Coca – Spanish flatbread

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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