Often when a recipe I'm developing takes inspiration from an original idea—in this case garlic knots—I arrive at something that is different, though perhaps not better than the original. I can safely say that in this case, the pull-apart cheesy pepperoni garlic knots you'll be lifting from your cast iron skillet are miles better than any pizzeria garlic knot you've ever had. If I were to ever open up my own pizzeria or perhaps mega-chain of corporate Italian American-themed restaurants, you can bet your ass that this'll be the first dish on the menu, and the first dish ordered by everyone who sits down. When you serve this dish at a game night, dinner party, or potluck and your friends and family reach in and tear apart the buttery, garlic-packed knots, you will thenceforth be known only as "that person who makes the awesome pepperoni bread."
So be careful.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would take trips to Japan pretty frequently. The first thing we did after she got back (after saying the requisite hellos) was to root through her bag for the tiny gifts she always brought us. Little salty and sour pickled plum candies. Sugar-coated apricots (we called them daiji, which roughly translates to my preciousssssss). Carved wooden toys. And of course, gadgets. The Japan of the 80's was worlds ahead of us in cool pencil-holder and fasterners-that-aren't-staples technology. My stationery drawer was stuffed to the brim with all manner of clips, pens, cards-that-turn-into-scissors and the like.
And like any kid with a new toy, each time I got one, I couldn't think of enough ways to use it. Hey mom, you got anything that needs fastening? I can fasten pages of paper together if you'd like. Why use that old fashioned drawstring when I can tool the top of your garbage bag closed? Or perhaps you'd like this sock permanently attached to the house plant by the window?
Remember the old Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin's mom catches him hammering nails into the coffee table and screams at him, while he sits there confused as to why one wouldn't hammer things when they've got a hammer? I get it. That's exactly how I feel when I've got a new toy in my hands.
And that's largely the impetus behind this recipe. I'd just pulled my favorite 10-inch vintage cast iron skillet out of the box it'd been hiding in for the summer when my will said to my brain: "You know what, Kenji, you've been unpacking boxes for long enough. Let's play."
My brain gave in right away.
This recipe is a result of that, and it was damned delicious too.
I've adored garlic knots ever since the first time I saw them, standing tip-toed up against the counter at the old Pizza Town II on Broadway. How could you not like knotted bites of tender, chewy, golden-brown pizza dough tossed in butter, flecks of garlic and herbs clinging to the nooks and crannies? Now imagine those same garlic knots, but with flecks of crisp, spicy pepperoni worked in, along with the kind of golden brown, crusty bottom that only a cast iron skillet can impart. And let's throw in the wafting steam and moist, tender center that pull-apart breads come with, and oh, how about two different cheeses? Sound good to you?
Great, because that's what we've got, and it's damned easy to make. Here's how it's done.
Step 1: Cut the Pepperoni
Generally, I'd recommend a good natural casing pepperoni like the Vermont Smoke and Cure brand that won our stick pepperoni taste test. But in this case, you want super-thin slices so that they adhere to the garlic knots. Pre-sliced pepperoni is the way to go (check out our taste test here for some tips on shopping).
Start by stacking a bunch of slices and cutting them into thin strips.
Rotate the strips, then cut across them to create tiny squares.
That's what you're looking for. I use about 4 ounces total.
Step 2: Garlic and Herbs:
These are garlic knots right? So get some garlic up in there! I use a half dozen cloves for a pound of dough. I also add a handful of parsley and some chopped chives to the mix. For the garlic, you can use whatever method you'd like to mince it—even a garlic press is totally fine, despite what Bourdain may tell you. I personally use a Microplane grater.
Step 3: Butter and Olive Oil
Now is not the time for moderation. I use a full two tablespoons each of butter and olive oil to make the flavor base for our buttery coating. I figure if you're going to be eating something called a "cheesy pepperoni garlic knot," you've put your diet aside for the day anyhow. We're going for maximum flavor here.
Step 4: Sauté the Pepperoni and Garlic
Cook the pepperoni bits in the oil/butter mixture until they add their own fat to the mix and start to get crisp, then add the garlic, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and herbs, and cook just until tender and fragrant. The garlic is going to cook a bit more on baking, so you want to retain a bit of strong garlicky bite at this stage.
Once cooked, transfer the mixture to a big bowl and add a handful of grated Parmesan cheese. We're going to add cheese in several stages to maximize flavor.
And by the way, do NOT wipe out that skillet. You want the leftovers of that flavorful fat in there to soak into your bread as it bakes.
Step 5: Pull out the Dough
A basic, lightly enriched, New York-style pizza dough is what garlic knots are made of, and it's what we're using here. I tested the recipe with both my own New York-style Pizza Dough, as well as a couple balls of store-bought pizza dough. While store-bought dough is generally under-seasoned and a little bland, in this case, the other flavorings are so damn strong that it really doesn't matter.
Store-bought dough will do you just fine, so go ahead and buy it.
Step 6: Cut Into Strips
Gently roll a half pound of dough out into an oblong shape using your hands or a rolling pin, then cut it into 12 even strips, about 3/4-ounce each. Repeat that with another half pound of dough for 24 strips total. Don't worry too much if they aren't all exactly the same size, it'll just make the finished bread more fun to eat (and will let you fight over who gets the big poofy ones).
Step 7: Knot'em Up
What makes pull-apart garlic knots so much better than a more standard monkey bread? Well, the fact that they're KNOTS and knots have built-in pockets and crevices for butter and flavorings to soak into. Tie each strip into a loose knot.
Step 8: Toss in the Butter
Dump the knots into the bowl with the butter and pepperoni, then toss them with your hands until that stuff has been worked into every single surface. You do want to be a little bit gentle so that the knots don't come undone or stick together, but a steady rolling motion should do the trick.
Step 9: Pack 'em In
Pack the garlic knots into the cast iron skillet. They should just fit in a single layer. If you simply don't have cast iron, you can also pack them into a regular 10-inch cake pan or springform pan (though I'd advise you to get yourself some cast iron!).
Step 10: More Oil? Why Not?
Give the garlic knots an extra drizzle of olive oil for good measure here. Like I said, if we're going in, we're going in full throttle.
Step 11: Let it Rest
Unlike many other monkey bread recipes that use canned biscuits or quick breads leavened with baking powder, ours is a yeast bread, which means that it ends up with a springier, chewier, and, OK, better crumb, but it also takes more time. For the best texture, let the knots rise.
Cover them tightly, then let them rest at room temperature until doubled in size. It should take around four hours. Alternatively, if you want to prep these guys the day before, you can throw the whole thing in the fridge and let them rise in the cold. You'll be rewarded for your patience with even better flavor built into the bread by the cold ferment.
When ready to bake, the dough should be puffed up to the point where the knots are squeezing tightly against one another.
Step 12: More Cheese and Bake
Add some more cheese to the top of the skillet—this time Romano—so that you end up with a crispy, brown, cheese crust on top once it comes out of the oven.
Bake the whole thing in a 425°F oven until golden brown and crisp all over, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Step 13: Yet More Oil? Why, Yes.
Ok, this is the last time. I promise. Brush the poofy browned tops of those knots with one more layer of olive oil for that fresh-from-the-pizzeria sheen.
Step 14: And More Cheese
This is a little trick I first picked up at Di Fara in Brooklyn: sprinkling fresh cheese on top of a pizza just after it comes out of the oven adds another dimension of flavor, including some of the fresh bite that gets lost when the cheese bakes.
Step 15: Dig in
Some breads get better as they cool to room temperature. Not this one. You want to serve this while the bread is still piping hot. Luckily, the heavy skillet helps keep it warm for a long, long time. Serve the knots straight out of the pan (and do warn your guests that the skillet and handle are hot).
You want those knots to release steam each time one is lifted out of the pan, and believe me, they'll be coming out of the pan fast. If all goes well, you'll end up with ultra-crisp, almost deep-fried bottoms with nubs of spicy pepperoni built right into the bread, along with a moist, tender, chewy, airy, focaccia-like crumb that's absorbed tons of garlicky butter and olive oil.
I mean, right?
The knots are good enough as is, but a side of warm pizza sauce for dipping doesn't hurt. I used my New York-Style Pizza Sauce, though even a good jarred sauce will do the trick.
They really are the ideal party snack or appetizer. They take minimal work to make (especially if you use store-bought dough), and you can make a few batches ahead of time (as many batches as you have skillets or cake pans) and let them sit in the fridge to be pulled out and baked the next day as you need them. Which makes me think that not only are they ideal party food, but they'd be ideal restaurant food as well. Any pizzeria that starts serving these, [cough] Adam [cough], would get an instant A+ in my book...
Protip: Make sure you have that second skillet full of risen-and-ready-to-bake knots ready in the fridge, because you're gonna need 'em.