Category: Breads and pastries

Coca – Spanish Flatbread

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Like many of you around the world, I’ve baked more bread since March than ever before in my life*. Out of the infinite breads to choose from, I’ve felt most drawn to those that require no or minimal kneading. Although I feel the romantic tug of sourdough love stories, the reputation of this ancient bread-making technique has thus far deterred me. Words like high-maintenance and fickle come to mind—two adjectives I’ve had enough of over the past year.

This make-ahead, slow-rise and nearly-no-knead coca is, too me, a perfect bread for these troubled times. The antithesis of high-maintenance and fickle, this recipe produces consistently excellent results with minimum effort, as long as you plan ahead. It is also versatile (another adjective I value more than ever these days) and welcomes improvisation with any toppings you have on hand.

Let’s talk cocas

Also known as tortas, cocas are the Spanish take on flatbread. They come in countless sweet and savory forms throughout Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Murcia. Some cocas are sponge cakes, some are flaky and crisp, and others, like this recipe, are akin to their more famous Mediterranean cousin, the pizza. In fact, according to the Mercado Little Spain website (the José Andrés project), “cocas are the original pizza.” Of course José Andrés would say that.

Although it’s impossible to know which really came first, the history of the coca and pizza are undoubtedly intertwined in the ancient Mediterranean past.

Cocas, like pizzas, are an ingenious combination of basic ingredients abundant in the region: wheat flour, olive oil, salt and seasonal produce. Although there are traditional cocas (like the coca de trempó, coca de recapte and coca de San Juan), there is no single authentic recipe, and certainly no international regulations like those of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The coca is unpretentious, whatever you want it to be.

While I see this humility as a strength (there is no holy grail like the New York or Neapolitan pizza hanging overhead as you make a coca), José Capel, the food critic for the Spanish daily El País, laments that this “jewel” of Spanish cuisine has been eclipsed by the pizza. He lauds efforts like those of chef Pep Romany in Alicante to honor the coca by making it a star in local haute cuisine.

“Will Spanish cocarías (coca shops) take off in the future?” Capel asks in this 2017 article, “or will we continue to speak only of pizzas and never of cocas?”

While I can’t imagine Spanish cocarías supplanting New York pizzerias any time soon, I’m all for championing the coca movement from my home kitchen.

I invite you to join me.

*According to NPD BookScan, bread cookbook sales in the US alone grew by 145% in the first three quarters of 2020*.

Coca—Spanish Flatbread

I discovered this coca recipe in El Comidista, the always entertaining and inspiring food section of the Spanish daily newspaper El País. Spanish cooks use a variety of leaveners to make their cocas rise, ranging from sourdough to beer. This recipe uses a small amount of yeast and a long rising time (at least overnight) in the refrigerator, resulting in excellent flavor and texture. It is based on Spanish bread guru Ibán Yarza’s genius Unidad Basica de Masa (Basic Dough Unit), a simple, versatile dough. The opposite of high-maintenance.
As for the toppings, the sky’s the limit. I’ve provided some ideas below, but feel free to improvise with what’s in your fridge.
Excellent warm or at room temperature, cocas are a good make-ahead option for a picnic or tapas spread.

Ingredients

Makes 2 cocas

    For the dough

    • Scant 1 cup (240 ml) water
    • cups (350 g) all-purpose or bread flour, or 2 cups (250 g) all-purpose or bread flour + 1 scant cup (100 g) spelt or whole wheat flour (I love the spelt version.)
    • tsp (7 g) salt
    • 3 g fresh yeast or ⅓ tsp (1 g) instant yeast

    Topping ideas

    • Escalivada (my favorite), with or without anchovies (see Notes)
    • Roasted red peppers, with or without sardines
    • Caramelized onions, with or without pine nuts
    • Sobrasada
    • Thinly sliced veggies like zucchini, onions and tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt
    • Tapenade and goat cheese
    • Anything else that strikes your fancy
    • Extra-virgin olive oil, sugar and pine nuts

    Instructions

    A day ahead

    • Place the water in a large bowl or dough tub, add the yeast and swish to dissolve. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until just blended. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.
    • Without removing the dough from the bowl, flatten it into a rough rectangle with your fingertips. The dough will be very shaggy and sticky (as you can see in the first photo in the original recipe). Fold the dough in three, business letter-style, then flatten and fold it in three once more.
    • Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes, then flatten and fold in three twice more as above.
    • Cover well and refrigerate overnight (or up to 2 days).

    The next day

    • Scrape the dough onto a well-floured surface and divide it into two equal pieces. With your fingertips or a rolling pin, flatten each piece to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. You can make any shape you like—circles, ovals and rectangles are all common coca shapes. To fit two on the same baking sheet, I like making long, narrow ovals, measuring roughly 13 x 5 inches each. If the dough shrinks back easily, let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes and try again.
    • Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for 1–1½ hours, until puffy.
    • Preheat the oven to 475°F (250°C). Brush the entire surface with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil and cover with your topping(s) of choice. Less is more here—if the toppings are too dense, the crust underneath will remain soggy.
    • If you are making a sweet coca, use your fingertips to make dimples in the dough, then sprinkle it with sugar.
    • Bake for 10–15 minutes, until the coca is golden.
    • Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

    Notes

    Click here for an escalivada recipe I published on this blog a while back. I like to add the anchovies after baking so that the flavor melts into the coca, but the anchovies do not disintegrate.
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    Sustenance – Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

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    This cake has become a lifeline for me in the long stretches of time between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner in Spain. With 50% whole-wheat flour and no refined sugar, it is a slightly healthier take on the classic Spanish bizcocho, or teacake, made with olive oil, yogurt, orange juice and orange zest. The cake is luxuriously moist and packed with bright citrus flavor. With a cup of coffee and a square or two of dark chocolate, it has gotten me through many mornings and afternoons.

    On the surface, I have adapted to the late lunch and dinner times in Spain. Unless we want to eat alone, we must adapt to the local rhythm, wherever we are. But I realize that I still see the Spanish mealtime hours with foreign eyes, particularly now that I have a child. Trying to feed my fussy two year old his “early” dinner at 8 pm, for instance, I daydreamed about my friends in the States who had their children in bed by this time, cutting the witching hour short.

    Now that my son is four—and more Spaniard than American—the hours have gotten easier. He no longer melts down during our (early) 8:30 pm weeknight dinners. In his perspective, this is dinnertime on school nights—any earlier would mean less playground time. And 2 pm, when he gets out of school, is, for him, a normal time for lunch. In his second year of the infantil cycle—for children aged three to six—his school day starts at 9 am and ends at 2 pm, without a lunch break! (My need to add an exclamation point here betrays my lingering outsider perspective…)

    With such late meal times, snacks are vital, especially for children. The mid-morning almuerzo and the mid-afternoon merienda have to be substantial enough to sustain energy and keep melt downs (my son’s and my own) at bay.

    Rather than a lunch, I pack a snack for my son in his school bag, following guidelines from his teacher (see the chart below) that encourage variety and discourage too many convenience foods. (As in many industrialized countries, childhood obesity is on the rise in Spain, which is a whole other topic.) So it’s a sandwich on Monday, cookies or homemade bizcocho (quick bread or teacake) on Tuesdays, fruit on Wednesdays, cereals and grains on Thursdays and dairy on Fridays.

    This orange olive oil cake, which I pack along with nuts and dried fruit, has become one of my staples for my son’s Tuesday snack. It has also become one of my own snack-time staples.

    With an olive oil cake on the counter, the Spanish mealtime hours do not feel so foreign. I am at home.

    Orange Olive Oil Cake with Whole Wheat Flour

    I make this cake in my Thermomix, the do-it-all kitchen appliance from German engineers, although you could, of course, also use a stand mixer, another type of food processor or mix the batter by hand. The recipe is adapted from a Spanish Thermomix recipe and calls for grinding the sugar into superfine crystals, which in theory makes the cake more tender. I haven’t yet tried making the cake without the grinding step, so can't vouch for the results.I love the crisp edges the day the cake is made, but think the flavor is even better after a day, covered, on the counter.

    Ingredients

    • loosely packed cups 180 g unrefined brown sugar
    • Zest of 1 orange
    • 3 eggs
    • ½ cup (120 g) plain or Greek-style yogurt
    • Scant ½ cup (100 g) mild-flavored extra-virgin olive oil (see Notes)
    • ¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice from about ½ orange
    • teaspoons baking powder (see Notes)
    • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
    • ¾ cup (100 g) all-purpose flour
    • ¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
    • 1 pinch salt
    • Confectioners’ sugar optional

    Instructions

    • Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter and flour a 9-inch round cake or springform pan.
    • Grind the brown sugar into very fine crystals in a food processor. Add the orange zest and pulse several times to grind the zest and evenly distribute it throughout the sugar.
    • Add the eggs to the sugar and mix on low speed until pale and frothy.
    • Add the olive oil, yogurt and orange juice and mix until blended.
    • Sift in the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix on low speed until just blended.
    • Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
    • Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove it to a cooling rack. Serve once the cake is completely cool. If you like, you can dust it with confectioners’ sugar for decoration.
    • This cake keeps beautifully on the counter, covered, for several days.

    Notes

    Be sure to choose an olive oil whose flavor you enjoy, because you will taste it in the cake. If you cannot find a mild extra virgin olive oil, try “light” olive oil US, which has been refined and is not as pungent.