After five decades of cooking professionally, one of the most important secrets I've learned for making people feel a meal is memorable -- whether it is eaten in a restaurant or at home -- is to add special little touches. Garnish a pasta dish with fresh herbs, quickly saute fresh fruit compote to serve over ice cream or alongside cake, or offer flavored butter instead of a plain spread, and your guests will be blown away by your creativity and generosity.
I think every home cook could benefit from that lesson, as the busiest time of year for entertaining quickly approaches. Just a few weeks from now, you may be throwing a Halloween party. No sooner will you clean up from that lively gathering, and Thanksgiving will be just around the corner. The entire month of December seems to bring its own round of parties, from pre-Christmas buffets to big family sit-down dinners to elegant New Year cocktail get-togethers.
So, I've been wondering if there was one simple recipe I could share that you could have on hand to see you all the way from now to the new year. When the answer came to me, it seemed both obvious and ingenious, as all such delightful additions to home entertaining should be: Prepare crispy homemade breadsticks!
Even more than a lovingly baked loaf of bread, breadsticks will win delighted reactions from your guests. They're fun to serve with cocktails, wine or beer. They make memorable additions to a buffet, and are just as welcome passed at the dinner table. And they can seem as casual or fancy as the foods they accompany and the style of your party.
Better still, breadsticks are simple to make. I base mine on the same easy pizza dough I use in my restaurants (though you could substitute store-bought, ready-to-bake dough, too). Since the sticks are so thin, baking takes just minutes, not the hour or more for a large loaf.
Best of all, breadsticks let you be creative with ease, since you can coat them with all sorts of flavorings. In the following version, I brush them with easily made garlic-chili oil before baking and dust them with grated Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. But you could substitute plain olive oil and dustings of your own favorite spices; or roll them in sesame seeds or poppy seeds; or replace the Parmesan with other cheeses, which you could even knead lightly into the dough before you roll out and cut the sticks.
Try them first for Halloween, adding extra garlic to keep away the vampires. After that, I'm sure you'll add them to your holiday repertoire -- and then make them a regular addition to your table year-round!
SPICY GARLIC-CHILI PARMESAN BREADSTICKS
6 ounces (185 g) Wolfgang's Pizza Dough (recipe follows), or store-bought bread dough
1/3 cup (85 mL) garlic-chili oil (recipe follows)
1/4 cup (60 mL) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the pizza dough into a long, thin strip about 4 inches (10 cm) wide, 14 inches (35 cm) long, and less than 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick. Brush the surface of the dough evenly but lightly with some chili-garlic oil. Sprinkle with the Parmesan, thyme and red pepper flakes.
Using a pizza cutter, slice the dough lengthwise into strips 1/4 inch (6 mm) wide. Transfer the strips to the prepared baking sheets, laying them he straight or twisting them into spirals as you like; leave a 1/2-inch (12-mm) space between the breadsticks.
Transfer the baking sheets to the preheated oven and bake until the breadsticks are browned and crispy, 10 to 15 minutes, switching and rotating the positions of the baking sheets partway through the time for more even browning.
Transfer the baking sheets to racks to cool. Serve the breadsticks immediately or store airtight until serving.
WOLFGANG'S PIZZA DOUGH
Makes 4 balls, each about 6 ounces (185 g)
1 package active dry or fresh yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup (250 mL) warm water, 105-115 F (40-46 C)
3 cups (750 mL) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and honey in 1/4 cup (60 mL) of the warm water.
In a food processor, combine the flour and salt. Add the oil, the yeast mixture, and the remaining water and process until the mixture forms a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knead by hand 2 or 3 minutes longer. The dough should be smooth and firm. Cover with a clean, damp towel and let rise in a cool spot for about 2 hours. (When ready, the dough will stretch as it is lightly pulled).
Divide the dough into 4 equal balls. Work each by pulling down the sides and tucking under the bottom. Repeat 4 or 5 times. Then on a smooth, unfloured surface, roll each under the palm of your hand until the top is smooth and firm, about 1 minute. Cover with a damp towel and let rest 1 hour. At this point, the balls can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to two days.
Makes about 2 cups (500 mL)
2 cups (500 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
In a small saucepan, combine the oil and garlic, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the garlic begins to turn brown, 10 to 15 minutes. (Do not let the garlic get too dark, or the oil will taste bitter.)
Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Add the red pepper flakes and infuse for at least 2 hours. Strain into a covered container and refrigerate for up to two weeks.(c) 2017 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.