Hot bread. Rarely does a food so simple entice us so intensely. For thousands of years, the art and craft of Lebanese flat bread making was shrouded in mystery. But when scientists discovered the Middle-East late in the 18th century, they were dumbfounded to see the locals filling a flat round disc with spreads and meats and using it to hold and consume their food. After close inspection, it was found that the disc was indeed, bread. This bread, however, was quite different to European bread in that it would not fit into a toaster. In fact, if this bread were to be sliced, it would loose all food holding ability and become totally useless. So, for years, science lost all interest in flat bread, and its practice remained restricted to the ritualistic baking sessions of the local tribes. But slowly, as with all things good, the potential of flat bread became apparent, and the western world took to it like ducks to water. This was a natural progression, as there is only so much filling you can put between two slices of toast.
In Australia, flat bread is called Lebanese bread (which is how I will refer to it from here on). Of course, in Lebanon, we simply call it “bread”, much the same as how the Chinese refer to Chinese food as “food”. To disambiguate, we sometimes refer to Lebanese bread as kumaj bread. Kumaj apparently, is a Turkish word for bread that is cooked on charcoal. This sets it apart from out other two popular breads: marquq or saj bread (large, circular and paper thin bread cooked on a convex grill), or tannour bread (cooked in a tandour-like oven). My generation’s encounter with Lebanese bread came after the industrialisation of the bread making process and as such, we’ve never had anything but mass produced Lebanese bread. It is not clear to me which came first. Whether the machines we bought encouraged the creation of this type of bread or whether we lost the traditional bread making process to the machines. The latter seems more probable. In any case, replicating the Lebanese bread making process at home is quite simple and extremely satisfying, as the result is bread with more substance and integrity than that of store bought bread. Seeing the disc puffing up and separating is a visual treat and I urge you to experience it, if only for that.
Lebanese Bread Recipe
adapted from http://www.elook.org/recipes/entree/39624.html
Makes around 8 loaves/discs
- 1 packet dried baker’s yeast
- 1/3 cup water to mix with the yeast, warm but not hot
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 cups plain, white flour
- 1 cup water, warm but not hot
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Activate the yeast by mixing it with the 1/3rd cup of water and the 2 tablespoons of sugar
- Wait for 10 minutes until the mixture becomes frothy. If it doesn’t become frothy, your yeast has died/expired and you need to buy a fresh packet
- Meanwhile, sift the 3 cups of flour along with the teaspoon of salt into a bowl
- Create a well in the middle and add the cup of water and the yeast mixture
- Mix well and then knead with oomph for 10 minutes
- Make a ball and with a knife, slice a cross on the surface to loosen the surface tension
- Cover with a damp, clean cloth and place it in a warm, draft free area. Wait until it doubles in size (depending on the temperature this could be anywhere from 1 to 3 hours)
- Knock back the dough and divide into 8 balls
- Place on a lightly floured surface and flatten with a rolling pin until it is around 0.4 to 0.5 cm thick and put aside for 10 to 15 minutes to rise a bit more. The shape should be circular
- Heat the oven to maximum
- (Optional) Brush the top of the discs with a bit of milk if you want it to colour deeply.
- Bake each individual disc one at a time for 5 to 8 minutes until the top has nicely coloured (cooking time depends on the heat of the oven and thickness of the bread)
- Remove and eat immediately, or when cool store in a plastic bag in order for it to soften