Harken the words once spoken by Julia Child, “how can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” She was likely comparing French bakeries to Wonder Bread, an unfair comparison. But tongue and cheek aside, bread is the brick of life and bakeries are integral to the well-being and culinary culture of a people. For me the wafting scents of a bakery is like Garfield to his plate of lasagna—I gotta have it.
Having just returned from my latest trip to the Middle East, I’m pointedly avoiding standing on the scale and am indulging still in the few pastries I’ve brought back—maamul, baklawa, and kaak bread. Arabic bakeries sell many kinds of flat/pita breads, dry, crunchy breads, and sweet pastries which are all fun to try.
Breakfast is heaven in Arabia. Everyone can agree there is nothing better than waking up to the smell of freshly baking dough in the oven. In the Levant, the spread of choice is called ZAATAR, a blend of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, and other spices. It is mixed with olive oil and spread onto flat discs of bread. When it is baked onto dough, it is called Mana’eesh.
A true Arabic breakfast will have many variations of these cheeses- Halloumi, Akawi, Qashqawan, Roomy, etc. Often they come seeded with black sesame or with zaatar.
To complement the cheeses a couple types of olives could be laid out. In my uncle’s house, slightly under-ripe green Jordanian olives are soaked with lemon wedges and green peppers.
Another popular breakfast food is called Fool Medames, which is a traditional Egyptian dish of fava beans cooked with garlic, onion, spices and served in a long spread of tomato, parsley, olives, lemon juice and bread.
Jordan is known for its high quality zaatar. In fact, in one store I saw 9 varieties, and still other people mix and make their own varieties. Mana’eesh is a staple in Arabic homes and a delight to treat the house with. It can be made with cheese, and ground meat, as well as zaatar. The trickiest part is getting the dough just right.
Mana’eesh, or Zaatar Bread
- 1 tspn active dry yeast
- 3 cups flour
- 1 tspn salt
- 3 tbpn vegetable oil
- 2 cups warm water
- 4 tbspn olive oil
- ½ cup zaatar mixture
- 2 tbsn sumac (optional)
- Dissolve yeast in little warm water.
- Mix the flour, salt and the water dissolved yeast; then add vegetable oil and kneed until a dough forms on a floured surface. Shape dough into a ball and transfer to a clean bowl. Cover with a clean, damp cloth and set aside for 1-2 hours until dough has doubled in size.
- Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a baking sheet with some vegetable oil.
- Divide the dough into smaller parts and shape into balls. Roll each part on a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin. Using fingertips or a pastry cutter, shape into a roughly 8” round. Transfer to greased sheet pan.
- In a small bowl mix zaatar, and olive oil together. Optionally, add sumac which makes a more tart flavor.
- Top each circle with 1 tablespoon of zaatar mixture and spread with fingers. Bake discs about 7 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Be careful not to burn.
- May serve warm or at room temperature.