Another aspect that characterizes all flatbreads is the convenience they offer the user as an easy-to-eat carrier of, or base for, other ingredients. In that respect, flatbreads, though rooted in antiquity, are hotter than ever with consumers right now.
Indeed, retail-store dollar sales of flatbreads increased 6% in 2012, driven primarily by a 17% increase in sales of naan and a 15% increase in sales of tortillas and other wrap breads, according to West Dundee, Ill.-based Nielsen Perishables Group. Flatbreads’ growth was also fueled by greater distribution; the number of U.S. stores selling flatbreads increased 3% in 2012 alone.
Flatbreads tend to also be easy to make. The simplest formula embraces only flour, water and salt and, in varieties like pita, yeast. The only special equipment required to form the dough for many types of flatbread are the hands. And, some of the oldest-known flatbreads don’t require baking in an oven, and instead rely on other dry heat or cooking fat.
An Artisan at Work
In foodservice operations, housemade flatbreads answer the call for artisanship, allowing operators to charge for that craftsmanship. Flatbreads also offer a cost-effective use of leftover and scrap ingredients. They fit perfectly on shareable menus, bar-food menus and snacking menus. The addition of fresh herbs, premium oils, local vegetables, cured meats, farmstead cheeses and other unique ingredients to the dough of any common flatbread transforms it into a signature offering. What’s more, flatbreads popular elsewhere in the world, but less known in this country, offer U.S. consumers a familiar food that is exotic enough to be interesting without overwhelming.
One such artisan is Leslie Mackie, chef and owner of Macrina Bakery & Café in Seattle, who bakes for her own customers at her three units and distributes wholesale breads and other baked goods to grocery and gourmet shops throughout the region and more than 100 restaurants in the Puget Sound area. Flatbreads are so hot right now that last year Mackie conducted a flatbreads class at South Seattle Community College for local members of the Sonoma, Calif.-based Bread Bakers Guild of America, during which she shared flatbread formulas and techniques from her latest book, More from Macrina: New Favorites from Seattle’s Popular Neighborhood Bakery (Sasquatch Books, 2012).
Named one of the best bread bakeries in America by Bon Appétit magazine, Macrina’s breads menu sports popular varieties like ciabatta, a rye loaf with onion, pane Francese, buttermilk dinner rolls and a vegan whole-grain loaf. But Mackie is particularly excited about her housemade flatbreads, which she says are wowing more and more of her patrons.
Besides focaccia and a focaccia-like olivetta boasting green olives, Mackie bakes cracker-like crostini that she brushes with olive oil and toasts for sale by the bag, in a variety of flavors.
“Crisper and thinner flatbread profiles are the trend,” Mackie says. “If you look at the cracker market, it’s gone out of this world in the last two years. Customers want crisp, savory experiences.”
As proof, Mackie’s carta musica, a crispy Sardinian parchment bread (also known as carte di musica), has hit her market strong, she says. “People are loving it because it’s an instant appetizer with a little cheese or a spread. It has all the essences of deliciousness.” Mackie mixes the dough made with wheat flour and semolina by hand, rolls it through a pasta machine and flavors with olive oil, salt and rosemary. “We opened with Sardinian flatbread in 1993 and have always had it on the menu because we loved it. It sold well, but not phenomenally. We recently put a little truffle salt on it, and now it’s developed a market all its own.”
But the flatbread Mackie believes is the hottest new variety and about to take off like wildfire? Classic Tuscan schiacciata, hallmarked by its artisan-like thumbprint cavities peppered all over the top of the slightly puffy bread, in which olive oil and salt pool. “You can eat it just plain, which is delicious, but we also put a variety of different spreads on it,” Mackie says. She servesschiacciata whole from her bakery and as 2.5-inch rectangles as a side to soups and salads served in the café.
Restaurant operators are capitalizing on sandwiches that feature interesting flatbreads to increase traffic and sales. And to attract customers, more of whom seek dining adventure through a dish that borders on the unknown and unexpected, but is based on the familiarity of something as common and ubiquitous as a sandwich, the word on the sandwich board these days is often “global” or a newer term growing in use: “world casual.”
One global flatbread becoming more mainstream in U.S. markets every day is naan. St. Louis, Mo.-based Panera Bread, leading the still-growing bakery/café segment, in late-2012 introduced four grilled flatbread sandwiches featuring the chain’s own version of traditional Indian naan folded in half. The breakfast sandwich boasted egg, bacon and Gouda. The three chicken-breast wraps all included a napa-cabbage blend and consist of a Southwestern variety topped with barbecue-ranch dressing; a Mediterranean version with crumbled feta, curried-lentil hummus and tzatziki; and a Thai-inspired wrap with cilantro-jalapeño hummus and peanut sauce, all drizzled with Thai chili vinaigrette.
Besides naan, flatbreads from cultures abroad that are breaking ground as innovative sandwich breads in U.S. operations include shao bing, an unleavened bread from China’s Shandong region, best described as a cross between focaccia and pita; Mexican huaracheand South American arepa andpupusa, which can serve as the base for open-face sandwiches; Ethiopianinjera, a yeast-risen, spongy teff-flour flatbread that has served historically as an edible utensil for picking up foods with the fingers; and even the pita in its several authentic regional Middle-Eastern variations like the lafa, which serves as a wrap for sandwiches such as the shawarma, falafel and kofta.
A flatbread with origins closer to home, but still virtually unknown by the vast majority of U.S. diners, is Native American frybread. Portland Penny Diner opened at the Hotel Lucia in downtown Portland, Ore., with chef/owner Vitaly Paley’s vision for sandwiches made with frybread to reflect the region’s heritage cookery. His Bun Me—Paley’s spin on the popular Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches sweeping the nation—features beef belly, chicken-liver mousse, cucumber, pickled slaw, basil, cilantro and fresno peppers within frybread made from leavened dough that Paley stretches before deep-frying.
Pizza: Thin Is “in”
Pizza—arguably Americans’ favorite flatbread—is a highly craveable and shareable food that is typically served in large portions, so it’s no surprise that consumers want a variety of options that are appropriate for individual meals and snacks.
Indeed, according to Chicago-based Technomic, Inc., more than two out of five consumers (46%) would like more pizza establishments to offer pizza by the slice. Further, more than a quarter of consumers (28%) would like to see more portable handheld pizza snacks that they can eat solo or on the go. Because these options are portable, they can help pizza expand further into the lunch and snacking dayparts.
Consumers indicate high interest in artisanal pizza options. Two out of four consumers (40%) would like more pizza establishments to offer hearth-baked pizzas, likely because they enjoy the flavor and texture that result from this preparation method. A third of consumers (32%) would like to see more flatbread pizzas and a quarter (26%) show interest in Neapolitan (traditional Naples-style) pizzas. These preparations help convey a premium, fresh, authentic and sometimes better-for-you positioning, all of which can also position pizza as an artisanal offering.
Although Technomic found in 2011 that hand-tossed and deep-dish crusts are the top two most-appealing types of pizza crust, about a quarter of consumers (23%) said they would order a flatbread pizza, up from 16% of consumers who said the same in 2010. Flatbread is the only pizza-crust variety for which interest increased.
Please visit Cafe Meeting Place: http://www.cafemeetingplace.com/gmc/features/why-focus-on-flatbreads
Heidi Hedeker, CMB, MA/MSW, is an assistant professor and pastry-chef instructor at the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. For more info, visit www.kendall.edu.
Photo:This grilled-pear and prosciutto flatbread with crumbled Gorgonzola, shaved Parmesan and arugula from Chef Scott Miller, general manager of Eurest Services, makes use of canned pears as well as the syrup it’s packed in. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Canned Pear Service