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story.lead_photo.caption Steak and Eggs Flatbread. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

It isn't quite pizza.

But it sort of is.

Flatbread is pizza's flamboyant cousin. There is a strong DNA connection, and they often look alike. But there is a difference, and after considerable thought and reflection, I think I have determined what it is: tomato sauce.

Pizza has it. Flatbread does not. If flatbread has tomato sauce, it is pizza. If pizza does not have tomato sauce, it may still call itself pizza, but deep in its heart it knows it is really just flatbread that is putting on airs.

I am speaking here of the common use of the word "flatbread." Broadly speaking, flatbread is any bread that is thin and flat, such as pita or lavash or naan. But the flatbread I am talking about is the one that looks and acts like pizza, but isn't.

The flatbread I am talking about has toppings, which means the variety you can make is endless. You could even bake a flatbread crust and smear it with peanut butter and jelly if you wanted, and now that I think about it, that would taste pretty good.

I made eight flatbreads with different toppings and they were all, if I may dispense with my customary modesty, awfully good. Kind of spectacular, actually.

But before we get to the toppings, we first must discuss the crust. I tried two different recipes.

The first was thinner and crispier. The dough took just one hour to rise, but it does take a little more work to make, and it has to be kneaded for five to seven minutes.

The second was a bit thicker, chewier and heartier. It also had a more developed taste, but to achieve that taste it took two hours to rise. On the other hand, it required no kneading at all.

I recommend either one. If time is an issue, you can make and refrigerate the dough one day before you cook it; flatbread doughs also freeze particularly well.

For the toppings, I began with a couple of flatbreads for breakfast. The first one, Steak and Eggs Flatbread, is versatile enough to be enjoyed at any meal. Here, the flatbread acts more or less as toast, but with a superior flavor, on which to enjoy a hearty meal of steak and a fried egg. It's best when you pierce the yolk, which spills sensuously over the meat and crust.

A handful of cooked whole cherry tomatoes adds extra pop — not only of flavor but also the physical soft popping sensation in your mouth when you bite into them. I couldn't stop eating it, which was unfortunate because I had seven more flatbreads to go.

I used the same general idea of flatbread topped with eggs and meat for my next breakfast-oriented dish, Sausage and Eggs Flatbread. This time, the eggs are scrambled, which makes a vital difference in both flavor and texture. I cut up the sausage first and scrambled it into the eggs.

It is remarkable how easy it was to make something so deliciously distinctive.

I stayed with the general breakfast theme one last time for a dish I call Everything but the Bagel Flatbread. You completely bake the flatbread first — which you do with most of these recipes — and then smear it with cream cheese and top it with slices of smoked salmon, a sprinkling of capers and a light scattering of thin slices of red onion.

I would never suggest that anything could be better than a bagel with lox, so I will just say that a flatbread with lox is every bit as good.

For a more substantial meal, I made a flatbread with chunks of juicy chicken, melted cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, plus a few more slices of that red onion. Photographer Hillary Levin, who took the pictures that accompany this article, took one look at it and suggested I was copying a popular dish from California Pizza Kitchen.

I cannot tell a lie. I copied a popular dish from California Pizza Kitchen. But it is just so good — both theirs and mine. And mine is cheaper.

Next, I made what is probably the most unusual of the varieties I tried. Franks and Beans Flatbread, as I call it, is franks and beans on flatbread.

I was inspired, I guess, by the English dish of baked beans on toast, which is much better than it sounds. But it isn't as good as Franks and Beans Flatbread, for several reasons: Flatbread is better than toast, it has hot dogs in it and also I made homemade baked beans. It is quite easy, especially if you begin with canned beans. I just added ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and a little salt.

The last three flatbreads I made are all vegetarian.

Caramelized Onions and Fontina Flatbread took a minor investment of time in order to caramelize the onions. Cooking them in a bit of oil over a low heat tempers the onions' sharp notes and brings out a rich, mellow sweetness. There is nothing quite like it, but it takes about a half-hour to cook and you have to stir it frequently.

Still, it is well worth it, especially when you string the slices across a piece of flatbread with gooey, melted Fontina cheese.

Fennel Flatbread is basically the same idea. The licorice-tasting bulb of fennel is sliced thin and mixed with olive oil and Parmesan, which here takes the place of the Fontina. The fennel is not caramelized, but roasting it on the flatbread for just a few minutes makes the flavor richer and warmer.

It also melts the Parmesan, which acts in a small way as a sharp counterpoint to the rounded tones of the fennel.

And finally I took the unbeatable pairing of figs and Gorgonzola cheese, and applied it to the top of flatbread. There is something about figs that bring out the best in Gorgonzola (it's a blue cheese), and vice versa, but it is all even better when topped with a drizzle of sweet honey.

The figs sit in a creamy puddle of melted cheese, and the honey turns it ambrosial. It is not exactly what you want for a meal but served at a party it would be an hors d'oeuvre that would be long remembered.

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