A couple of years ago my wife and I were driving to Winnipeg from Kamloops. When we’re on the road, we usually stop in some town around lunch time and buy buns, sandwich supplies, fruit, and a package of cookies or something. Neither one of us likes to take too much time off the road when we’re traveling, and besides, eating restaurant food twice a day is bad enough.
So, there we were, out in the middle of Saskatchewan somewhere, and we rolled into some little burg that had a Safeway store in it. In the bakery section we found some flat buns for sandwiches that were really good. Firm enough to chew but soft to the bite, with cracked grains and cornmeal as well as sunflower seeds. They were about the size of an English muffin, but clearly they were “buns” not “muffins.”
I got to thinking about them while I was driving. They had holes in both sides, and though they were yeast breads they were not puffy. Then I got it — the holes were from a “dough stamp” or similar pricking device. As a baker who looks for weird bread I knew that many of the Middle Eastern and Asian breads are “stamped” just before baking. This allows the bread to rise, but when punctured just before going in the oven it leaves holes for steam to escape, keeping the bread relatively flat.
When we got home I hauled out one of my favourite baking books, “Flatbreads and Flavors” by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid. I found a recipe for stamped bread called “Uighur Nan” — and modified it a bit to make this recipe you’re about to read. You will need a “bread stamp” or simply a fork to prick the bread. I cut a 3-inch circle of scrap oak board and hammered in some finishing nails. I screwed the whole thing to a piece of dowel for a handle. It’s ugly but it works.
You’ll also need a “pizza stone” or some unglazed quarry tiles for the lowest rack in your oven.
Flat Sandwich Buns
2 teaspoons dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
5 cups Robin Hood “Best for Bread” blend, or a mixture of white flour with cracked rye, cracked wheat and whole flaxseed.
1 cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt
Put warm water in a large bowl, stir in yeast to dissolve. Beat in 2 cups of the flour mixture, then add the salt and beat well. Add the cup of cornmeal and mix in, then add more flour mixture to make a stiff dough. When too stiff to stir, turn out onto a board floured with more mixture and knead about 10 minutes.
Wash out and oil the bowl, put the dough back in, and let rise covered until doubled — about an hour-and-a-half.
Put the pizza stone on the lowest rack in the oven (remove the other racks) and preheat the oven to 500F. If your oven tends to run cool, just crank it up all the way as far as it’ll go without turning on the broiler.
If you have a kitchen scale, divide the dough into 12 equal-weight pieces. Roll them into balls with your hands, cover with a towel and let rest for 10 minutes while the oven continues to heat.
I can get four breads on a pizza stone. Working with only as many as you can cook at a time, flatten out the balls on a lightly floured surface until they’re circles about 6 inches across. Using a fork or bread stamp, deeply pierce the bread, flip it over, and do the other side. With a 3-inch bread stamp with about 12 nails in it, I hit each side six or seven times to get a fairly even distribution of holes.
Once you’ve done all the breads you flattened, put them on the hot pizza stone either with a metal spatula, a “peel” or baker’s spatula, or just lean into the oven and lay them on the stone. Close the door and keep an eye on them. They’ll be nicely brown in ten to fifteen minutes. When they’re as brown as you want, use a spatula to lift them out of the oven and onto cooling racks. Repeat the process until you’ve done all the breads.
Once they’re cool put them in a large bag and keep them in the refrigerator. They’re fantastic as breads or as sandwiches just out of the oven. When they’re cold I’ll usually split the bun with a sharp knife and toast it. I also split the bun, brush the outside well with olive oil, put some cheese in the centre, and put it in the panini press to make a grilled sandwich.
I end up making these about every two weeks. A dozen buns is enough for two people for some breakfasts and some lunches. One thing I like about this recipe is that unlike many breads, it only has one rising. My other mainstay bread recipe has three! This recipe is fairly fast to make (even faster if you have something productive to do while it rises), and can be started in an afternoon and finished in time for supper if you’re running behind.