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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 12:29 pm

The bread ambassador

During Ramadan, try making Arab flatbread

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For a long time, the words “Food is everything” donned my refrigerator, torn from the pages of a magazine lost and forgotten. Although I remember smiling in acknowledgment, I doubt that I gave much thought to “everything.” Is everything every thing? And do we all agree on everything?

We might all agree that food is sustenance and that lack thereof is starvation and famine. Beyond that, what do we know about what food means? I’ve been thinking how, if I ran the world, I’d use food in brokering peace treaties. There seems no better way to understand one’s adversary (real or perceived), than tasting the soup of his childhood or his grandmother’s bread, those things that shape a life, a village, an entire culture.

Imagine, then, sharing little pieces of our kitchens with each other, using our cutting boards to cut across ethnic, religious, geographic, and socioeconomic lines. Food would be an ambassador of goodwill, a vehicle for compassion and understanding. In the post-9/11 haze that still has many Americans confused by and afraid of their Muslim neighbors, food seems an appropriate lens through which to better understand how others experience being alive. There seems no better time than now, when Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, is in full swing. The daily fast, which is observed from sunrise to sunset, ends with iftar, a ritual of prayer and light fare. Below is a recipe for traditional Arab flatbread, something you might see on an iftar table.

Flour, yeast, salt, and oil are indeed ordinary things, but when mixed together in the manner of a cook from a place faraway, they become something — perhaps everything.

Contact Kim O’Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

Arab Flatbread (Khoubez)
adapted from The Arab Table, by May S. Bsisu

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (110 degrees); add an
extra 3/4 cup if using whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
5 1/2 cups all-purpose or whole-wheat flour,
plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons olive oil

Combine yeast, 1 cup of the warm water, and sugar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. Set aside until mixture is foamy and doubled in size, about 10 minutes.

Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and add remaining 1 cup warm water, yeast mixture, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Mix ingredients until dough pulls away from sides of the bowl, forming a ball. (This can also be done with a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook.)

Transfer dough to a floured work surface. Sprinkling as little flour on the dough and your hands as possible, knead the dough — push, fold, and turn — about five minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic and doesn’t stick to your fingers.

Coat a large bowl with the remaining olive oil and place the dough inside, turning it to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and set it in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in size, about two hours.

Meanwhile, lightly dust a baking sheet and a kitchen towel with flour.

Punch the dough and transfer it to a floured work surface. Knead for about two minutes. Divide the dough into seven equal pieces, roll each one into a ball, and place it on prepared baking sheet. Working with one ball of dough at a time, flatten gently, using a rolling pin or your hands. Roll dough out until about 5 or 6 inches in diameter, 1/4 inch thick. Lay loaves on floured towel, sprinkle flour on top, cover with a second towel, and let rest about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Preheat baking sheet 10 minutes before you are ready to bake.

Arrange two loaves on the baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Bake until they puff up, five to seven minutes. Transfer loaves to a wire rack to cool; repeat.

Loaves may be frozen in a plastic zip bag and thawed in the refrigerator. Reheat at 300 degrees for 10 minutes.

Serve with sliced tomatoes and broiled halloumi cheese, cut into 1-inch-thick slices: Brush cheese with olive oil and place in a pan that fits in your broiler. Broil until golden, about three minutes on each side.

Kul Ramada wa antum bi khair (hope you are well and in good health every Ramadan).

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