prepare the buttery garlic topping. In a small saucepan, over low heat, melt the margarine. Add in the crushed garlic clove, and fry it very gently until it turns golden brown. Remove the garlic clove from the pan. (It’s delicious to eat with a little toasted bread.)
As soon as you take the baked bread out of the oven, brush it with the buttery garlic topping. Sprinkle on vegan parmesan, if using. Let the bread sit for 3 minutes or so to cool a bit, then transfer to a cooling rack.
Nutritional Information: Approximately 16 servings. Per serving (without the vegan parmesan topping): 114 calories; 4 g fat; 116 mg sodium; 16.1 g carbs; 0.7 g dietary fiber; 0.3 g sugar; 2.8 g protein.
Posted Thursday, October 6, 2011