I got my reality check when I pulled the first batch from the oven and saw that nearly every bread stick had sprung a leak. Cheese pooled out onto the baking sheet, leaving the bread sticks themselves with cavernous interiors devoid of all but a thin coating of cheese.
I tried again, making extra certain that I had completely sealed the cheese inside the dough. Things were a little better this time, but still too leaky for my liking.I finally realized that it wasn't the dough or my ability to seal it shut, it was the cheese itself. I was using a whole milk, full-fat mozzarella cheese. Fantastic for pizza and nearly every other application, but this cheese melted too quickly and too completely when trapped inside the dough. The bubbling cheese was literally punching holes in the bread in its efforts to escape.
The secret is using part-skim, low-fat mozzarella. This is perhaps one of the only times I will advocate its use over its fully-flavored cousin. Part-skim cheese has a lower moisture content and seems to hold its shape better when baked. It even has a more enjoyably chewy texture when you bite into a bread stick. It also helps to start the bread sticks at high heat and immediately turn down the oven to a lower temperature.
I've decided, however, that a few cheese leaks are inevitable. Just one of those imperfections of baking that's best to embrace rather than fight. But this is actually fine with me because those little puddles of melted, crispy-edged mozzarella become the cook's special treat.
One last note before we dive into the recipe. I tried both plain white pizza dough and dough that had been kneaded with herbs (those are the darker bread sticks you see in the top picture). Both kinds were gone before the evening was over, but I personally liked the plain bread sticks better. Call me traditional, but I just like the simple flavor of the bread and cheese with its light dusting of garlic powder and herbs.
Makes about 16 breadsticks
16 oz part-skim mozzarella - Do not substitute whole milk cheese
2 pounds pizza dough - or the equivalent dough needed for two pizzas, store bought or homemade
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Tomato sauce for dipping
Heat the oven to 425°F. Line two baking sheets with a Silpat or parchment.
Slice the mozzarella into skinny logs (roughly 1/4-inch width). Dust the work surface with flour and turn the dough out on top. Slice the ball in half so you're working with one pound of dough at a time. Set the other half aside.
Roll the dough into a rectangle roughly 8" tall by 16" wide and 1/4" thick. If the dough starts to shrink back, let it rest for 10 minutes and then try rolling again.
Slice the dough into strips 2" wide by 8" tall. Lay a line of mozzarella down the middle of each strip. Fold the strip over on the cheese and pinch it tightly to seal the cheese inside. Gently roll it a few times against the work surface to even it out. Repeat with remaining strips.
Transfer the bread sticks to the baking sheet and let them rise for a half hour. While the first batch is rising, prepare the second batch with the remaining pound of pizza dough.
When ready to bake, brush the bread sticks with olive oil and sprinkle them generously with garlic powder, oregano, salt, and lastly, parmesan cheese. Place the risen bread sticks into the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 350°. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Repeat with the second sheet of bread sticks.
Let the bread sticks cool for five minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a serving dish. Serve warm with tomato sauce for dipping. Bread sticks are best eaten right away, but leftovers can be kept refrigerated for three days and re-warmed for 30 seconds in a microwave.
(Image: Emma Christensen)