Eric Akis: Bread sticks, with an Italian twist

Eric Akis

A reader asked for a recipe for cheese bread sticks, the six-inch-long, two-inch-wide type with cheese interlaced. In supermarkets with in-store bakeries, those cheese sticks often incorporate bright orange, bland-tasting, grated mild cheddar cheese that is oily when baked.

But I wanted my bread sticks to be more interesting, so I opted to flavour them Italian-style.

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I did that by making yeast dough that had a bit of olive oil and egg in it. I then rolled out the dough and topped half of it with a mixture of asiago and Parmesan cheeses, basil, oregano, garlic powder and red pepper flakes.

The dough was then folded, cut into strips, twisted into stick shapes and baked, creating a bread stick that was golden on the outside and tender in the middle, with a wonderful aroma.

You could serve these Italian-style bread sticks on their own, dipping them in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, or hot marinara sauce. You could also serve them alongside a bowl of soup, such as tomato, minestrone or fagioli, or a pasta dish, such as fettuccini alfredo, lasagna or spaghetti with bolognese sauce.

Italian-style Cheese and Herb Bread Sticks

Two types of Italian cheese, basil, oregano, garlic and pepper flakes are twisted up in these tasty bread sticks.

Preparation: 45 minutes, plus rising time

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Makes: 12 bread sticks

2/3 cup lukewarm water

1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) traditional (active dry) yeast

1 tsp granulated sugar

1 large egg

2 Tbsp extra olive oil (divided), plus some for the bowl

1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 to 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed for rolling and shaping

1 cup grated asiago or mozzarella cheese (about 75 grams)

4 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese (divided)

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/8 to 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

Place water in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle in the yeast and sugar. Let stand five to 10 minutes, until yeast is dissolved.

Mix in the egg and 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour and 1/4 tsp salt to the bowl and knead on medium speed until dough forms and just starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If dough does not pull away, gradually add more flour until it does. (The dough should be fairly soft and a little bit sticky). Knead dough on medium speed five to six minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 75 to 90 minutes.

While the dough rises, combine the 1 cup grated asiago (or mozzarella) cheese, 2 Tbsp of parmesan cheese, oregano, basil, garlic powder and red pepper flakes in a bowl.

When dough has risen, line a large 18-by-13-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface and set dough on it. Press dough into a square shape. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12-inch square.

Brush and lightly coat the top of the dough with the remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil. Sprinkle the grated-cheese mixture on half the dough. Fold the half of the dough that’s not topped with cheese over that half that it is, to cover it. Press down lightly on the top of the dough to help the cheese stay in place.

With a very sharp knife, cut the dough, widthwise, into 12 1-inch strips. Tightly twist one of the strips of dough several times, being careful not to stretch it too much. Set the twisted piece of dough on the baking sheet. Pinch the ends together.

Twist and form the remaining strips of dough in this fashion. Set them on the baking sheet as you go along, and space each one about an inch or so apart. Sprinkle any cheese that fell out while forming the bread sticks over top.

Cover the bread sticks with a tea towel and let rise again at warm room temperature 60 minutes, until about doubled in size.

When the twists have risen, preheat oven to 400 F. Sprinkle each one with a little of the remaining 2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese (see Eric’s options). Bake the twists in the middle of the oven 20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Eric’s options: For a meaty taste, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup or so of finely diced pepperoni or cured chorizo sausage to the cheese/herb mixture you fold and twist into the dough. For an extra cheesy taste, just before baking, you could also each top each bread stick with a bit of grated asiago (or mozzarella) cheese along with the Parmesan cheese.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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