My little village of Ain El Delb does try hard, you know. Today, they invited a prestigious army band over to commemorate the feast of the disciples of St Maroun, the patron of the local church. They organised a village style dinner: a simple spread of labneh (strained, salted yoghurt drizzled with olive oil), zaatar and fresh markouk bread. Markouk is our most traditional and loved bread. I’ve uploaded a video of the bread being made. Notice how thin it is. This thinness allows the sheets of bread to cook super quickly and since the bread has very little moisture, it lasts very well compared to bread loaves and the like. Check out the skill these ladies have, how they turn the dough to something seriously thin and evenly round. I thought it’s best to keep the church prayer in the background, just to give you a sense of the place.
Category Archives: Bread
Labna with olive oil, olives and rosemary sprig
Yoghurt. The oldest of all milk derived foods and the most feared. It is said (by me) that Genghis Khan’s only phobia was due to a recurring dream of drowning in a pool of horse milk yoghurt. The same goes for Alexander the Great, though he, against all odds, managed to overcome that fear through strenuous hypnosis and homeopathic practices, and in fact ended up loving the stuff. Throughout the ages, yoghurt has had many wonderful and amazing uses. Phoenicians used it for facials, and the ancient Egyptians used it in their mummification process in conjunction to consuming it with long grain Egyptian rice as they waited for the mummies to dry. Allright, enough joking around. Let’s be serious for a minute. This multi-faceted ingredient has helped shape the face of Middle-Eastern gastronomy, yet its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that after slaughtering a newborn camel, desert travelling Bedouins would saddle the mother camel’s milk encased in the baby’s stomach sack, where the stomach bacteria, along with the heat of the sun, curdled the milk into, yes, yoghurt!
If you were to consider world cuisines distilled to a singular ingredient, would you be able to imagine French food sans beurre, Chinese food with no soy sauce, Italian food before Chris C brought back the first tomato? Well, you may not have guessed it, but when it comes to Middle- Eastern food, yoghurt is the reigning champion, the jamon to Arabia’s Serrano, and without it, Middle Eastern food just wouldn’t be Middle Eastern food. I grew up eating yoghurt. All Lebanese people have. In fact, It is so prevalent that there are Middle-Eastern cookbooks solely dedicated to cooking with yoghurt. When it comes to cooked yoghurt dishes, kibbeh b’ laban (yoghurt kibbeh) is an absolute favourite, but when eaten fresh, there’s nothing that beats labna. Strained through muslin, yoghurt lets go of its whey to become incredibly creamy, and the longer you strain it, the thicker and richer it gets. This is labna: wheyless yoghurt that is salted and eaten in every single Lebanese home, every single day at every single breakfast. My memories as a child take me back to when dad would stack up the “troups” in the run down 70’s Mercedes (he loved that car) and drive us around. We’d whinge and complain about being hungry, and Mr Kassab would try to find somewhere cheap and cheerful to feed the family of six. Often, we’d end up at small makeshift bakeries with (as was usually the case) a weathered, slightly chubby but very cheerful grey-haired lady sitting cross legged in front of a saj, masterfully baking the thinnest sheets of bread, crisp and translucent. We would demolish a sheet in seconds, dunking shards and folds into most luscious olive oil drizzled labna decorated with sweet tomatoes, salty olives and fresh, fragrant mint. Pure joy.
Saj bread making
N.B. Make labna by straining yoghurt through a clean pillow case or muslin, or by pouring it over layers of absorbent paper towel. Depending on the quantity, it may take a few hours so keep it straining in the fridge. When it reaches the desired consistency, remove it, salt it and destroy it!
In case you are wondering, yes, these greens in the picture are indeed garden weeds and not micro-herbs; I don’t have easy access to micro-herbs and thought these guys are small enough to do the trick. They look pretty though, do you agree? And another thing, I know this is not a mille-feuille, but let me have this one, please…
I’ve been obsessing about this dessert for around a fortnight now. I came up with the idea in a moment of brilliance (or insanity, call it what you may) and have been dying to make it. For my non-Lebanese readers, a little explanation is needed so that you get a full appreciation of the idea behind the dessert. One of the most, if not the most popular breakfast in Lebanon is a labneh roll. Lebanese bread or saj bread (paper thin bread cooked on an inverted wok, sold in Australia as mountain bread) is slathered with snow-white salted labneh, drizzled with olive oil and rolled up with one or more vegetables and herbs such as mint, cucumbers, tomatoes or olives. Labneh is a cream cheese (yes it is a cheese) made from removing the whey from yoghurt, resulting in a rich, smooth spread. The breakfast roll is salty, savoury and creamy but also light and fresh, a true representative of Mediterranean cuisine with its lavish use of olive oil, dairy, bread and fresh vegetables and herbs.
This superb, yet everyday sort of breakfast was the inspiration for a creamy yet fresh dessert. The labneh is mixed with some whipped cream to give a lighter consistency, and then sweetened with icing sugar. Then, rectangles of saj bread are brushed with butter and crisped up in a pan, with some pressure applied on top to keep them straight. The saj and labneh “mille-feuille” is constructed on a plate drizzled with olive oil butterscotch, then served with a mint leaf tempura; and there you have it: labneh and saj bread with mint and olive oil! An experienced pastry chef could have turned out something a bit more professional looking, but I had to make do with my crooked design skills. And I also wanted to make a tomato jam to go with it but I couldn’t be bothered, so please imagine that it’s there too. See how the beautifully reddish orange hue of the tomato jam contrasts with the white?
Now unfortunately, I didn’t take note of measurements when I made this as it was just an experiment, but it was not hard to do once the concept was there. I have to admit though, the dessert exceeded all my expectations. The buttery richness of the labneh and cream is complemented by its sweetness and then offset by the yoghurt’s acidity. That’s why it’s important to use Greek style yoghurt labneh (and not that European style stuff). Then, the crispness and delicate saltiness of the saj bread intertwines with that creaminess, and the multiple layers create a textural explosion that is quite out of this world. The olive oil butterscotch added an extra layer of flavour, and the mint tempura is more a visual and textural addition than one of flavour; it’s just a bit of fun really. It may be worth noting that I made my own unsalted labneh using Meredith sheep’s yoghurt, which is more delicious as a labneh than it is as yoghurt. Sheep’s yoghurt has a sensational mouth-feel due to the high fat content and in my opinion makes a far superior labneh than cow’s yoghurt.
Saj Bread, Labneh, Olive Oil and Mint Mille-feuille Recipe
Now, being an IT guy, and seeing I didn’t really write down the measurements, here’s an “algorithm” as to how to make this dessert:
- Buy or make your own labneh. Make sure it’s low salt. Making labneh is easy: strain Greek style yoghurt through muslin or on layers of paper towel, changing the paper towels when they are fully soaked. The result should be the consistency of cream cheese
- Cut rectangles from saj bread (sold as mountain bread in Australia)
- Brush bread with butter and crisp up in a pan on both sides. Press them down to keep them flat as they crisp up
- Make the olive oil butterscotch by caramelising some sugar and olive oil and then emulsifying them with cream… Easy?
- Whip up some cream until semi-firm peaks form and then mix with the labneh and some icing sugar. Adjust the sugar to taste. Don’t use too much cream or the labneh flavour will be lost. Maybe a 60% labneh, 40% cream.
- Assemble as per the photo: drizzle the butterscotch, layer the mille-feuille with bread and labneh
- Cover a mint leaf with tempura batter and fry until crisp and put on the side
Lebanese bread, also known as Arabic bread, or as the locals pronounce it, kh’GHtfHz, is a remarkable product. It is said that early man was given the recipe for Lebanese bread by divine intervention. When Adam was exiled from paradise, he wandered in the Arabian desert for fourty days. At the end, he reached a green, fertile land where he had free access to an abundance of foods. Berries, nuts, seeds, root vegetables and greens dominated the scenery and food stuffs such as vine leaves were successful as clothing as well as being a perfect wrapping sheet for Eve’s famous dolmades. One night, as he pondered the events leading up to his exile over a plate of hummous, feeling helpless and alone, Adam cried a single tear. His tear fell on an ant that looked up to see what befell it and saw the source of the tear. The ant took pity on Adam, sitting there, all alone, with no cutlery. She pleaded to God and asked that Adam be given some source of cheer and happiness. And out of thin air, a bag of bread appeareth before Adam and he henceforth ate hummous with bread for the rest of his days.
This story is passed down through an oral tradition by the Bedouin tribes of Lebanon, where the direct descendants of Adam still eat hummous with Lebanese bread to this day. But, do you, dear reader, know how to eat with Lebanese bread? Well, let me tell you how, and hopefully allow you to experience some insight on how the Middle East eats Lebanese bread. This article is part of a series I intend to write about the various forms of eating with Lebanese bread. I wish to begin with the following enigmatic form: The Scoop.
The most common and basic way to eat with Lebanese bread, “The Scoop” is also possibly one of the most obscure and least understood by westerners in terms of structure and uses. If you are eating mezze, seeking assistance from a spoon to put a dollop of baba ghannouj on a piece of Lebanese bread is far too tedious as well as being a sure way of making yourself known as a foreigner. Master “The Scoop” and you are sure to win the heart of the villagers, almost securing yourself a beautiful bride; or if you are a young lady, you will almost certainly earn the right to hand feed the tribe leader’s son. To perfect the art of “The Scoop” you must understand its construction. The idea is to create an edge on one side to “cut” through the dip you are trying to eat, whilst creating fortified edges to ensure the integrity of the structure, much as you would with an underground military tunnel. The following are the steps to follow to achieve perfection, and though they seem tedious, they might save your life if you are ever mistaken for an infidel or a spy, taken hostage and forced to eat with your captors, so make sure you practice before your next visit: