Mediterranean Flatbreads: A Framework For Flavor

When we think of the culinary signature written across the Mediterranean, it's of lashings of olive oil and cloves of garlic, sunny pinches of saffron and all sorts of seafood. While these undeniably mark the region, we should also be thinking of something else: flatbreads.

I don't mean the dry, flavorless hardtack crackers that can keep for months. I mean delicious, handmade yeasted doughs, pulled thin and grilled up with all sorts of savory toppings. Once you start looking, you find them everywhere. In North Africa, a pita-like dough is pulled out into lahmacun or manaeesh and topped with lamb, cheese or zataar, the piquant spice blend common to the region. The French pissaladiere features a rich base with a savory topping of caramelized onions, olives and anchovies, while the leaner doughs of Italian focaccias and pizza biancas can feature anything from a drizzle of oil and sprinkle of herbs to a smattering of cheeses, vegetables or even fruit. Of all the variations up and down the Mediterranean, though, my favorite is the Spanish coca.

About The Author

Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories on topics ranging from urban agriculture to gefilte fish have appeared on The Splendid Table, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Voice of America, The Environment Report, Salon.com, The Northwest News Network and Culinate.com, and in The Oregonian and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.

Cocas are a specialty of the provinces of Catalonia, and versions can also be found on the Balearic Islands. They take many forms, but the basic template is built on a yeasted dough, usually enriched just a bit with olive oil (or, if we're being traditional, rendered lard from Spain's beloved pigs). Once risen, it's pulled out into long ovals and topped with some of Spain's best vegetables, meats or fishes (or any combination of the three). And, of course, a good healthy lashing of Spanish olive oil.

From that basic framework, cocas can go out in a number of directions. Vegetable toppings include mushrooms, greens, peppers (both fresh and marinated), eggplants, squash, onions or whatever else is in season. Sausage, ham or bacon can represent the animal kingdom; and anchovies, shrimp, salt cod or octopus the sea. In short, pretty much anything goes.

There are also sweet cocas, often with a thicker, brioche-like sweetened dough. Some of them combine fresh or candied fruit with pine nuts, or even sausage for a savory edge. The one notable exception to this pizza-like template is that cocas are usually cheese-free — they're often served at room temperature, from bakeries that have them waiting in the case, which would make the melted-and-cooled cheese somewhat unappetizing. The lucky result is a lighter flatbread, more delicate than a pizza, which lets the toppings shine through.

In Spain, cocas are enjoyed as a quick snack or light meal, grabbed by the slice from the many small bakeries that prepare them. I think they shine best as a part of the tapas tradition: served with your happy-hour glass of wine or as an addition to your next cocktail party. Cocas do this job particularly well. Although there is the usual Mediterranean helping of olive oil, the base of yeasted dough means you can snack without worrying about greasy fingers. The lack of cheese means they don't get too heavy, so you can snack throughout the evening, and the starch and vegetables keep the booze from going to your head. And, as with any good bar snack, the generous sprinkling of salt keeps you reaching for your next sip. Which keeps you reaching for your next coca.

Basic Coca Dough

This dough recipe is adapted from chef Luis Bollo, at New York City's Salinas restaurant. You may substitute additional olive oil for the lard if you prefer. In a pinch, you can use a store-bought pizza dough for the handmade version — just be sure to roll it out nice and thin.

Basic Coca Dough i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Basic Coca Dough
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes enough dough for four 12-by-6-inch oval cocas, or 6 thinner 12-by-6-inch oval crispy (crujiente) cocas

1 cup water

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for oiling the bowl

2 tablespoons lard (or substitute additional olive oil)

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup semolina flour

3 cups all-purpose flour

Place the water, sugar and yeast in the bowl of a mixer and let sit for a few minutes to allow the yeast to soften and bloom.

Add the olive oil, lard and salt. Using a dough hook, mix in the semolina and the flour (if you don't have a mixer, you can do this with a wooden spoon, switching to kneading with your hands when it gets stiff). Knead for several minutes, until the dough comes together into a smooth, supple ball (it will be a somewhat stiff dough).

Coat the dough with a bit of olive oil to keep it from drying out, and place in a covered container and refrigerate overnight (if you're in a rush, you can instead let it rise for an hour or two at room temperature).

Coca With Catalonian Spinach And Anchovies

The combination of greens, pine nuts and currants or raisins is a Catalonian classic. Here the spinach is cooked down with olive oil into a savory-sweet spread, then topped with briny anchovies. If you're not a fan of the fishes, you can omit.

Coca With Catalonian Spinach And Anchovies i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Coca With Catalonian Spinach And Anchovies
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes four 12-by-6-inch cocas

1 recipe Basic Coca Dough

1/3 cup olive oil, plus additional for drizzling

2 large onions, cut in half and thinly sliced into half-moons

Salt to taste

2 bunches spinach, washed and finely chopped

1/4 cup currants or raisins, soaked in warm water to plump

1/4 cup pine nuts

16 anchovies (optional)

Preheat the oven (and pizza stone, if you have one), to 500 degrees, and take the dough out of the refrigerator to warm up.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium flame, and saute the onions, along with a pinch of salt, until lightly golden, 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the onions are cooking, set up a steamer basket over simmering water and steam the spinach until just cooked and wilted. Remove from heat, and press out the excess liquid (feel free to really smush it down to expel all excess water).

When the onions are golden, add the spinach and saute for a few minutes to combine the flavors and cook off any remaining liquid. Turn off the flame and stir in the currants and pine nuts, then add salt to taste. If you're using anchovies, keep in mind that they will contribute additional salt. Allow to cool slightly.

To assemble the coca, divide the dough into quarters and remove one portion of it. Keep the remaining portions covered. Roll out the dough into an oval shape, roughly 12-by-6 inches, and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet or a cornmeal-sprinkled pizza peel (if you're using a pizza stone). Spread a quarter of the filling on top, coming close to the edges of the dough. Top with 4 anchovies, if using, arranged diagonally across the top. Drizzle with additional olive oil and bake, either on the cookie sheet or transferring onto the pizza stone, until the dough is lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and cut into slices to serve. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Sweet Pepper, Bacon And Caramelized Onion Coca

This recipe comes from Brett Emerson at San Francisco's Catalonian-inspired Contigo restaurant. Emerson routinely riffs on Spanish tradition with local California produce, including this coca with an assortment of fresh peppers. Although cocas usually don't have cheese, this version features a few handfuls of young Manchego. You'll have to enjoy it fresh from the oven so that the cheese doesn't cool off, but that shouldn't be a problem.

Sweet Pepper, Bacon And Caramelized Onion Coca i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Sweet Pepper, Bacon And Caramelized Onion Coca
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes four 12-by-6-inch cocas

1 recipe Basic Coca Dough

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 large yellow onions, sliced into thin half-moons

Salt, to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

3 peppers, sliced thin (sweet bell peppers or other heirloom varieties such as gypsy, cubanelle, etc.)

1/2 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (use a young Manchego, aged less than 6 months)

1/4 pound pancetta or bacon, cut into small squares or 1-inch lengths, depending on thickness

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves

Preheat the oven (and pizza stone, if you have one), to 500 degrees, and take the dough out of the refrigerator to warm up.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the sliced onions, along with a hefty pinch of salt. Cook for about 1 hour, or until caramelized, about the color of cornflakes, stirring occasionally. Add the thyme in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Allow to cool, then puree in food processor (this step can be done in advance).

To assemble the coca, divide the dough into quarters, and remove one portion of it (keep the remaining portions covered). Roll out the dough into an oval shape, roughly 12-by-6 inches and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet or a cornmeal-sprinkled pizza peel (if you're using a pizza stone). Spread a thin layer of onion puree on the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch border. Lay on as many pepper slices as you feel is appropriate, and sprinkle cheese cubes on dough evenly. Lay on bacon or pancetta pieces. Bake, either on the cookie sheet or transferring onto the pizza stone, until the dough is browned, about 5 minutes.

Pull coca out of oven and sprinkle on chopped oregano and salt. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Crispy Coca With Honey, Thyme And Sea Salt

This addictive salty-sweet coca comes from chef Luis Bollo at New York City's Salinas restaurant. Bollo fell in love with cocas while in Majorca, and developed this recipe around the island's traditional flavors. He rolls the standard dough extra thin, creating a light coca that's perfect for tapas. His restaurant preparation trick works wonderfully if you're cooking for a crowd: roll out the cocas and partially cook them, then clean up your kitchen and prep the finishing touches. When company comes, toss the par-cooked cocas in the oven to finish, then greet your guests with a deliciously warm treat.

Crispy Coca With Honey, Thyme And Sea Salt i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Crispy Coca With Honey, Thyme And Sea Salt
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes six 12-by-6-inch crispy cocas

1 recipe Basic Coca Dough

6 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces Mahon, or cheese of your choosing, grated

6 tablespoons honey

6 sprigs thyme

Sea salt

Preheat the oven (and pizza stone, if you have one), to 500 degrees, and take the dough out of the refrigerator to warm up.

To assemble the coca, divide the dough into six portions, and remove one portion of it. Keep the remaining portions covered. Roll out the dough into an oval shape, as thin as possible, roughly 12-by-6 inches, and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet or a cornmeal-sprinkled pizza peel (if you're using a pizza stone).

Prick the dough several times with a fork (this prevents it from puffing up with air holes), and bake, either on the cookie sheet or transferring onto the pizza stone, until the dough begins to puff up, about 1 minute. Remove the dough from the oven and repeat with remaining dough balls. This step can be done well in advance.

To finish, turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Drizzle the partially cooked coca with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with 1 ounce of cheese. Place in the oven (on a stone or cookie sheet), and bake until the cheese melts, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven, and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of honey. Sprinkle on the leaves from one sprig of thyme and season generously with sea salt to taste. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

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