October 6, 2017
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We Like Knots Lots
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Garlic Knots, a 1980s pizzeria throwback, deserve a place in your weekday dinner rotation.

The most-liked post in my entire Instagram feed is a photo of garlic knots. Thanks to lucky late-afternoon light, they are some exceptionally photogenic garlic knots. Or za’atarlic knots to be precise—the melted butter they’re brushed with is full of woodsy, woolly za’atar, the Middle Eastern blend of dried thyme (or oregano, in the La Boite brand I use), sesame seeds, and sumac. Speckled with parsley confetti, they nuzzle against one another, filling out the shape of a Lodge skillet in an ombré brown braid, ready to be pulled apart like monkey bread.

People like knots lots, an affection economical pizza makers have been stoking for decades. One of the earliest mentions of knots in print is from 1988, when Newsday reporter Marie Bianco wrote the article “Irresistible Garlic Knots” chronicling the twists’ history. One of the pizzaiolas she interviewed, Frank Zitoli, riffed on his uncle’s knot recipe and started selling them for 10 cents a piece out of his Plainview, New York, pizzeria in 1978. They became so popular, he told Bianco, “I hire part-time people who do nothing but peel garlic.”

Over the years, garlic knots spread forth from Long Island into other cities with Italian-American populations. Today they’re the appetizers for carb-on-carb dinners at pizzerias all across the country. They’re split and stuffed like sliders at Hold My Knots, the vanguard of the fast-casual garlic knot frontier in New York’s Gansevoort Market, and across the East River, sold with the care of croissants at Roberta’s takeout space next door to the famous Brooklyn pizzeria.

But despite their sustained popularity, garlic knots have an undeniable nostalgia to them. For me, they’re embedded in ’80s-’90s amber like so many Jurassic Park mosquitos, primed for excavation by the arbiters who’ve brought choker necklaces back and Stranger Things into the pop culture phenomena of 2017. Bake a pan at home and watch your dining room ripple-dissolve into a Polaroid of a seventh birthday party at a bowling alley or a suburban pizzeria where the tables are Formica and every pitcher brims with Crystal Pepsi.

And bake them at home you should. The Instagram-gold knots that started this story were born from my wife’s and my attempts to curtail spending what felt like a third of our income on takeout. Last year, we started buying frozen pies and baking them at home for our Friday night pizza date, which worked for a while. I bought frozen pizza dough one night, figuring semi-homemade pizza would be an improvement, but I left the dough out overnight uncovered, and by the next morning it had ballooned in size and formed a dry crackled skin.

Instead of throwing the afflicted dough out, I decided to freestyle a pan of garlic knots. I had just eaten at an Italian restaurant where poufy rolls drenched in olive oil and covered in raw garlic stood in for bread service, and they were lingering around in my consciousness. I cut and twisted the dough, arranged and buttered the knots in my biggest cast-iron pan, covered them to proof at room temperature for an hour, and then popped them in the oven.

I threw together a quick tomato sauce with some anchovies and fresh oregano and served it on the side for dipping. Eureka! Garlic knots are essentially a pull-apart pizza. I’d argue they’re better than pizza. They’re more substantial and more texturally complex, with marshmallow middles and crusty tops and bottoms (see also: stale Peeps). They don’t get cold in five minutes and can still be reheated days later without much sacrifice in flavor or texture. As pizzeria owner Michael Macchia says in the 1988 Newsday article about one of his regular customers, “She leaves them in the refrigerator as snacks for her children after school. A few seconds in the microwave makes them taste freshly baked.” Twenty-nine years later, the advice holds up.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 room-temperature pizza dough, roughly 28 ounces, proofed and oiled
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder, divided
  • 1 tablespoon za’atar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, divided
  • ½ cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped and divided
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Red chile flake, to taste
  • 1 stick of salted butter
  • ¼ cup grated Parmigiano or Pecorino, plus more for serving
  • Sumac, for serving
  • Flaky sea salt, for serving
  • Warm tomato sauce (optional), for serving

You can flavor garlic knots a hundred different ways—I’ve done them with thin slices of sopressata, for example, and even turned them sweet with cinnamon sugar—but za’atar has become my go-to flavoring agent. It works well paired with usual knot herbs like parsley. These knots contain no fresh garlic—to me, garlic powder is what garlic knots should taste like, not roasted or caramelized or raw actual garlic. For the dough, you can make your own, defrost frozen, or buy fresh from a local pizzeria, which is the move I’ve been doing lately and what this recipe is based on. It’s okay if your dough is a little larger or smaller than the weight called for below, and you don’t need to tie knots like a charter boat captain for them to look beautiful when they come out of the oven. One of garlic knots’ best qualities is how adaptable and forgiving they are.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a 12-inch cast-iron skillet with olive oil. Be sure to coat all the way up the sides.
  2. Turn out the pizza dough onto a cutting board. Using a pizza wheel, slice the dough vertically into eight strips of equal width. Cut the four longest strips in half horizontally, creating a total of 12 strips. Roll the strips between your palms into ropes. You want them roughly equal in length and about the thickness of the neck of a beer bottle, but again, this recipe is very forgiving so it doesn’t need to be perfect.
  3. Lay the ropes out on your cutting board and dust with half each of the garlic powder, za’atar, oregano and parsley. Add salt, black pepper and red chile flake to taste. Roll the ropes gently across the cutting board so all the seasoning sticks.
  4. Working one at a time, tie a loose knot in each rope and set it into the prepared skillet. Tuck any floppy ends underneath each knot. Repeat for all 12 knots, arranging so they fill the pan. It’s OK if they’re not clustered tightly together; that will happen as they proof. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set it out of the way in a warm area by the oven. Let the knots rise about an hour.
  5. While the knots are almost finished rising, melt butter in a saucepan or microwave. To the butter, add the remaining garlic powder, za’atar, oregano and parsley and salt, black pepper and red chile flake to taste. Whisk to combine and reserve.
  6. When the knots are proofed, remove the plastic. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the surface of the knots with the garlic-herb butter. Top with half the grated cheese and bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until tops begin to turn golden.
  7. Remove knots from oven. Brush again with butter and bake an additional five to ten minutes until brown.
  8. Remove knots from oven and brush a third time with the remaining butter. Be sure to get it into all the peaks and valleys; you want the entire surface to be shiny. Top with remaining grated cheese, sumac, and flaky sea salt to taste. Serve immediately with warm tomato sauce for dipping.

Adam Erace

Adam Erace is a food and travel writer whose byline has appeared in over 50 publications, inclding Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, Fortune and Eater. When he's not writing or traveling, you'll find him at his gourmet market, Green Aisle Grocery, making bread-and-butter pickles and trying to pet your dog. He lives in South Philly with his wife and two maniacal Chihuahua mixes.

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