Monday, May 28, 2007

I’m Back, with Bread

I have been living outside of the US for more than four years now; during this time, I have visited home on four occasions. Like other gradual transformations (wrinkles on the forehead, extra pounds around the hips), perhaps changes in one’s country are best noticed after prolonged absences. Maybe if I had lived in the U.S. last year, for example, I would have barely noticed the creep, creep, creep with which flavored water asserted itself on the shelves of my grocery store and the menus of my favorite sandwich shops. Perhaps I would have quietly absorbed the fact that water could somehow become healthier than itself through infusions of pomegranate and injections of vitamins.

Instead, I stepped off the plane excited to simply drink water straight from the tap without the tedium of boiling and filtering. Which meant I was dumbstruck by the innocently-posed question: “So, what flavor water would you like?” Um, the watery water flavor?

My first visit home three years ago was marked by a similarly perplexing experience.

I joined the lunchtime line at Bruegger's, very excited about eating my first bagel in more than a year. (However inauthentic you may think Bruegger's bagels are, they are the epitome of bagel-dom after viewing what passes for a bagel in Australia.) There I was, grappling with the deep “Everything? Or whole grain?” question, when I overheard a snippet of conservation. The store manager was commenting to his assistant, “I get asked to make those all the time now.” I followed his gaze until I spotted a bagel, plain, being totally eviscerated. As I stared, the assistant used his plastic-gloved finger to tear the entire inside bread from the bagel crust. He proceeded to layer sandwich fillings onto a bread-less bagel half.

What? A bread-less bagel? What is going on?

And then it hit me, the phenomenon I had missed while I was away: Atkins.

So, today, in honor of “catch-me-dumbstruck” food moments past, present and future, I offer you an extremely bready, completely anti-Atkins, Moroccan bread. Which I recommend you serve with tap water.

Moroccan Flatbread with Yeast (Batbout M’Khamer)
Slightly adapted From
World Vegetarian
Makes 5

1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters active dry yeast
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters sugar
1¾ cups / 210 grams unbleached, all-purpose white flour
1½ cups / 300 grams fine semolina flour
1½ teaspoons / 7.5 milliliters salt
Olive oil

Combine the yeast, sugar and 2 tablespoons of warm water in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve completely. Set aside for 5 minutes, or until the yeast begins to bubble.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mound the white flour and the semolina flour into the shape of a small hill. Hollow a crater on the hilltop and put the salt and the yeast mixture into it. Now slowly pour warm water into the crater. You will need about 1 cup of warm water, or slightly more. As you add the water, slowly gather the flour together into a ball. Keep adding the water a little at a time while gathering the dough, until the dough begins to form a soft, smooth ball. Once you can form a ball, begin to knead. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic. Form a ball.

Lightly grease a large, flat platter with the olive oil and set it aside. Coat your hands slightly with the oil. Break the dough into 5 equal, smooth balls. Place the balls on the oiled plate a good distance from one another. Cover with a clean dishcloth and set in a warm place for 5 to 10 minutes.

Lightly grease your countertop. Take one ball and, with the flat part of your fingers, flatten it out until it is 1/4-inch / 6-millimeters thick and 6 inches / 15.5 centimeters in diameter. (Note: Mine ended up slightly larger at this thickness.) Follow the same procedure with all of the balls. Cover the flatbreads with a clean dishcloth and set them aside for 1 hour.

Set a large, cast-iron frying pan over medium heat and let it get very hot. Pick up one flatbread and lay it in the center of the frying pan. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the bread over and cook for another minute. Now turn the bread over four more times, cooking each side for just 30 seconds. The bread should have some toasty brown spots on each side. Then stand the bread in the pan as if it were a wheel, and, using an oven mitt, hold one side of the bread with your thumb, and the other side with your middle finger. Slowly rotate the bread, just like a wheel, and lightly cook the edges for 1 minute. Place the flatbread on a dishcloth, and wrap it up. Make all the breads this way, stacking them on top of each other, and covering them each time. The bread will stay warm for about 30 minutes.

This recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey, and she describes the bread as pita-like. Indeed, Mark and I tore them into two skinny flat pieces and used them to scoop up curry. You could also make a pocket and stuff it with your favorite sandwich filling. If you have leftovers, store them in tinfoil and simply pop them in the toaster oven the next day.