Lebanese bread is a fundamental staple in Lebanese cuisine, and perhaps it dates back to Phoenician times. In fact, the Egyptian philosopher Athenaeus who lived in the third century A.D wrote that the best bakers were brought from Phoenicia
Lebanese bread is made from wheat flour, however, the Lebanese wheat grain is hard with a high gluten content which in turn contributes to the elasticity of the dough. People, including some Lebanese food writers, mistakenly call Lebanese bread Pitta Bread. It is true, that Pitta bread is the closest one to ours and a nice one too, but it is not the same, even supermarkets clearly make this distinction as they package them labelled with the appropriate name. Lebanese bread or as some also call it Arabic bread is round, thinner and more malleable: you can easily open it without breaking it. It is made to suit the Lebanese dishes and act as a perfect wrap for the different varieties of Shawarma, Kafta and so forth. Also, Lebanese bread comes in many sizes varying from the tiny little round ones, to medium sizes, to the large ones, about 30cm/ 12 inches.
Another type of bread is called Khubz Marqooq (Paper Thin Bread). It is literally very thin bread. Before baking was industrialised, Marqooq was a speciality that required lots of practice and skill. This was a tradition of the mountain villages whose women passed it from mother to daughter.
In this section, I included the basic recipe for the Lebanese bread, and there will be others for flat bread that is baked with a number of traditional toppings such as Manaeesh b’Zaatar (Thyme), Lahm b’Ajeen (Minced Meat) and Manaeesh b’Kishik (Dried Yoghurt).
Ajeenat al Khubz (Basic Bread Dough)
When making bread, the flour should be slightly warm, it makes a difference in speeding up the whole process. One more tip is heating up the baking sheets before baking the bread, the idea is to keep an even oven temperature and help the bread to puff up.
In this recipe, I use easy blend yeast, however, dried or fresh yeast also work well but you have to check the equivalent amount to the one recommended for the easy blend in this recipe. Whatever you decide to go for, follow the instructions of the manufacturer.
Makes about 8 to 9 pieces.
- 400g/14 oz strong white flour, slightly warmed plus a little extra plus for dusting
- 1½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp easy blend yeast or its equivalent of fresh or dried yeast
- About 200ml/ 7fl oz lukewarm water
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil plus a little extra for greasing
You also need baking parchment paper cut to fit the baking sheets.
- Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl then mix in the yeast. Mix the oil into the water. Make a well in the centre of the bowl and gradually tip in the water-oil mixture. Using your hands, combine all the ingredients, depending on the flour, you may need to add some more water, the dough should feel elastic and come away from the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 8-10 minutes. Alternatively, you could do the whole process in an electric mixer using the dough hook, thus reducing the kneading time by half (for about 5 minutes). In the end, the dough should feel spongy and elastic.
- Shape the dough into a ball then transfer to a lightly greased bowl and cover with a polythene bag or cling film, but make sure that they are oiled to prevent the dough from sticking. Leave it in a warm place until it has doubled in size. The rising time usually takes one or two hours.
- When the rising time is up, pick up the dough and put it on a lightly floured surface. Punch it to get rid of the excess air, then knead again for about 3-4 minutes, alternatively, let the mixer do the kneading for 2 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 8-9 equal balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll out with a lightly dusted rolling pin each ball to 16cm/ 6½ inches circle, 3-4mm/ 1/8 inch thick. Alternatively, you can make nicely shaped circles by using large cutters. Place the dough circles on the prepared baking parchment papers, cover and let them rest for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 230 ºC/ 450ºF, heating up at the same time the baking sheets. When the resting time is up and ready to bake, slide the dough circles with their baking parchment onto the hot baking sheets, you may need to do them in batches. You have to be quick when you open the oven, as it is very important to maintain the same temperature all the time.
- Bake for 4-8 minutes until they puff up like an inflated balloon, the colour should be lightly golden.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly but, do not stack the baked ones on top of each other, until they are cool. If you are not consuming all the bread at once, you can keep the rest in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze it.