This is the time of year when I wish I could sprout wings and fly to some exotic land. Spring is close–so close I can almost touch it–but the sunlight is still cold and the ground icy.
So I’ve been taking a little vacation from February by immersing myself in a cookbook called “Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & the Caucasus,” by Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford. Samarkand, which is in present-day Uzbekistan, is on the ancient Silk Road of Central Asia, and its foods, especially its flatbreads, seem wonderfully exotic to me. The flatbreads are baked in tandoor ovens, which are cylindrical and made of clay.
I had first read of these breads, which are called “nan,” in “Time-Life Foods of the World: Russian Cooking,” and the accompanying picture (see below) of the breads sold in an exotic bazaar amazed me. When I was a kid, we usually had Wonder Bread, or Pepperidge Farm, if we were being fancy, so this picture fascinated me.
At any rate, I found a simple flatbread recipe in “Flatbread and Flavors” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and decided to try it. The recipe comes from the oasis city of Kashgar, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic population. I made a number of changes from the original recipe, as noted below.
Note: The centers of these breads traditionally are decorated with a tool called a “chekich.” It has nails that form a decorative design in the dough. I have found that a “pin frog,” (see picture below), is a good substitute. It can be found wherever flower decorating supplies are sold.
1 package (1/4 oz.) yeast
2-1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
6 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
sesame, poppy or charnuska seeds
one beaten egg to brush on bread
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast on the water, and then stir in the sugar. Allow to foam up. Add three cups of the bread flour, along with the salt, and stir for about one minutes to develop the gluten. Add the rest of the flour and stir in. It will become too stiff to stir, and you can start kneading it. I knead it right in the bowl. After kneading for about five minutes, turn the dough out of the bowl, clean it, and add some oil. Return the dough to the bowl, and coat with the oil. Let it rise until double, about 1-1/2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, and cut into six pieces. Form each piece into a ball. Then roll out to circles about seven inches across. Press the center of the dough down to form a one-inch rim. Using a fork, or a “pin frog,” prick the center of the bread. Brush the bread with the beaten egg, and strew with the seeds of your choice, or sea salt. The original bread called for cumin seeds and finely chopped scallions.
Bake, two at a time, for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes six loaves.
Notes: Be sure the yeast foams before proceeding. The original recipe did not call for any sugar, but in this cold, dry time of year, a bit of sugar gives the yeast a kick. Add up to two more teaspoons if the yeast is sluggish. If the dough is a bit too sticky to knead, add a quarter to half a cup more flour. And be sure the oven is thoroughly preheated before baking. Charnuska seeds have an onion flavor and can be purchased at specialty spice shops.
I’m serving this bread tonight with feta cheese, grapes, and some cauliflower/chorizo soup that I made yesterday.
In the photos below, see the yeast and water before and after foaming, the unrisen and then the risen dough, dough cut into six pieces, formed into balls, and then rolled out and pricked with my make-do chekich.
Time to move on to birds! I heard a cacophony of bird song coming from some trees down the block, and went to investigate with my camera. Turns out there were starlings, robins and cedar waxwings all flying to and fro from a serviceberry tree to a nearby pine tree. Here is a cedar waxwing reaching with his beak for a dried berry.
Starlings are so elegant!
Flocks of robins are back in town. Glad to see them! Peace to you. Fran