Category Archives: Breads

Mamoosh pittas and the question of artisan food

Real pittas from Mamoosh

When making food by hand to sell direct to the public, one thing you will almost certainly argue about with yourself – and possibly with friends and family too – is pricing. Despite Britain being a place where we idolise chefs, buy recipe books in bulk, sit glued to food-themed TV, and like to fantasise about the artisan food producer life, most people still buy most of their food from supermarkets. And supermarkets are very much a product of the post-World War 2, post-rationing hunger for cheapness and plenty, quantity over quality.

Any artisan food producer has to compete with this.

Einat Chalmers of Mamoosh rolling pittas

Einat Chalmers runs Mamoosh1 out of small bakery within an industrial in Newhaven, on the East Sussex coast. Her main product is pitta2 bread. She sells four for £2. This seems like a bargain to me, but then I’m a middle-class stereotype who tries to eschew industrial food. People, even friends, criticised my prices when I sold Italian biscuits on the market, but my margins were very narrow, and the time it takes to handmake real food is a world away from the time it takes for a factory to spit out industrial food.

Scaling brioche buns by hand

Einat has some professional kit but is essentially making her pitta by hand: dividing the dough, shaping the balls, feeding a small dough roller, laying them on trays to prove, then dropping them onto her new addition: a proper pitta oven. Then removing them by hand too. With a supermarket’s pitta, the dough is almost certainly not touched by hand at all as it moves through an automated production process in a factory, not a bakery.

And frankly supermarket pitta tastes like cardboard; a conclusion I reached years ago and one that’s affirmed every time I eat Einat’s bread. Never mind that many will find the result indigestible; not because they can’t eat wheat, but because industrial bread doughs simply aren’t proved for long enough.

Mamoosh brioche buns

Einat, who grew up in the north of Israel close to Lebanon, sells her delicious pitta on the markets in Lewes. They’re a key part of my family’s diet these days. My fussy son calls it “pocket bread” and it’s a good way to get him to eat something filling. Einat also makes brioche buns to supply The Pig and Jacket, who do pulled pork and hog roast, and croissants and Danish, which she sells at the smaller market in Newhaven. She says she turns out up to around 250 brioche buns and 900 pitta a week but is gradually expanding. The latter production is helped by that pitta oven.

Mamoosh croissants, pain au chocolate and Danish pastries proving

I’ve never seen one before but it’s a great bit of kit, gas elements heat a large rotating disc of cast iron from below, while other flames brown the pittas from above. Einat says she was encouraged to invest in one by her restaurateur father in Israel, and when I visited the bakery I got a great sense of its efficacy. It heats to about 450-500C (a temperature similar to that found in a wood-fired pizza oven) in about 10 minutes. About a dozen pittas can fit on the disc and the rotation takes about a minute. The results are great: pocketed but puffy and tender, an entirely different animal to the abovementioned cardboard pittas more familiar to British supermarket shoppers. They may cost about 50p for six, but to my mind that’s a false economy: not only are they poor quality in terms of ingredients and production process, they’re also barely edible for anyone who’s even vaguely discerning about the bread they eat.

Pitta oven

Einat, who trained as a chef at the French Culinary Institute and interned in bakeries in New York in the late 1990s, taught herself sourdough and pitta at home. She’s lived in Sussex with her Scottish husband for about 15 years and worked on and off for Brighton’s Real Patisserie before starting her pitta business. I think she’s really onto something. I urge anyone who’s in Lewes for the food markets to check out her pitta, they’re one of those foods that very tellingly highlights the difference between real, handmade products and industrial crap. One of those products that, in a mouthful, qualifies and justifies the price differences3.

Mamoosh pittas are available at the Friday morning food market, in the Lewes Market Tower, from Talicious falafel stall, or you can get them straight from Einat’s Mamoosh stall at the Lewes farmers market on the first and third Saturday of every month. I’m eating some now with some of my hummus as I hit “Publish”.

Pittas baking

Mamoosh pittas and other products are available (as of April 2017):
At the Lewes Farmers Market, morning of first and third Saturday of the month, the Precinct, High Street, Lewes BN7 2AN, where Einat has a stall.
At the Lewes Food Market, every Friday morning at the Market Tower, BN7 2NB.
At the Hillcrest Country Market, every Thursday morning, the Hillcrest Centre, Newhaven BN9 9LH.

Footnotes
1 Einat explains the name thus: “Mamoosh comes from the word mummy (mother), probably introduced by the Polish Jews and become part of the Hebrew slang. “e use it mainly as a slang for sweetie, darling, honey, dear.”

2 In English pitta or pita is borrowed from the modern Greek πίτα. As it’s a transliteration, presumably there are arguments for both spellings. Indeed, the Greek word can also be translated as pie or cake. Older etymology of the word is contested so can’t help.

3 This is a tangent but just to preemptively respond to any criticism that I’m writing simply from a naive middle-class position, here’s a little more food for thought. Many people say that only the better-off can eat what I call real foods, and the poorer are dependent on cheap industrial produce, often frozen or in the form of ready meals, from budget supermarkets etc. This is obviously a complex issue but a story I read in the i newspaper on 2 March seemed to confirm something I’ve long thought – if you base your diet on fresh veg, grains, pulses, don’t expect red meat with every meal and don’t throw away food (itself an enormous issue, and one of the things that will bring about the downfall of our society), you can eat more affordably.

The article quotes from a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”, and its author says, “A diet of muesli, rice, white meat, fruit and vegetables is much cheaper than a diet of Coco Pops, ready meals, red meat, sugary drinks and fast food. The idea that poor nutrition is caused by the high cost of healthy food is simply wrong.” The IEA is not a body I know well, and it’s of neoliberal disposition and I’ve not read the original report, so I’m slightly wary of quoting from it.

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Semi-sourdough, no-knead, casserole-baked bread

No knead, semi sourdough crumb shot

Purists will disdain it, but I’ve not got a problem with using a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. This is semi-sourdough baking. The sourdough gives some depth of flavour while the addition of the yeast helps a baker of my middling ability to control the timings better.

It’s a technique I learned from the essential book The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It’s a technique that stands me in good stead as, honestly, I never mastered getting satisfactorily consistent sourdough loaves. I probably could master it if I had a real push but it’s not really where I’m at these days. Indeed, mostly I just make a fairly basic tin loaf these days for toast, something my family Hoovers at breakfast time. It involves yeast and a mixture of stoneground strong white and wholemeal wheat and spelt flours.

When I want something a bit more interesting, I reach for the sourdough. This is what I’ve been making recently. It involves the no-knead and Dutch oven techniques. The latter means baking it in a preheated Dutch oven, cast iron casserole dish or even a terracotta chicken brick. I’ve got one called a knuspertopf, my mum’s got one called a römertopf. My German-speaking father tells me topf means pot, while knusprig means crisp or crunchy. Römer means Roman, apparently. They all work well, retaining the moisture, adding some steam to the bake.

Knuspertopf no knead loaf

Combine to make a preferment
100g of sourdough starter at 100% hydration (ie, refreshing it with equal quantities water and flour)
2g active dried yeast or 4g fresh yeast
100g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
100g water

I don’t worry about the temperature of the water. Leave this mixture at room temperature (about 19C in our place now) for about 6-8 hours. One good option is to make it at lunchtime.

After the allotted time, when the preferment is bubbling nicely, make the dough by adding
500g flour (I used a 50/50 mix of stoneground white wheat and wholemeal wheat)
400g water
7g fine sea salt

1. Just beat it all together until it clears, that is, until the flour is fully mixed with the water and there are no dry bits left. It’ll be a sloppy, wet dough. For those interested in bakers’ percentages, this works out at about 85% hydration. Ie, the total flour comes to 650g, the total water comes to 550g; 550/650 x 100 = 84.61.
2. Cover the bowl; I use a floral shower cap but a plastic bag is fine. Leave the dough for about 12 hours. I’ve been putting it in the fridge for about 10 of that. Overnight is good.
3. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. I’m not sure how important this is and haven’t scientifically investigated it yet. Some suggest a cold dough is good for oven spring, but I’m not convinced about that, it’d just be a sluggish spring.
4. Set your oven to maximum. Sadly, my electric Rangemaster only musters about 220C, at best. Put your chosen casserole dish in and heat it up for about 20-30 minutes.
5. Using a dough scraper, carefully remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured worktop. Handling it gently so as not to deflate it or damage it structure too much, fold one side into the middle, then the other, like a letter, to form a rough loaf shape.
6. Take the hot, hot dish out of the oven, remove its lid and, gently as you can, er, drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on, put it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
7. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for another 10 minutes.
8. Take the dish out, turn out the loaf, then return it to the oven for another 10 minutes. One risk with a dough this wet is that it may not cook all the way through. It should do with the preheated dish and a baking time this long but if you’re not sure, over-baking won’t do too much harm, other than thickening the crust a bit.
9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Casserole no knead loaf

Now, this is a pretty easy way to make fairly satisfying loaf. It’s got a good chewy crust and a reasonably open crumb structure. My only criticism is that it can feel slightly rubbery, if that makes sense. It’s definitely worth a try though, for that artisan vibe, and it makes cracking toast. Even if kids do fuss about the crust. Honestly, some mornings it feels like all I eat for breakfast is rejected crusts…

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The sheer indulgent excess that is monkey bread

Monkey bread

In my time as a baker and sugar addict, I’ve made or consumed a vast number of rich concoctions and enriched doughs, from multinational doughnut variations to chocolate babkas. But nothing was quite as indulgent as monkey bread, something I’d not heard of until a few weeks back when a recipe by Jane Hornby popped up in a BBC Good Food newsletter.

Monkey bread is basically made with an enriched dough, with balls or chunks dipped in more butter, sugar and spices, and arranged in a ring shaped tin for baking. It is a kind of sticky, cinnamony, buttery, pull-apart, tear-and-share bread that clearly has its origins in traditional sweet, spiced buns and breads of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and even Britain (eg the Chelsea bun). Those traditions crossed the Atlantic with migrants who settled in America, where they changed, evolved – and had gallons of butter and tons of sugar thrown at them.

The oldest print version of monkey bread is from 1945, and by ZaSu Pitts1, an American actress with a career that spanned the silent and early sound eras. While much of Europe was suffering from rationing, American was producing monkey bread. Goshy.

No one knows where it gets its name, but it’s either because it supposedly resembles the monkey puzzle tree, or because it’s like something monkeys would get in a frenzy over pulling apart. The latter seems more likely to me, as we – four adults, four little monkeys (aged 1 to 11) – ate it together, falling on it with simian fervour.

There are savoury versions or versions with dried fruit, but this one is based on Hornby’s – cinnamon, sugar, butter, some roasted pecans – and it seems closer to the classic US type. My bundt tin wasn’t quite big enough, the whole thing was absurd, and I can’t really imagine being able to justify making it too often, but it’s a pretty awesome thing to have in one’s repertoire.

Recipe

Dough
200g full-fat milk
85g unsalted butter
12g active dried yeast (or 20g fresh yeast)
50g caster sugar
2 eggs (that is, about 110g of egg)
550g strong white flour
6g fine sea salt

Assembly
125g unsalted butter
12g cinnamon
4g powdered ginger
2g grated nutmeg
225g light muscovado or light soft brown sugar2
140g pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

Icing
100g icing sugar
3g vanilla essence
15g milk
5g cinnamon
30g unsalted butter, melted

Method
1. You need a bundt pan or similar ring-shaped tin, ideally 30cm in diameter.
2. To make the dough, first melt the butter and warm the milk slightly. I did this in a microwave. Stir in the caster sugar, scatter in the yeast, and leave it a few minutes to get going.
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl, then pour in the yeast mix.
4. Beat the eggs together then pour in too.
5. Bring together to form a sticky dough.
6. Turn out and knead to combine and homogenise.
7. Form a ball, then leave to rest again, covered, for another ten minutes.
8. Give it another knead, then cover and rest again. Repeat this once or twice more until you have a nice smooth dough.
9. In a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rest again, until the dough has doubled in size.
10. Prepare the bundt tin by melting the 125g of butter then using some of it to brush the inside of the tin.
11. Mix the sugar and spices, then sprinkle some of this into the buttered tin. Add a handful of the roasted, chopped pecans.
12. When the dough has proven, you need to divide it into pieces. Hornby’s recipe said 65, I went for 50 as that seemed a tad excessive. The total dough weighed about 1060g, so I divided it into pieces each weighing about 21g.

Balls of dough for monkey bread

13. Roll these into balls. You don’t really need to, but I fancied it, just cos, to maintain the technique, which involves cupping your hand over them, and rolling them on a lightly oiled worktop. If you get proficient, you can do one in each hand. Ta da.
14. Leave the balls under a cloth as you work so they don’t dry out.
15. Put the rest of the melted butter in a flat-bottomed bowl or container, and the rest of the sugar and spice mix in another.

Assembling monkey bread

16. Roll the balls, in batches, in the butter, shake off any excess, then roll them in the sugar and spice mix. Place them in the tin.
17. Form a layer, sprinkle with more pecans, and keep going until the tin is full and balls all used up.

Monkey bread, before final prove

18. Cover again, then leave to prove one last time, until bulging and springy to the touch. Push a finger in and the dough should slowly re-expand.

Monkey bread, after final prove

19. Heat the oven to 180C, then bake the bread for about 40 minutes. Turn the over down a bit, or cover with foil, if it’s over-browning before this time.

Monkey bread, baked
20. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out when still warm but not hot.
21. Whisk together the ingredients for the icing then drizzle over.
22. Eat with for breakfast, with a morning coffee, as afternoon tea, or even as a dessert – which is what we did.

Good. Excessive. Indulgent. But good.

Monkey bread

Footnotes
1. More about her here. Her recipe, and more about monkey bread, can be found here.
2. I find these sugars behave pretty similarly in baking, though muscovado sugars were originally those of lower quality, and have higher molasses content.

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Pangiallo, primitive cakes and winter festivals

Pangiallo

Pangiallo is a cake I encountered in Rome, and indeed one of the last posts I wrote before leaving there in October 2013 mentioned it. But I’ve only recently started to make it, and discovered a quite a lot variation in recipes. Which might seem quite surprising, until you consider it’s a cake that purportedly has roots in Ancient Rome.

Pangiallo, or pancialle, is a Roman, or Lazio, cousin to panforte, “hard bread”, the better-known dense fruit and nut cake of Sienna, and panpepato (“pepper bread”). All three can be arguably be classified as “primitive cakes”. It’s easy to imagine the first cakes were compressed discs of nuts, seeds and dried fruit bound and sweetened with honey.  although food historians suggest pangiallo’s origins are ancient Roman, and panforte is comparatively recent, possibly from the 13th century, people have probably been making these kinds of things for millennia.

Spice trails
There’s debate about what spices the ancient Romans had, but they almost certainly used cardamom, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, and possibly cinnamon too. Such spices, many of which arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, maintained a role as important for feast day foods through the “Dark” and Middle Ages. As they had travelled so far they were expensive, so were used only for special foods on special days.

Britain, of course, has a very similar tradition of rich, spiced fruit cakes for midwinter celebrations in the form of our Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Their characteristics have similarly ancient origins, though spices were even more scarce and valuable in northern Europe, compared to Italy. Ports such as Genoa and notably Venice were the western extremes of the maritime Silk Route, the dropping-off points for such valuable cargo; spices still had a long way to go before they reached Britain.

Pangiallo spice mix

Festival of light
Today, Pangiallo is eaten to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, and also for Christmas. Both of these Christian feasts are associated with older winter solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans had Saturnalia, when the ancestor of pangiallo may well have been eaten. When Rome took Christianity as its official religion, many of the pagan festivals were Christianised too, and the consumption of special spiced cakes continued.

The calendar change of 1582 has confused things somewhat as St Lucy’s Day is now celebrated on 13 December in the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas Day closer to the solstice of 21-22 December. In the earlier, Julian calendar, however, St Lucy’s Day would have been closer to the solstice, the day when the night is at its longest. To dispel the darkness, it’s a festival of light, and indeed the very names Lucy and Lucia derive from lux, lucis, the Latin for light.

One Roman blogger suggests the yellow, saffron-tinted glaze of pangiallo is symbolic, looking forward to the new light of spring. The only problem with this theory is that pangiallo doesn’t always feature a yellow glaze. Many versions don’t seem yellow at all, but instead more brown from the dried fruits, caramelised sugar and honey, and even cocoa and chocolate.

Testing times
At the weekend I made the version in Rachel’s book Five Quarter’s: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It’s closer to the version by the blogger mentioned above and does feature a rich glaze, coloured with saffron and egg yolks. Although they all contain flour, Rachel’s version is not leavened, with yeast or chemicals. So I was intrigued when I read the recipe in Oretta Zanini de Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio. Hers features a yeasted bread dough. That said, the dough only forms about 20 per cent of the total mass: which is predominantly raisins. Her original recipe is huge, with “1.8kg (about 4lb) zibibbo (seed raisins)”, with the whole formed into a loaf and proved for 12 hours.

For my testing process, I can’t really do such enormous bakes, so I halved the recipe and tweaked it. Hers included pine nuts too, for example; I love them, but they’re so expensive and the ones in the shops here have all travelled from China, which seems crazy. I’ve also favoured the disc-shaped form. Half quantities still produced four cakes, each scaled with 400g of dough. So I’ve halved it again here.

Pangiallo ingredients

5g fresh yeast, or 4g active dry yeast
50g plain flour
50g strong white flour
35g caster sugar
100g water, warm
20g olive oil
2g fine sea salt
250g seedless raisins
100g dried figs, quartered
120g whole or blanched almonds
20g candied peel
Spices: a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to total about 8g, to taste

1. Dissolve the sugar in the water.
2. Make a preferment with some of this sugar-water, the yeast and about 25g of the flour.
3. Leave to get bubbly.
4. Put the rest of the flour in a roomy bowl.
5. Add the preferment, the rest of the sugar water, the olive oil and salt.

Pangiallo mixture
6. Form a dough, adding more water if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth.
7. Rest 10 minutes, then add the spices, nuts, raisins and peel.
8. Combine. I can’t really say “knead” as it’s all fruit and nuts. It’s more a case of getting your hands in there and squishing it all together.
9. Cover and rest again, for about 6 hours.
10. Form the desire shapes. I recommend a couple of equal balls.
11. Put the balls onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, and squash them down into discs, about 25mm high. If it’s too sticky, flour your hands a bit as you form the discs.
12. Cover and leave again, for about 4-6 hours. Less if it’s warm, more if it’s cold.
13. Heat the oven to 180C .

Unbaked pangiallo
14. Make a batter with 15g flour, 15g water, 15g oil and 15g sugar. De Vita’s glaze wasn’t coloured yellow, but if you want to, you can add some saffron to the (warm) water and leave it to infuse for half an hour or so. Or cheat and sprinkle in a little turmeric, a spice that’s only mildly flavoured and is more used for colouring.

Unbaked pangiallo, with saffron glaze
15. Brush the glaze onto the loaves.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes, until coloured, but without burning too many raisins.

Pangiallo, baked
17. Allow to firm up on the trays for 20 minutes or so, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Two pangialli

Comparisons
Considering pangiallo is defined by spices, raisins, figs and nuts, the two recipes I tried this week are remarkably different. De Vita sweetens hers only with the fruit and some sugar. Rachel’s uses honey.

I’m struggling a bit at the moment as I keep wondering about vegan stuff for my stall, and honey is a ahem sticking point. Many vegans are staunchly anti-honey. I love the stuff, and beekeeping friends have explained to me it’s a more symbiotic relationship with the bees, not the wholly exploitative one Donald Watson suggested in his 1944 edicts on the founding of the Vegan Society.

Anyway, Rachel’s (on the left in pic above), which uses mixed nuts and more candied peel alongside the honey, has a more pleasing texture. She describes it as like a “soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat with a whisper of cake”. Which is spot on. De Vita’s, on the other hand, is surprisingly bready, considering the yeasted dough forms such a small proportion of the whole. It’s like a dense, more traditional, fruit cake, even one we’d recognise here in Britain. It’s good, but not as good. So I’m going with honey, more peel, more varied nuts. No yeast. And possibly even egg yolks in the glaze. Though whether it really needs to be quite so yellow is something I’m still undecided about. I need another research trip to Rome!

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Harvest festival wheat sheaf loaf

A bread wheat sheaf for a harvest festival

Beside my primary school was a church, St Stephen’s. In the summer, house martins built their nests under its eaves and whizzed over our heads as we came and went or played in the yard on wet days. Just as the house martins were leaving at the end of the summer, the autumn term started. Soon after, we had a harvest festival.

The abiding notion in Britain is that school summer holidays freed up children to help with the harvest. This may be a myth, but certainly the biggest grain harvests start happening here in the middle of school holidays, around the festival of Lammas, 1 August.

Harvest festivals continue through late summer and autumn, notably occurring around the time of the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox. This year, the equinox is today, 23 September, the full moon 28 September. Though our local primary school is doing its harvest festival on 16 October. I’ve not seen how they do it yet, but I’ve got strong memories from a couple (several) decades ago of the festivals at St Stephen’s, with the altar piled high with foods, to give thanks and for charity. There were tinned foods, but there was also fresh autumn produce, and possibly even a wheat sheaf: real or made of dough.

Stalks and symbolism
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested. It was a common sight at this time of year during the centuries when harvests were done by hand with scythes. I did it this way when I lived on a small farm in New Zealand in 1990, and I know people these days growing heritage grain varieties that still do in England, but mostly harvesting is done now with combines: so no more sheaves.

An old "wheatsheaf" pub sign in Dorset

It’s a shame really, as they’re an ancient symbol and one that you’re more likely to encounter now in pub names. Symbolically, however, the wheat sheaf represents plenty, a good harvest, fertility and even resurrection, as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. Indeed, the sheaf infers bread, and bread is of course a quintessentially important symbolic food in some religions. The heart of Christianity is the eucharist: the eating of bread to reiterate the Last Supper, where Jesus prepared for his sacrifice by shared bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20).

Back to school
Although I’m not religious, I enjoy the symbolism and stories, and most of all appreciate the tradition, so I thought it was about time I had a go at a bread wheat sheaf.

It’s based on the recipe in The Bread Book by Linda Collister (1993) which is in turn based on a recipe in The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer (1907) by John Kirkland, a former head of The National Bakery School (founded 1894), then at Borough Polytechnic and now part of London South Bank University. I did a diploma there in 2010, but we didn’t make anything quite this ornate.

This is slightly tricky to do in a domestic oven as it won’t be as capacious as a commercial oven. Mine can cope with baking sheets 35cm wide. It’ll mean your sheaf isn’t as grand as those professionals might make for harvest festivals, but even the comparatively stumpy results can still be very pleasing.

It’s a fairly time-consuming project. Not only do you have to make the dough and wait for it to prove, you also have to shape a lot of small pieces of dough. Notably to make the ears of corn. (And when I say corn, I’m using it in the Old English sense meaning any edible grain, though particularly wheat grain, not the modern American sense – which is taking over here in Britain – meaning maize.)

1350g strong white bread flour
20g salt
8g caster sugar
15g fresh yeast
750g tepid water (approximately, see below)

Glaze
1 egg
Pinch salt

1. Combine the yeast and most of the water. Hold say 100g back.
2. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine.
3. Add the yeast mixture and bring to a dough.
4. It will be quite a tight, firm dough as you want it for sculpting, however if it feels too dry add a little more of the water. How dry your dough feels will depend on how absorbent your flour is. As I’m using a stoneground flour, which contains more bran than an industrial steel roller-milled flour, it’s quite absorbent.

Turn out the doughKnead to a smooth dough
5. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth and well combined. These days I rarely do long manual kneads, but as this is quite old-school, go with it. I added water to a total of about 750g – meaning the dough is 55% hydration.

Before provingDoubled in size

6. Return the ball of dough to the bowl (cleaned and lightly oiled), cover or put in a plastic bag, then leave to prove until doubled in size. At an ambient temperature of about 18C this too about two and half hours.
7. When doubled, turn out. My total dough weighed approximately 2150g.

Deflate the dough
8. Give the dough another short knead to deflate and redistribute the gases. Again, this isn’t a loaf where we’re after a nice pleasing crumb, it’s a medium for sculpting.
9. Divide the dough up into pieces: two at 320g, one at 400g and the rest, about 1110g. Don’t worry too much about total accuracy – you’re making a wheat sheaf, an organic thing, not something geometric.
10. As this is quite a protracted process, you might want to keep the pieces you’re not working on in the fridge, so they don’t keep proving and swelling too much. Too much proving and the resulting shape may crack where you don’t want it to.

Wheat sheaf base layer
11. Take the two 320g pieces and form two rough rectangles, approximately 22x13cm. Use one to form the trunk of the sheaf, the other the top. Place both pieces on the largest baking sheet you have (that’ll fit in your oven of course). Stretch the head out slightly. You want a kind of cartoon tree or mushroom shape. Prick all over with a fork and brush with water to stop a crust forming. Cover with a damp cloth while you do the next bit.

30 pieces30 pieces into sausages
30 pieces as stalks

12. Take the 400g piece and divide it into 30 pieces, each scaled at around 13g.
13. Roll these pieces into snakes, again about 22cm long.

Add the stalks
14. Place 27 of the snakes on the base, making the wheat stalks. Twist or braid the remaining three to form a sheaf band, tucking its ends underneath on each side.
15. Cover or bag this and place it in the fridge as the next bit is the most time-consuming.
16. Take the large, remaining piece of dough. This is to create to ears. Divide it up into about 70 pieces, each scaled at 16g-ish. Do more, smaller pieces if you want daintier ears.

Make the ears
17. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out, rolling one end to a point.
18. With a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, make snips in the small piece of dough, three or four, on three sides. Cut down and inwards towards the rounded base. It’s a bit like making dozens of mini versions of the French pain d’épi – meaning ear or cob bread.
19. You could make all of them in advance, but I got the main part out of the fridge again, and started positioning them on the top. Place them loosely to give a sense of them having grown out of the stalks.
20. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 220C.
21. Keep adding the ears, layering slightly, with the thickest point in the middle.

Position all the ears
23. Beat the one egg with the pinch of salt and use it to – carefully and lightly – glaze the sheaf.
23. Bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush with more egg glaze.
24. Turn the heat down to 170C and bake for another 40 minutes or so until nicely browned.

Baked

At this point, you can decide whether you want to eat it – it’s a perfectly serviceable, albeit low hydration, bread – or use it as a decoration. If you want it for the latter, turn your oven down to 140C or 130C and leave it in for a few hours longer to completely dry it out. Collister says six hours and if you have a wood or oil range, maybe you could just leave it in, but using electricity this seems a bit excessive in terms of energy consumption.

Collister decorates hers with a blobby little mouse on the stalks. If I’d been doing this with children in the house I might have been tempted, but as our adoption process continues to drag us along on its emotional roller-coaster, and we still haven’t been able to expand our family, I wasn’t inclined.

It’s easy to make a mouse though – just save 30g or so of the dough used for the wheat ears, make it into an eggy shape, snip a few ears, skewer a few eyes and add a snaky tail. I don’t think the mouse has any particular symbolism, though I could be wrong. Maybe it today it could symbolism how biodiversity is so tragically compromised by modern industrial farming techniques.

Wheatsheaf, detail

Addendum
So I dried out the wheat sheaf loaf – every time I used to oven for other things, then turned it off, I put the loaf back in to dry while it cooled.

I gave it to the local primary school, where I volunteer, and they used it as part of their harvest festival display. It’s a nice echo of my own memories of harvest festival at my primary school, all those years ago.

School harvest festival display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few notes
1. Here’s a film of a British master baker making a wheat sheaf in 1957. His wheat ears are a bit finer than mine!
2. Out of interest, Fran, my wife, works at Kew Foundation, at Kew Gardens in London. As I was doing this, she was working on a document that contained this remarkable statistic. While the human genome contains 3 billion letters, that of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ) contains 17 billion. I’m not a scientist – clearly – but that’s boggling. The human sense of superiority leads one to imagine a sophisticated, sentient animal organism like us would be that much more genetically complicated.

 

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Wheat tortilla and tlayuda, the “Mexican pizza”

Tlayuda, the so-called Mexican pizza

In 2007, Fran and I went to Mexico. We had a few weeks in the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, in the southwest of the country. Wandering the amazing indoor markets there, with their coloured fabrics, leather goods and teetering piles of red grasshopper snacks (chapulines), we discovered tlayuda, or tlayuda Oaxacqueña.

Tlayuda has been dubbed the “Mexican pizza” as it’s superficially similar – a wheat-based disc and toppings including stringy cheese. It’s made with that quintessential Mexican food: the tortilla, an unleavened flatbread, compared to the leavened dough of pizza. And also unlike the most familiar pizzas, with their tomato sauce1, the basis of the topping is beans, refritos.2 The pizza comparison goes further because of that stringy cheese, though real tlayuda Oaxacqueña uses a unique local cheese, queso Oaxaca, or quesillo.

Spun cheeses
Queso Oaxaca is made with the same technique as mozzarella, giving rise to that stringy texture. This involves the heated curds being stretched and rolled into balls, not unlike balls of spun yarn. The technique is called pasta filata, which could be translated as “spun paste”. The queso Oaxaca may indeed be related to mozzarella, there’s a suggestion on Wikipedia (with no sources to back it up) that it was brough by Dominican monks, presumably Italian Dominicans. Whatever the history of the cheese, it’s great. Though not exactly readily available in England. Even Tomasina Miers’ Mexican street food chain, Wahaca (see what she’s done there?) just used mozzarella, if memory serves.

Miers she has a recipe for tlayuda here, and for the base she just suggests “large Middle Eastern pittas, Turkish or Italian flatbreads” in lieu of wheat tortilla. This seems a bit of a cheat to me, never mind the fact that most supermarket flatbreads are full of crap industrial ingredients and palm oil. Plus this blog is all about baking from scratch!

So I’m making my wheat tortilla; it’s pretty straightforward. Traditionally these would be made on a comal – an earthenware or cast iron flat griddle. As my kitchen isn’t equipped with a comal, I’m just using a heavy cast iron skillet. It means the tortilla aren’t that big, diameter-wise, but it’ll have to do.

You’re best off making the refritos first, as they take some time. You could speed up the beans a bit by using a tin, but I prefer to cook from dried.

Wholewheat tortilla with toppings - the tlayuda

Toppings
As with a pizza, you can vary your tlayuda toppings, but I’m trying to re-create what I remember eating.

Although Fran ate hers with shredded meat, I had them with just the refritos, salad – tomatoes, crisp lettuce, avocado – and the cheese.

Miers suggests a combination of mozzarella and pecorino (presumably pecorino Romano) or mature cheddar; I’m going for a combination of mozzarella and a feta-type cheese made here in Sussex called Medita. A nice crumbly Wensleydale might be good too. People reading this in the US, I don’t know enough about your cheeses but similarly something salty and crumbly.3

You can add some salsa to the mix too, or some coriander (cilantro) leaves.

Refried beans, frijoles refritos
Most commonly these are made with pinto or black beans, though I’ve also done them in kidney beans. In fact, all three of these, along with flageolet, borlotti and haricot (aka navy) beans, are the same species, the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, transformed into distinct looking cultivars after years of selective breeding. Again, as I prefer to use local ingredients where possible (though we can’t grow avos in England, dammit!), I’m using red haricots from Hodmedod’s.

500g beans
Water
Sunflower or rapeseed (canola) oil. (Traditionally you’d use lard. I’ve even done it with bacon fat, which is good. But not for the veggies.)
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, whole
Salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Chili (optional)

1. Soak the beans overnight, discard the water, then put in a saucepan along with the coarsely chopped onion and whole garlic cloves, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer until tender.
2. Drain, reserving the cooking water.
3. In a large frying pan, fry the finely chopped onion and crushed garlic in the oil or fat until soft.
4. Add the cooked beans, and fry over a low heat. If it’s too dry, add some of the cooking water.
5. Squash and crush the mixture with a fork or potato masher. You can make a puree with a blender, food processor or stick blender (aka zizzer) but I prefer the more varied texture you can from hand-mashing. Add more of the cooking liquid to achieve a nice sloppy consistency but not too runny.
6. Keep warm while you prepare the rest of the tlayuda, or re-heat when required.

(I did take some photos of the refritos, but frankly it’s not the most attractive-looking thing on its own and I simply don’t have the inclination or skills to make it look fancy.)

Wheat tortilla
As I understand it, tlayuda is always made with wheat tortilla, not corn (maize) tortilla. I’m using a mixture of wholewheat and white flours, both stoneground, and both low protein. The amount of water I give is just a guide, QB. The exact amount will depend on how absorbent your flour is.

150g plain wholewheat flour
100g plain white wheat flour
2g fine sea salt
60g oil, lard or shortening. I used sunflower oil
100g warm water, approx

Wheat tortilla ingredients

1. Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl.

Add the oil
2. Add the oil or fat and combine. If you’re using a solid fat, crumb in it. Either way the result will be crumb-like.

Tortilla dough, moist but not sticky
3. Add the water a little at a time to form a moist but not sticky dough. Bring together as a ball. The dough should weigh about 400g.
4. Wrap in plastic or cover with a cloth and leave to rest for 20-30 minutes.

Balls of tortilla dough
5. Now, the size of your skillet will decree how big you can make your balls of dough to be rolled into tortilla. My skillet is only 23cm wide, so I made 6 balls of dough at about 66g each. Again, once you’ve formed the balls, give them a rest, covered.
6. Warm up the skillet, dry – don’t oil it.
7. On a floured work surface, roll out the balls. The dough should be about 2mm thick.

Cooking wheat tortilla in a skillet
8. Cook the tortillas one after the other turning them over when they start to blister. It’ll only take a few minutes each side. Cook them too long and they go crisp, or hard.
9. Keep the rolled tortillas in a stack, under a clean cloth.

Assemble your tlayuda
Cut up your salad ingredients – dice or slice the tomatoes and avo, shred the lettuce. Bring the mozzarella to room temperature and tear it in rough shreds; crumble the other cheese. Prep some coriander leaves if you want.

Take a tortilla. Smear it with refritos. Dose it with the torn mozzarella. Sprinkle over some of the crumbly cheese. Add some shredded lettuce, and some slices or tomato and avocado. Try not to completely overload it.

I don’t remember the tlayuda we ate being spiced or heated up particularly. But if you like chili, and can’t bear the idea of eating something nominally Mexican but without any chili, feel free to add some fresh slices or chili, or whatever Scovillage your favour. We had such a good chili harvest this week I added a little mild chili (apache) to the refritos, but it’s up to you.

Enjoy!

Some of this year's chili harvest

 

Footnotes
1 Any pizza with a tomato sauce is called pizza rossa (red pizza) in Italy, though it also specifically refers to a very basic pizza – just base and sauce. Pizza bianca (white pizza) refers to any pizza that doesn’t have a tomato sauce, though it also refers specifically to a snack – very popular in Rome – that is just the flatbread itself, seasoned simply with the olive oil and perhaps a sprinkle of course salt.
2 Wikipedia says refritos actually means “well-fried beans”, not “refried beans”, as we’ve been led to believe all these years.
3 So yes, I’ve heard of Monterey Jack, and I’ve encountered a bright orange stuff that often comes in plasticky slices and gets called “Cheddar”. This is problematic if you’re English, as Cheddar is an actual place in the west of the country, and the traditional cheese produced there is a hard, full-fat cow’s milk cheese that is undyed, uncoloured. I don’t know why real cheddar doesn’t have an European PDO (protected designation of origin) status, or similar. I suppose the name has become so synonymous with generic hard cow’s milk cheeses now it’s too late to re-educate people and protect it.

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Kubaneh – Yemeni Jewish breakfast bread

Kubaneh

The latest addition to my cookbook library is Honey & Co’s The Baking Book, by Sarit Packer and Itomar Srulovich. It has the same UK publisher as my friend Rachel’s Five Quarters (which boasts a couple of my recipes), so I went along to the launch event a few weeks ago, bought a copy, got it signed and have been trying out the recipes since.

I love enriched doughs, so I was drawn to the recipe for kubaneh. Sarit’s family has Egyptian and Yemeni connections, and this bread is from the latter culture, specifically it’s a Yemenite-Jewish Sabbath breakfast bread. Reading more about it now, it’s traditionally baked overnight in a sealed tin. While Sarit’s version bakes for a fairly long time, it’s not overnight.

Some versions include whole eggs, and can be eaten as more savoury affair, with tomatoes or a tomato dip, or skhug, Yemeni hot sauce*. This one is sweeter. It’s rich in butter (or smen/semneh fermented sheep or goat milk butter; or margarine, depending on your dietary restrictions and inclinations and shopping options) and drizzled with honey, which caramelises together slightly.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?! Just my kind of thing.

Notes
I’ve tweaked the process slightly and given the ingredients in a more consistent format, so as to also include bakers’ percentages (below).

It’s a fairly moist dough – the original recipe says 300-350ml water, but I split the difference at 325ml: 325g. That works out at about 65% hydration, so quite wet and sticky. Check out my post on handling sticky doughs.

For this baking vessel, they use a “traditional lidded aluminium pot” but say you can also use a 20cm fixed bottom round cake tin, with a “lid” made of foil.

I used fresh yeast. You could use 10g active dry/granular yeast instead. If you only have instant/powdered yeast, you don’t need to mix it with liquid first – just combine it with the flour.

The dough
60g light soft brown sugar
15g fresh yeast
325g water, at about body temperature
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) white flour
6g fine salt

Plus
Vegetable oil
Unsalted butter, softened (or margarine or smen, if you can get it. Very unlikely here in England!)
Runny honey

Here is it in bakers’ percentages (rounded):

Ingredient Quantity Percentage
Light soft brown sugar 60g 12%
Fresh yeast 15g 3%
Water 325g 65%
Strong white flour 250g 50%
Plain white flour 250g 50%
Salt 6g 2.5%

1. Mix together the water, sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
2. Weigh out the flours into a large bowl and add the salt.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and bring together a dough. I don’t have a mixer, so my instructions are for doing it by hand. If you do, just mix until well combined and smooth.

Kubaneh shaggy doughKubaneh - kneading doughKubaneh - smooth dough
4. Turn out the shaggy mixture onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. I used the Dan Lepard technique of not kneading too much, then returning the dough to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, leaving for 10 minutes, then kneading briefly again. Repeat this twice more, then return to the cleaned, lightly oiled bowl.
5. Cover with plastic or a clean, damp tea towel and leave to prove for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size. The time will depend on the ambient temperature. It’s about 20C in my kitchen on a mild English summer’s day, and it took about two and a half hours.

Kubaneh dough - proved
6. While it’s proving, liberally grease the cake tin with butter, and grease the underside of the foil lid too. If you have a lidded pot, grease that similarly.

Kubaneh dough - slapped around
7. Sarit describes the next step as “the strange bit” – you moisten your hands then “flip the dough about in the bowl to knock it back”. Do it three times, keeping your hands moist.

Kubaneh dough - pieces
8. Oil a tray, then divide the dough up into eight pieces and place them on the tray. The dough weighs 900g, so eight pieces at around 112g.
9. Oil your hands a bit then take each piece, stretch it slightly, and put a blob of butter in the middle. I used pieces at about 10g, half a walnut size.
10. Smear the butter a bit then wrap the dough around it to form rough balls.

Kubaneh dough pieces in tin
11. Put the balls in the prepared tin, one in the middle, the rest equally spaced around it.
12. Put some more flecks of butter on top, drizzle with honey then cover and prove again until the dough “almost reaches the top” – too high and it’ll “overflow when baked.” I drizzled a bit more honey and added a bit more butter before baking.

Kubaneh dough ready for baking
13. Preheat the oven to 220C.
14. Put the tin, with its lid, in the oven and bake for half an hour.
15. Reduce the heat to 200C and continue baking for another half an hour.
16. Reduce the heat again to 180C and continue baking for another half an hour.
17. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven “for at least an hour”.
18. It’s best served warm, so if you’re an insomniac and have been doing this all night, or proved it overnight in the fridge and baked it early, enjoy it thus.

It’s surprisingly soft and chewy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get nice caramelised bits. I won’t be doing it every week, but it’s a great addition to my enriched breads & breakfast bakes armoury. It’s also reminiscent of English lardy cakes, particularly the fruit-free versions from my part of the country, Hampshire and Sussex. Though obviously the fats used are a bit different for that gentile bake.

It’s also got me thinking about that most indulgent of fatty-sugary-doughy caramelised concoctions, the Breton kouign amann, which is more a pastry than a bread. Still, I might have to revisit that soon.

* Aka zhug, zehug; the Honey & Co The Baking Book also has a recipe for this, to accompany their lahooh, Yemeni pancakes.

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Toxins in our bread

An email from the Soil Association arrived in my inbox yesterday. It’s a petition…. no, no, don’t stop reading! This is important, especially if you eat grain-based foods* and, you know, don’t want to completely kill the environment and poison the food chain. It involves bread, and poisons therein.

For those who don’t know, the Soil Association is a UK charity that campaigns to promote organic farming as well as providing certification to farmers. Now, I broadly support organic practises for the common sense reason that using chemicals designed to kill living things in farming cannot be healthy for consumers – we are, after all, living things ourselves.

But nor do I completely reject non-organic farming, for a few key reasons. Firstly, people may be farming in a more traditional way but not want the strict restrictions that accompany certified organic farming. Secondly, I’m dubious about large-scale certified organic farming: it doesn’t seem dissimilar to non-organic industrial farming in its heavy use of fossil fuels, food miles etc. Thirdly, strictly organic systems may not be viable for feeding a global population of seven, eight, nine, ten billion.

Weedkillers in food
I’m not getting into these arguments now though as they’re complex. Instead, I want to promote is an awareness of this current Soil Association campaign. The email I received had a title “Not in our bread” with a subtitle that says, “Government tests show nearly 1/3rd of UK’s bread can contain weedkiller”. This figure is credited to a 2013 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) report. After the same report, a news story last year said “63% of the loaves analysed in 2013 contained traces of at least one pesticide and that contamination has run at these levels for at least a decade.”

That’s shocking by any reckoning. Shocking, though probably not surprising. Since the two world wars, those of us in industrialised countries, then since the so-called “Green Revolution” those in developing countries, have embraced industrial farming methods that rely heavily on chemical inputs. We’ve known for a long while that such things are toxic, and such toxics are having an effect on the environment – getting into the water table, changing (damaging) the ecology of waterways, effecting animal and insect populations**. But we’ve been complacent about the effects, as if increasing crop yields and pushing down food prices are the only things that matter. Well, sure they matter – but poisoning ourselves and our environment matters too. Just a bit.

Is cheap, plentiful food worth it at the cost of our health and that our the environment?

Damaging our genes
The problem being addressed by this petition relates to glyphosate, a weedkiller. The chemical was discovered in the 1950s then Monsanto recognised it as a weedkiller in 1970. (A great way to commemorate the year of my birth; thanks Monsanto.) It was considered to have a comparatively low toxicity to animals, and became the key ingredient of commercially available weedkillers, most notably in Monsanto’s proprietary weedkiller Roundup.

Now, I never eat shitty industrial faux-bread and wheat-based products and I try to buy organic flour for my bread, but when I’m skint, I do resort to cheaper flours. And these will almost certainly have come from wheat crops nuked with such toxins. It’s a worrying thought.

The Soil Association says, “Government figures show its [glyphosate’s] use in UK farming has increased by a shocking 400% in the last 20 years. Nearly a third of UK cereal crops (over 1 million hectares) were sprayed with glyphosate in 2013.” It’s used on crops too, as well as in parks and gardens.

The Soil Association email also says, “Farmers spray the weedkiller pre-harvest, in order to kill and dry the crop and reduce weeds for easier harvesting. But, The International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] – part of the World Health Organisation – has recently identified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.”

Professor Christopher Portier of the IARC says, “Glyphosate is definitely genotoxic.” That is, it damages your DNA. Furthermore, proprietary weedkiller mixes may be even worse. Dr Robin Mesnage of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Kings College, London, said at a Westminster briefing, “We know Roundup… contains many other chemicals, which when mixed together are 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate on its own.”

It sounds like most of us will already be consuming products containing these toxics, and it’s unlikely that’ll stop any time soon. Some nations have already moved to ban glyphosate products, though in the UK, the Soil Association is initially just trying to exert pressure to stop the pre-harvest spraying, which would be a step in the right direction. If you would prefer to reduce the amount of toxins and carcinogens in your food supply, sign the petition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Like any sane, non-coeliac, person should.
** Insects that are food for other animals and insects that are pollinators. Such side-effects of large-scale industrial farming are quiet catastrophes that are already proving to have consequences. Another group of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, neonicotinoid insecticides, has been connected with the severe decline of bees recently. No bees to pollinate = no crops such as fruits, brassicas (from broccoli and cabbage to mustard and oilseed rape), coffee, onion, sunflowers, various beans/peas/legumes etc etc etc etc. Check out a comprehensive list here.

Just as I wrote this, we had some (more) terrible anti-sustainability news here in the UK: the government has ignored scientific advice and softened rules on neonicotinoid use. They’ve granted a derogation, allowing farmers to spray it on oilseed rape crops. More info here. It’s a difficult one as farmers have got used to this chemical-industrial approach to cultivation, and struggle when they’re banned, but such toxins aren’t the answer. Surely with a combination of traditional knowledge garnered from millennia of farming and modern science we can find sustainable solutions?

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A version of khobz, khubz, khoubz Arabic bread

Khobz, torn open, with ful medames

Recently, I’ve been making various Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean flatbreads, or at least flattish-breads that are leavened but formed into low profile shapes. These include types of Armenian bread (peda and matnakash), naan/nan (which I’ve been experimenting with, but haven’t quite cracked; watch this space) and of course pizza bianca and pizza. So I also fancied having a go at khobz, aka khoubz, aka khubz, aka khobez (all transliterations of خبز).

Now, before anyone says “Those aren’t khobz!” or “Those don’t look like the khobz I buy from my local Arabic deli”, bear in mind that the word simply means bread in standard Arabic, it’s not one particular type of bread.

Baked, wrapped in a cloth

Wikipedia says it’s a synonym for pita, but that’s not quite right. Whereas pita is, generally and most commonly here in the UK, a white wheat flour flatbread with a pocket, I’ve had khobz in various forms. For our wedding, where we had a Middle Eastern-inspired feast, a Yemeni-British friend sourced a load from an Arabic bakery in west London: they were foot-wide, thin and floppy. But I’ve also had khobz that are smaller, discus-shaped, not flat breads, but in this flattish category I enjoy. This latter, I believe, may be more typical to Morocco, but having never been there I’m not sure. Rather than being made with just white wheat flour, these can contain wholemeal wheat flour and semolina.

When I was a kid, semolina was simply a slightly off-putting gruelly pudding we had for school lunches, but it more specifically refers to a coarse flour or meal made from durum wheat.

Durum wheat is Triticum durum aka Triticum turgidum subsp. durum, a cousin to common bread wheat, Triticum aestivum. It’s principally used for making pasta – and not so common in England as a sludgy pudding any more, though I’m sure it’s due for a fancy revival.

Whatever the form the khobz takes, it’s designed for eating torn and smeared with stews and dips.

Oh, and I don’t have a tannuur, or tandoor, so they’re just baked in a normal domestic oven.

12g fresh yeast
320g water, tepid
200g strong white flour
100g wholemeal wheat flour
150g semolina
5g salt

1. Crumble the yeast into the water and whisk.

Different floursAdd the yeast water
2. Combine the flours, semolina and salt in a large bowl.
3. Pour in the yeasty water and bring the mixture together to form a shaggy dough.

Shaggy doughSmooth-ish dough
4. Turn out and knead to a smooth dough, or put in a mixer to achieve the same result with less elbow grease.
5. Put the ball of dough back into the large bowl, cleaned and slightly oiled. Cover with a damp cloth then leave for half an hour.
6. Take out the dough, stretch it into a rough rectangle then fold it in thirds. This is called stretch and fold, a useful technique for developing doughs. (See my pizza bianca recipe for more on the process, including photos.)
7. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave for another half hour. Do one more stretch and fold, then put it back, cover and leave until doubled in size.

Doubled in size
8. Take out the dough and weigh it. It should weight about 790g. For six small loaves, divide it into six pieces, each weighing about 130g.

Divide into 6 piecesForm balls
9. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for about 10 minutes.

Form discs
10. Sprinkle the worktop with more flour, then, using the heel of your hand, squash down the balls into discs, about 15cm in diameter. Place these on baking sheets dusted with semolina, and cover.

Before baking
11. Leave to prove again, until doubled in size.
12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Bake the loaves until slightly browned. Time will vary depending on how fierce your oven is, but at least 10 minutes and less than 20.
14. Wrap in a clean tea towel or cloth then serve, warm-ish.

Khobz wiuth ful medames

I made this batch to have with ful medames, the broad bean/fava dish that is arguably from Egypt but is found throughout much of the Levant and Arabic East Africa in various localised forms, and a lemony tahini sauce. I love beans, legumes, pulses, and I prefer to buy locally grown, or at least British produce. Sadly, a lot of the pulses we could get in Italy, just don’t grow in Britain, or the ones available in the shops are all from China. Too far, too dubious. At the moment, I’m favouring fava etc from British producer Hodmedods, and they include a regime for ful medames in one of the leaflets that comes with their pulses.

Apparently broad beans/fava – Vicia faba – have been grown in Britain since the Iron Age, that is the period of about a millennium prior to the comprehensive Roman invasion of 43AD. I love the idea of making an Arabic bread, to eat with an Egyptian stew, made with British grown broad beans, known by their Italian name.

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Challah

Challah torn 2

Not being Jewish, I don’t have an iota of authority making challah, aka chollah, challa. But it’s a bread I love, and I’ve made a few times before, so I wanted to revisit it.

Quintessential for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, challah is not only a delicious enriched bread, a religious cousin to the secular brioche, it’s a great shape. I love the braid format, it’s handsome, fun to make and satisfying to tear.

I believe one of the reasons it’s a braid is that it’s easier to tear and as such doesn’t require cutting, thus avoiding introducing a knife – a weapon – to Sabbath and holiday proceedings.

Challah torn 3

I also believe the strands of the braid are symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Being a pretty amateur braider, I’m not ready for a 12-strand version yet, so I am sticking with the more commonplace four-strand form. It’s not something I’ve done for a few years, so excuse any clunkiness in execution. Heck, I can’t even practice plaiting my wife’s hair, as she’s wearing it short at the moment.

Symbols and meanings
Talking of the symbolism and heritage of challah, I do get the impression that there are different interpretations. So while Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food writes, “… the meaning of the word challah in biblical Hebrew is this bit of dough, ‘the priest’s share’.” Claudia Roden writes, “The name challah was given to a bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages, when it was adopted by Jews for the Sabbath… John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention of the bread was in the fifteenth century and that the term was coined in Austria. Before that the bread was called berches, a name that is still used by Jews in some parts today.”

Other sources suggest berches – at least today – is a water-based challah, with potato in the dough. Fascinating. I love these baked-goods family trees.

Anyway, my challah is a dairy version. I’ve read about enough American-Jewish versions to know they exist, with butter instead of oil and milk instead of water, but not enough to understand the kosher restrictions. Indeed, none of my friends with Jewish heritage seem to understand these things either, so I shouldn’t kick myself too much for being an ignorant gentile in this case. Adapt as fits your requirements, eg replace the sugar with honey.

Recipe

As with all my recipes, it helps if you have electronic scales. And I use grams. They’re simply easier and more accurate. Plus, it’s the second decade of the 21st century, folks!

I’ve included baker’s precentages too, as they’re handy for conversions, scaling, comparisons etc.

This recipe uses a pre-ferment, a sponge. It’s a very pleasing technique, as you feed the yeast on some of the flour and some, or all of the liquid, and create what becomes a lively bubbling mass. Andrew Whitney also says it’s an important and useful technique for enriched doughs as “Yeast cannot feed on ingredients like fat, egg and spice, so it is a good idea to get it working vigorously before mixing it with these things.”

Make 2 medium sized, 4-braid loaves

Ingredients

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
White bread flour 60 340
Plain white flour 40 225
Milk 42 240
Yeast (fresh) 2 12
Egg 20 110
Salt 1 6
Butter 12 70
Caster sugar 4 25
Total 181 1028

Notes
White bread flour – that is, higher protein.
Plain or all-purpose flour – that is, lower protein.
Use 6g of active dried yeast or 5g of instant yeast instead.
110g of beaten egg was exactly two medium eggs for me, though sizes vary. I wouldn’t agonise too much, bit more would be fine as it’s quite a dry dough.

Method

1. Warm up the milk and crumble in the yeast. In a medium bowl, mix the yeasty milk, the sugar and 200g of the white bread flour and beat together to make a slurryish mixture.
2. Cover and leave to get bubbly. This will take about an hour, depending on temperature. You could leave it in the fridge overnight.
3. In a large bowl, combine the plain flour, the remaining bread flour and the salt
4. The butter should be soft – at least at room temperature. If it’s not, warm it up a bit. I tend to nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave.
5. Crack a couple of eggs into a bowl, whisk briefly, then weigh out the necessary amount.

Combine egg, butter, sponge and flourBring together
6. Put the butter, egg and sponge in the large bowl with the other flour and bring to a dough. Alternatively, just combine in a mixer with a dough hook, and form the dough.

Turn outKnead till smooth
7. If working by hand, turn out the mixture and knead until you have a smooth dough.

Prove till doubled
8. Form the dough into a ball, then put it in a large, clean bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the air temperature but mine took about two hours.
9. Turn out the dough, then form it into a ball again. Leave to rest, covered, for five minutes.

Divide into pieces
10. Weigh the dough. It should weigh around 1000g. To make two medium loaves, divide it into eight pieces, each weighing about 125g. Alternatively, you can make one large loaf – just divide into four pieces, each weighing about 250g.
11. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for five minutes.

Form balls, form strands
12. Form each ball into a snake or sausage or rope. You get the gist. Each needs to be the same length. Mine were 50cm, but I’m actually thinking it looks better if they’re shorter. Your choice.
13. Take four snakes and pinch one end of each together firmly, tucking the end under and laying the strands out in front of you like half a tired octopus.

Lay out strands

14. There are plenty of videos online for braiding four strands. I remember it like this: 2/3, 4/2, 1/3 and repeat.

2 over 34 over 2

So take 2 (the second from the left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left), see above left. Then take 4 (the furthest right) and put it over 2 (the second from the left), see above right. Then take 1 (the furthest left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left).
Note, you’re not numbering the same strand itself, you’re numbering the position the strand is currently in, from left to right. Repeat to the end, then pinch together and tuck under again.

BraidingBraiding 2
15. Put on a baking sheet, cover and leave to prove again until doubled in size.
16. Preheat the oven to 220C.

Final prove - beforeFinal prove - after, egg wash
17. Brush the risen loaf with the remaining beaten egg. (At this point you can decorate it with seeds: poppy and/or sesame. Dip a wet knuckle in the seeds then press it onto a segment of the braid. Repeat until each segment has a patch of seeds on it.)

Baked
18. Put in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180 and keep baking for another half hour or so. You want a nice golden colour.
19. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

2 challah

 

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