Catholic Recipe: Grissini al Formaggio
Also Called: Cheese Breadsticks
Most American know grissini from the pale breadsticks in the elongated waxen envelopes that appear on the tables of Italian restaurants, but they bear about as much resemblance to authentic grissini as packaged industrial white bread does to true country loaves. Real grissini are made of yeast, flour, water, and either olive oil, lard, or butter. They are shaped between the hands by gently vibrating and stretching the dough to about the span of the baker's arms, and are then baked directly on the floor of a wood-burning oven. They are as thick and irregular as knobby fingers and look like cordwood when stacked. They have crunch and an earthy taste. Even when made at home with the methods and recipes that follow, they are still redolent of the countryside and the old ways.
Although there is some dispute about who came up with the first grissini, there is not question that they first appeared in Turin sometime in the seventeenth century. Some say that a baker in Turin invented them in 1668 in response to inquiries from the doctor of the young duke Vittorio Amadeo II, who had stomach disturbances, for a bread that would be good for the duke's digestion. The baker stretched out the traditional local bread dough so long that it became a long, thin, crunchy stick that was essentially all crust. Although there is no word of their effect on the patient's health, it is safe to assume that they met with great success, because grissini, were well known all over Italy by the next century when Napoleon discovered "les petits batons de Turin." Napoleon was so enthusiastic about the breadsticks that he instituted a fast postal service expressly for transporting them to court every day. The most popular rival story to that of the young duke credits a Florentine abbot on a diplomatic mission near Turin in 1643 with the discovery of "a thin bread as long as an arm and very, very fine."
Serve grissini with eggs, green salad, prosciutto and smoked beef, and with all imaginable kinds of antipasti. Some Italians eat them for breakfast with milk or coffee, an old, once widespread custom.
By Hand: Stir the yeast and malt into the warm water in large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil. Add the flour and salt and stir until the dough comes together. Knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth, soft, velvety, and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Work cheese into the dough at the very end of the kneading.
By Mixer: Stir the yeast and malt into the water in a mixer bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Mix in the 2 tablespoons oil with the paddle. Add the flour and salt and mix until the dough comes together. Change to the dough hook and knead at low speed about 3 minutes. Work cheese into the dough at the very end of the kneading. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface.
By Processor: Stir the yeast and malt into 1/4 cup warm water in a small bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Place the flour and salt in a standard food processor fitted with the dough blade or a large (over 7 cups capacity) processor fitted with the steel blade and process with several pulses to sift. Mix 1 cup cold water and 2 tablespoons oil. With the machine running, pour the water mixed with oil and the dissolved yeast through the feed tube and process until the dough comes together. Process 45 seconds longer to knead. Work cheese into the dough at the very end of the kneading. Finish kneading by hand on a lightly floured surface.
First Rise. Pat the dough with your hands into a 14 x 4-inch rectangle on a well-floured surface. Lightly brush the top with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Shaping. Sprinkle the dough with semolina flour before cutting and stretching. The baker's method of shaping breadsticks is ingenious, simple, and quick, for he certainly doesn't have time to roll out individual grissini. Cut the dough crosswise into 4 equal sections and then cut each section crosswise again into 5 strips, each about the width of a fat finger. The dough is so elastic that you can simply pick up each piece, hold each end with your fingers, and pull and stretch to fit the width (or length) of a baking sheet. Place the breadsticks several inches apart on lightly oiled baking sheets (unless they are rimless, I find it easier to use the backs of the baking sheets). There is no need to let them rise.
Baking. Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. If you are using a baking stone, turn the oven on 30 minutes before baking. Bake the breadsticks for 12 to 15 minutes. If you like crunchy breadsticks, bake directly on the baking stone, which has been sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina flour, for the last 5 minutes. Cool on racks.Recipe Source: Italian Baker, The by Carol Field, Harper & Row, 1985