Sunday, March 27, 2011

From the Sahara to Your Table - Tunisian Flatbread

I came across this recipe in an old collection I have and was instantly intrigued. I mean, I have made flatbreads before and some of them have even appeared here in this blog. Just do a quick search for pita, or laffa from the Middle East, or Naan from India or tortillas from Mexico.

Flat breads are conceivably the oldest kinds of bread of all. It is likely they are among the oldest of all cooked or baked goods we have anywhere. I can definitely see how nomadic tribes, by a campfire somewhere, took some grains that had been accidentally fermented in rainwater and formed into a pasty-like something, and slapped them on to the side of a stone in the fire. Or maybe they fell into the fire and they were so hungry they ate the 'burned' grains anyway  finding them to be delicious. However it happened, the first breads were not brioche, that's for sure. It is not a coincidence that everywhere in the world the first breads were all flat.

This bread, from Tunisia is no exception. Tunisia is in North Africa and probably 90% of its territory is desert. The natives, outside the cities, are to this day, mostly Beduin nomads. Sheep and camel herders and traders in the desert just like it has always been. This bread, using a combination of regular AP flour and the coarser semolina flour, is typical of breads where ingredients are simple and often scarce. The bread doubles as a scoop, also typical for Middle Eastern bread. Use it to sop up gravy or hummus, the justly famous chickpea dip found everywhere in the Middle East.

Here's What You'll Need:
50g (1/4 cup) semolina flour
250g (1 7/8 cup) AP flour
1 tsp. salt
250ml (1 cup) warm water
125ml (1/2 cup) olive oil
1 egg mixed in water for glaze
sesame seeds for decoration

Here's What You'll Need to Do:

Mix flour, water, salt, olive oil, yeast until dough adheres in a rough ball.  

Let rise for around an hour until double.   Preheat oven to 400 deg F.  (Around 200 deg C)
Divide and shape into two disks on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.

Brush with egg yolk.   Sprinkle with sesame seeds and za'atar (hyssop).  

Bake for 40 minutes.   (I turned down oven to 300 after 25 minutes.)  

*Another version of this type of bread uses all white flour, milk instead of water, and an egg thrown in, but I wanted to try to preserve as much of the original taste.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

More Basics - Searching for the Perfect Sandwich Loaf

I like some of the fancier breads as much as anyone, but sometimes what you really want is a simple sandwich bread. Something simple and sturdy but still tasty and substantial enough to hold your peanut butter, or corned beef or crispy veggies. A bread that won't turn soggy with mayo or other condiments and completely disintegrate but still be soft enough to hold onto in one hand. In short, the perfect sandwich bread.

And I think I have found one!!

In truth, I have been tweaking this recipe for a while. I mean, we all eat sandwiches, right? I started by adapting a recipe from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. Then added a few additional tweaks of my own.

The thinking is this... Time is your friend when baking bread. If you are patient and if you have the time, you can coax incredible flavors and textures out of bread flour. By mixing in a few 'extras', you can make it even tastier. So, in this post, I am actually going to show you two loaves of bread. Both great, but the second is, IMHO, even better because of the tweaking. Either way, you will have an incredible sandwich experience.

Here's What You'll Need:
for the starter:
1 3/4 cups (240g) AP flour
1 1/8 cups warm water
1/8 cup honey
1/2 tsp. yeast

Combine all the starter ingredients, whisking them to incorporate air. The result is a thick batter-like dough. Cover this with plastic wrap and let is sit for at least an hour (more is better) at room temperature. For an incredible bread, after an hour place it in the refrigerator overnight. Just don't forget to remove it an hour or so before using it tomorrow so it comes back to room temperature.

now for the dough:
1 1/2 cups (220g) AP flour
1/8 cup dry milk powder (I sometimes use non-dairy baby formula powder!)
1/2 tsp. yeast
3/8 cup unsalted butter or margarine softened to room temperature
1 1/8 tsp. salt

Mix together the flour, milk powder and yeast. Then pour it over the starter mixture to cover it like a blanket.
Do not mix it in yet! Let it sit, covered for another hour or more. You will see the starter mixture begin to bubble up in cracks in the flour 'blanket'. That is fine. In fact, it's great! After an hour or so (as much as 4 hours if you have the time) add the softened butter or margarine, and the salt. Then mix it all together to make a rough dough. Cover this and let it rest for 20 minutes. Then knead it on a lightly-floured surface for about 10 minutes until you have a smooth but slightly sticky dough. You may need to add a bit of flour to bring it together or spray with a little water to get the right consistency. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, covered, to rise until doubled. This will take 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Finally shape the dough into a loaf shape, trying not to remove too many bubbles.
 Place the shaped dough in a prepared loaf pan,
covered, just until it rises about 1 inch (2 1/2cm) above the rim of the pan.
Bake at 350 F (175 C) for about 40 to 50 minutes until deep brown. Cool on a rack for an hour before slicing!

* You can greatly enhance the wheaty flavor by substituting 1/3 cup whole wheat flour for the regular flour. This will require slight adjustments to the water requirements since whole wheat flour absorbs more water. The difference is amazing for such a small change. Look at these photos of the same bread but with whole wheat added - wow!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Almost Heaven - Challah Stuffed with Ricotta and Chestnuts

I have to admit that I hadn't thought of stuffing challah bread before. Of course, I know about stuffed breads, and have even tried my hand at it a few times. Still... challah is already so rich. It really is a kind of brioche but with less eggs and butter. My challah recipe is famous, at least in the extended family, and so the idea of stuffing it was a bit intimidating. The idea originated with an article I read in Al Hashulchan, an Israeli food monthly I subscribe to. This latest issue is their annual baking special and it features a recipe for stuffed breads.

Now, honestly, I've never baked with chestnuts before so it was a bit of a learning experience. Also, I used homemade cottage cheese using a recipe my cousin Morey Altman taught me a while ago.

This is a recipe for patient people who like a rich bread surrounding an even richer interior. It takes time. Period. But believe me, it is worth the wait. Best eaten warm, it has good keeping qualities. That means you can slice a piece tomorrow and toast it!! Eat it plain (as if this is plain bread) or covered in butter, incredible!

Here's What You'll Need: (for a single loaf)
2 cups AP flour
1/3 cup (about 50g) rye flour
1 egg
1/8 cup (about 30g) demerara sugar
1/2 Tbs. lemon zest
1/2 Tbs. yeast
1 1/4 cup (185ml) warm water
6 Tbs. (about 100g) butter or margarine, softened
a little less than 1/2 Tbs. salt

for the filling:
about 350g (12oz) fresh chestnuts
200g (a little less than 7oz) ricotta cheese

Here's What You'll Need to Do:
1. Mix all the dough ingredients together, then remove to a lightly floured surface and knead vigorously, for 10 to 12 minutes to form a smooth, soft,slightly tacky dough. Place this dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat, then cover and let it rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

2. In the meantime, cut an 'X' in the bottom of each chestnut. Place them in a pot of boiling water and cook over low heat until they peel easily. This could take 45 minutes. Peel the chestnuts then chop coarsely. Chill the chopped nuts until ready to use.

3. Mix the nuts with the other ingredients for the filling.

4. Divide the dough into 3 pieces. Flatten each piece into a rough rectangle. Then place about 1/3 of the filling on each piece, in the middle. Close the dough around the filling, pinch to close the dough then roll to seal the filling inside. Finally, braid the 3 pieces of filled dough into a challah shape.

5. Place the shaped, filled bread into a prepared loaf pan. Cover, and place in a warm place until is rises to just slightly higher than the rim of the pan.

6. Bake for 45 minutes in an oven heated to 350F (180C) or to 300F (150C) in a convection oven. Cool on a rack completely before slicing.

7. Pass the butter!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Something New and Old - Oat Bran Sandwich Bread

If you had visited almost any food website a few years ago, even up to about last year, one ingredient would have certainly jumped out at you - oat bran. For years we all knew about wheat bran, that tough outer coating of the wheat 'seed' that protects it. Usually it is filtered away to make white flour. Or when left in place we have 'whole wheat' flour. But oat bran is/was more exotic somehow. And it was touted as being at the forefront for fighting everything from high cholesterol to cancer. Truthfully, oat bran actually does all those things but probably only if eaten in quantity. Like every day. Sadly oat bran has fallen from the public eye and is no longer the 'in' health food but that shouldn't take away from it's good healthy qualities. It just means something else is in fashion at the moment. If you don't have any, you can substitute regular wheat bran instead. This recipe calls for both. But using oat bran along with the wheat variety will make for a lighter bread with more fiber and who knows, maybe it will lower your cholesterol. In any event, this bread is delicious and has great texture and structure. So it is wonderful sliced for sandwiches and very healthy. Eat a slice every day!

Here's What You'll Need:
4 cups AP flour or bread flour
1 cup oat bran
1/4 cup wheat bran
3/8 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs. yeast
3/4 Tbs. salt
1/2 cup buttermilk or soy milk
1 1/4 cups warm water

Here's What You'll Need To Do:
1. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, including the brown sugar. Add the liquids and stir to combine. Move the ragged dough to a lightly-floured surface and knead for 10 minutes or so to make a smooth dough. As you knead the dough the bran will be more and more incorporated until it almost disappears. I have a confession to make. I own a bread machine, and sometimes, but only sometimes I use it to mix the dough. I never, ever use it to bake bread. I don't like the shape. Or the paddle stuck in the bottom, either. But sometimes, especially when the dough is sticky, it is a nice tool to have on hand for mixing and kneading the dough. As you can see from these photos, I used it for this bread.

2. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat, then cover and let it rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl and form into a loaf. Cover and let it rise again until it just rises over the tops of the loaf pan.

4. Bake at 350F (180C), or about 300F (150C in a convection oven) for about 45 minutes until golden brown. Let this bread cool completely on a rack before slicing. Yum!!!