It's basically SAW: Beauty Edition.
I'm a slut for a good bread basket. Start me off right with some pillowy, chewy, fresh-baked carbs and a side of whipped butter, and I will overlook an unfilled water glass or mediocre entree. Conversely, a good bread basket can overshadow an outstanding meal. I would like to tell you that my pasta at Scarpetta was the star of my meal at Scott Conant's joint, but the truth is I don't quite remember what my main was. I know it was delicious, but I can't for the life of me remember if I settled on the bone marrow agnolotti or the short rib agnolotti. (Okay, I just Googled; it was the bone marrow and short rib agnolotti.)
But holy heck I remember that bread basket. In what can only be called "an act of brilliant culinary intimidation," it comes with a Stromboli. Is there anything more decadent and daring than starting a meal with a Stromboli?
I think not.
No matter the setting, the bread basket sets the tone for the meal. It gets there before the appetizers, maybe even before the drinks. It puts the truly hangry in a better mood and soothes the value-conscious with its "free-ness." Mid-level chain restaurants know this, and they use it to their advantage.
Looking back over the many meals I've eaten in chain restaurants, the bread baskets that stand out the most are Cheddar Bay Biscuits from Red Lobster, the Breadsticks Without Limits from Olive Garden, and that Tasty Brown Bread from Outback Steakhouse. I no longer frequent these establishments as often as I used to, but that doesn't mean I don't long for those delicious breads of yesteryear.
So why not make them myself?
Copycat food blogging is a genre unto itself, and Pinterest is the arena where DIY-versions of snacks foods, fast foods, and even condiments duke it out. (When you play the game of copycat food blogging, you either pin or die.) To choose which recipes would be featured here, I typed "copycat" into the search bar and pinned the first thing that came up for each of my beloved breads. They were all heavily pinned (in the thousands), but Pinterest Popularity does not a great recipe or effective "hack" make. (Remember the Listerine foot soak pin? That thing was all over everyone's "summer prep 2013" boards and you know what? It did not work. All it did was make my feet smell minty fresh.)
So though they may be popular on the Pinternet, that doesn't mean these recipes should be blindly praised without proper testing. Luckily, I'm here to provide such testing. I'm going to bake, taste, and rate each one of these "copycats" because I love you all dearly. (There will, of course, be a bit of meandering commentary along the way, because bread gives me feelings.)
Olive Garden's Unlimited Breadsticks
Late last year, Olive Garden received some criticism from investors for giving out too many breadsticks (and salad). I kind of get their point, but take away OG's limitless carbs and greens and what are we left with? Tepid lasagna? Faux-Tuscan countryside decor? Getting drunk on cheap white zin? (That last one doesn't sound too terrible.)
In response to this criticism, Olive Garden is "rethinking" their bread by making it slightly bigger and putting stuff on it. These crazy new products are called "sandwiches" -- maybe you've heard of them? -- and they are just nuts.
This is all well and good, but I have one question for Olive Garden: Are these breadstick sandwiches unlimited? Because if not, I frankly don't see the point. I have a sandwich place. What I don't have is another eating establishment that will bring me mountain after mountain of salty, garlicky breadsticks while I sneak sips of sweet, pink wine from my stepmother's glass.
If that's how you're going to be OG, I'm just going to make the breadsticks at home, and I'm going to do so using THIS recipe from the blog Cooking Classy, because nothing is classier than DIY Olive Garden.
Olive Garden Breadsticks Copycat Recipe (via Cooking Classy)
- 1 cup + 2 Tbsp warm water (110 - 115 degrees)
- 1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
- 2 Tbsp granulated sugar, divided
- 3 - 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 tsp salt
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp margarine or butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, whisk together warm water, yeast and 1/2 tsp granulated sugar until yeast has dissolved. Allow to rest 10 minutes. Add in remaining 1 Tbsp + 2 1/2 tsp granulated sugar, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 3/4 tsp salt and vegetable oil, then fit mixer with paddle attachment and blend mixture until well combine. Switch mixer to dough hook attachment, add in remaining 1 1/2 cups flour and knead mixture on low speed, adding up to 1/4 cup additional flour as needed, and knead until dough is smooth and elastic (dough should pull away from sides of the bowl but should still be slightly sticky). Transfer dough to a large buttered mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest in a warm place free from draft until double, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch risen dough down, divide into 12 equal portions (2 ounces each by weight), keep them covered with plastic wrap as you work. Roll each piece into a 9 inch rope on a lightly floured surface, then transfer to two Silpat lined or buttered cookie sheets. Cover and let rise 1 hour. Preheat oven to 425 during the last 10 minutes of rising.
Bake in preheated oven 11 - 13 minutes until golden (I actually broiled mine during the last minute for a perfectly golden crust). Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together 1/2 tsp salt and garlic powder. Remove breadsticks from oven and run a stick of margarine or butter over hot breadsticks and immediately sprinkle with salt mixture. Serve warm or allow to cool and store in an airtight container.
The dough rose beautifully, giving the sticks the right amount of fluffy chew, and the flavor was there, but I felt like they could have used a touch more sugar. I realize that one of the major benefits of cooking at home is being able to cut down on the sugar, salt, and fat, but that's not what I'm looking for here; I'm looking for that flavor-blasted experience that keeps me coming back for more breadsticks until I am physically ill. Overall though, these are very close in texture and pretty close in flavor to the OG originals.
The only real issue I had has more to do with my oven than the recipe. Jaclyn (writer of the Cooking Classy blog) does suggest finishing these with the broiler to get that perfect golden brown crust, but my gas oven doesn't have a top broiler, and thus the bottoms of these started to burn before the tops reached the desired colored.
If you have a top broiler, this shouldn't be an issue for you, just switch it on during the last five minutes or so of cooking, as Jaclyn suggests.
Overall Rating: Four out of five breadsticks
Outback Steakhouse Honey Wheat Bread
Do you guys remember when of Montreal let Outback Steakhouse use "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Things" for a commercial and they changed "let's pretend we don't exist" to "let's go Outback tonight"? (of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes was apparently "furious" about this change, but the original lyric seems a little nihilist for a mid-price family steakhouse, don't you think?)
Once everyone was done being indignant about Outback "ripping Barnes off" and realized that he had made a deal with the faux-Australian chain, they became indignant about him selling out, even though selling out is the dream, I would think.
This doesn't really have anything to do with Outback's bread, I just like that it happened.
So the bread. This recipe from I Heart Eating is very popular on Pinterest, and I can see why. Not only does it rise in the most delightful ballooning fashion, but it looks so impressive once baked.
Honey Wheat Bread Outback Steakhouse Copycat (via I Heart Eating)
- 2 ½ cups warm water (100°-110°F)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp. caramel color
- 1/2 cup honey
- 3 ½ cups whole-wheat flour
- 2 Tbsp. cocoa
- 2 Tbsp. active dry yeast
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2-3 cups bread flour
- rolled oats (for dusting loaves)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitter with a dough hook, stir together water, oil, caramel color, and honey until mixed well.
Add wheat flour to water mixture.
Add cocoa, yeast, and salt, and stir until blended.
Allow mixture sit for 10 minutes.
Stir in bread flour, one cup at a time, until dough clings to hook and almost clears the sides of mixer, about 3-4 minutes.
Cover bowl with greased plastic wrap.
Allow dough to rise in the bowl until doubled, about 30-60 minutes.
Divide into 2 pieces.
Cover each piece with greased plastic wrap, and let dough rest for 5 minutes.
Shape pieces into loaves, and sprinkle with oats.
Place each loaf in a greased 9x5-inch loaf pan.
Let dough rise until doubled, about 30-60 minutes.
Toward the end of the rising time, preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake at for 30-40 minutes.
First, the problems. The main issue I had with this recipe is finding caramel color. Not only is it impossible to find in most grocery stores, but the staff at said stores will claim to have "never heard of that" even though caramel coloring can be found in every single bottle of cola they have ever consumed. (Caramel color can also be found in like, a million other items one would find in a grocery store, but whatever.)
After some Googling, I discovered that caramel coloring isn't actually all that hard to make, so I bought some bike shorts and got the heck out of Fred Meyer. After I whipped up a batch of the coloring (using this recipe), the rest was smooth sailing.
The loaves were bigger than their Outback counterparts, and a bit cakier, but they had the same sweet, hearty flavor with just a hint of cocoa-y, caramel-y bitterness to balance it out. Though the texture wasn't an exact match, I would certainly feel confident in recommending this recipe to an Outback fan, especially served warm with butter.
Overall Rating: On a scale from False Priest to Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? this bread comes in at a solid Satanic Panic in the Attic. (For those of you not super familiar with of Montreal, this is a great rating.)
Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits
I saved these for last, because Cheddar Bay Biscuits are the undisputed champions of the mid-level chain bread basket game. These biscuits have an almost cult-like following, and for good reason; they melt in your mouth like cheesy pillows of love, just crispy enough on their ridges and painted with a buttery, garlic-y sauce. I'd like to think that if Cheddar Bay were a real place, the bay would be filled with this sauce, and we would float on buttermilk biscuits while drinking Lobsteritas.
Was it not fate then, that the same week I decided to try the popular DIY version of these delicious biscuits our very own Lesley happened upon the box mix?
Having been crowned "legit" by Lesley, a taste-off was in order.
Representing the DIY world of Pinterest, we have this recipe from Rasa Malaysia which utilizes Bisquick. That almost seems like cheating, until you realize that Pinterest is all about finding the easiest recipe hacks around; Bisquick embodies this ethos.
Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits (via Rasa Malaysia):
- 2 cups Bisquick biscuit mix
- 2/3 cup milk
- 1/2 cup cheddar cheese (shredded)
- 1/4 cup butter (melted)
- 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp. dried parsley
Preheat oven to 450 degree. Mix biscuit mix, milk, and cheddar cheese until soft dough forms; beat vigorously for 30 seconds. Drop dough by spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown.
Mix melted butter, garlic powder, and dried parsley; brush generously over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet. Serve warm. Make 10-12 biscuits.
After those were in the oven, I prepared the boxed mix version according to ... well, the box.
The boxed mix won by a landslide. The recipe I had found on Pinterest was bland, lacking both in cheddar and garlic. Everything good about them came from the Bisquick. Taken out of context, they weren't a bad biscuit, but they were nowhere close to Cheddar Bay. They were somewhere else, lost at sea, Cheddar Bay not even on the map.
I recognize that the boxed mix is basically Bisquick in its own way, but at least all of the flavors were as they should be. The cheddar-to-mix ratio was much more cheese heavy and the seasoning packet had much needed onion powder (and a bunch of other ~chemicals~) along with garlic and parsley. The boxed mix also made for a more "shaggy" dough, which led to more crispy ridges for the buttery sauce to meander through.
Rasa Malaysia Recipe - On a scale from "Skinny Long Island Iced Tea" to "Lobsterita," this recipe gets a "Cosmopolitan."
Red Lobster Brand Box Mix - Same scale: Lobsterita, as long as they are fresh out of the oven.
What is your favorite restaurant bread? Have you ever attempted DIY versions of your favorite fast food? Have any pins that you want me to test?
Claire has a lot of extra bread. Tweet at her if you want some. @clairelizzie