The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a guide for how to make twisty, pesto-filled knots of dough, just waiting to be ripped open.
A leavened, enriched dough is the perfect starting point to get creative in the kitchen. Of course, baking the dough straight away without any embellishment would be delicious enough—think brioche!—but it’s also a foundation that can be taken in myriad directions. I’ve folded, braided, cut, twisted, balled, laminated, and now knotted the basic dough, each yielding a completely different result. And the final shape isn’t simply an aesthetic affectation. It also serves to modify the final eating experience. In some cases, like with these savory pesto knots, it is a way to trap a delicious filling between layers of the tender, buttery dough.
Why twist and knot the dough?
When baking, the structure and shape of the treat is almost as important as the ingredients and process. Take, for example, a baguette, with its long and slender shape, compared to something like a boule, which is round and hefty. The smaller diameter of the former results in bread that bakes faster, as the oven’s heat penetrates through the dough in less time, resulting in a thin, crispy crust—the hallmark of a good baguette. Conversely, a round boule takes longer to bake due to its increased diameter and thickness, meaning the crust ends up thicker and heartier.
Similarly, you can compare these knots to something like my Sourdough Savory Rolls With Parmesan & Ricotta, which are two different shapes yielding two different eating experiences. Both recipes have an enriched dough base (that is, dough with added egg, dairy, and/or sugar), but where the rolls have more layers and more filling overall, these knots have less filling, and tend to exhibit more softness and tenderness rather than crispy-crunchiness.
The twisting and tying of these savory knots are not only for the sake of appearance. The areas of each knot that are “hidden” from the heat of the oven—specifically, all the nooks and crannies—remain tender and delicate. The areas that see more direct heat crisp up just enough to give each knot added structure and crunch. The result: a delightful contrast that keeps the palate excited. Though it doesn’t hurt that the knotted shape is appealing in its design—visual appeal does go a long way toward enjoying what you’re eating!
What other fillings can you use with these knots?
Because it’s not yet full-on summer here, my garden isn’t quite up to producing enough basil for me to make from-scratch pesto, but that’s okay. This recipe will work just as well with a premade pesto, especially if it’s high-quality. And while pesto is always a solid choice in my book, this dough—without sugar and decidedly savory—is adaptable for almost any other savory filling that would taste good with a slightly buttery dough. (Which is to say: just about anything!)
Here are a few ideas to get you started making these sourdough knots with a twist:
- Olive oil, chopped garlic, and herbs (parsley, thyme, or cilantro)
- Chopped sun-dried tomatoes (with their oil) and chopped olives
- Grated pecorino and cracked black pepper
- Grated cheddar and minced jalapeños
When swapping out the pesto for another filling, be sure to keep in mind how much you’ll be spreading on the dough. The more filling you add, the more difficult it will be to shape the final knots. However, don’t let this discourage you from being creative here! Even if it’s challenging, as long as you get the piece of dough into a tight mound, it’ll bake up wonderfully.
A battle of washes: Milk and egg versus olive oil
In developing this recipe, I wanted to try various methods for promoting browning of the knot’s crust. Typically, I’ll use an egg wash, a standard way to get that beautiful golden shine you’ll find on rolls and buns. However, since these knots include olive oil in the dough (for flavor and texture) and in the pesto, I wanted to test the effectiveness of brushing olive oil onto the shaped knots just before baking.
As you can see above, the olive oil resulted in a moderately shiny crust, but nowhere near the levels attained when using a milk and egg wash. The proteins and sugars found in the milk and egg promote increased browning through the Maillard reaction, resulting in knots with a deeper golden color and a shinier crust. In the end, either route will work well, but the egg wash wins out. If you do choose to go with an olive oil wash, I’d also recommend lightly dotting the knots with oil after baking to give them a little more shine and suppleness.
What toppings can you finish these knots with?
When they finished baking, I topped the knots with finely chopped pine nuts, echoing the nuts found in a typical basil pesto. Not only do the nuts bring a little more buttery flavor, but they also add extra crunch and visual appeal.
Depending on your filling of choice, consider what other toppings might work well. For example, a fresh grating of cheese would highlight just about any savory filling; a sprinkle of dukkah can brighten each knot with the added spices; an Espelette and black pepper blend can kick it up a notch and bring some heat. Of course, you can never go wrong with a light dusting of coarse sea salt for added texture and flavor, especially if you opted to brush the knots with olive oil after baking.