Ordinary Syrian Flatbread
Bread, no matter how basic it is, plays a significant role in Jewish life. It is considered an essential part of any meal, requiring its own special blessings before and after it is eaten. Historically, the Aleppian Jewish community relied on a local baker for their flatbread and other baked goods. This practice still stands today, although some women bake their own bread at home. Baking bread for one’s family is one of the three special obligations that Jewish law prescribes for women. Bread and wine consecrate the Sabbath and inspire the first blessings recited at the Friday night Sabbath dinner table. Aleppian Jews have a custom of setting the Sabbath dinner table with twelve loaves of khubz ’adi to correspond to the twelve loaves of shewbread (lechem hapanim) that were displayed in the Jewish Temple. Khubz ’adi is traditionally baked in a clay oven called a taboon, which is heated to a very high temperature. A thin disk of dough is stuck against the side of the taboon. It bubbles and expands immediately. The loaves bake within the space of a minute or two and have a crisp exterior and a soft, pillowy interior pocket. Syrian flatbread, like any bread, is best consumed fresh from the oven, as it tends to go stale within a few days. However, if you try this recipe or obtain fresh loaves from a Middle Eastern bakery, you can freeze them immediately for later use. A frozen loaf of khubz ’adi will yield a nearly fresh product after it is defrosted and reheated in an oven at 300°F or on a stove top in a dry pan or directly over a medium flame. In Aleppo, families sent their dough to a communal oven, and a young employee of the bakery would return the loaves. For Aleppians, a meal was incomplete without bread. Bread was a staple at every single meal and was served with everything, even chocolate. When the head of the household returned home unexpectedly for a meal, flatbread was immediately put in the oven to warm. Nearly every savory recipe would profit from the company of a few warm loaves of khubz ’adi on the table. What follows is a recipe for making this wonderful and simple bread a regular part of your baking repertoire.
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast dissolved in 3 cups warm water (add more if needed)
- 3 cups allpurpose white flour
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 1/2 cups pastry flour
- (or an additional 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- Add the sugar to the dissolved yeast mixture, which should be bubbly after standing for about 5 minutes.
- Sift together the white flour, whole wheat flour, pastry flour, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and slowly pour in the dissolved yeast mixture. Stir to combine, and knead by hand in the bowl for about a minute, until the dough is soft and sticky. Turn out onto a flour-dusted work surface and knead gently for 3 to 5 minutes until the dough is elastic and no longer sticky to the touch. (You can also use the dough hook of a mixer to knead the dough.) Place the dough in a clean mixing bowl. Cover the dough with a damp towel. Seal the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a place warmer than room temperature for about 1 hour, or until it doubles in size.
- After the dough has risen, divide it into quarters and work with one quarter at a time, keeping the rest covered. Divide the first quarter into 4 fistsize balls. On a flourcovered work surface, flatten each ball with a rolling pin or by hand until it is about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Place the rounds of dough onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving ample space between them. Repeat with the remaining quarters. Cover each baking sheet with a towel and allow to rise for a minimum of 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 525°F.
- Bake the rounds for 4 to 5 minutes, monitoring the process closely (loaves transition from done to burnt very rapidly). The heat must be even; otherwise, the bread does not puff properly.
- Remove the loaves and cool on wire racks. Do not stack the loaves while cooling. Serve immediately or wrap tightly and freeze.
Yield: approximately 20 loaves
Khubz Za’atar — Za’atar Flatbread
Za’atar is Arabic for the hyssop plant, but it also refers to a spice blend composed of hyssop or thyme, toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt, and marjoram. This blend varies across the Middle East—there are Syrian, Jordanian, Israeli, and Egyptian versions, which are either green or dark red, depending on the proportions of the spices. Aleppians tend to favor the green varieties. Za’atar is widely available in Middle Eastern and gourmet markets. Za’atar combined with olive oil is used as a spread (za’atar ulzayt) or a dip for Syrian flatbread. If the mixture is spread over the bread before it is baked, the bread is extraordinarily fragrant when fresh from the oven.
- 1/2 cup dried thyme
- 1/4 cup dried marjoram
- 2 tablespoons lightly toasted
- sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup ground sumac
- 12 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup extravirgin olive oil
- Combine the thyme, marjoram, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt (or use 1 1 2 cups of storebought za’atar). Mix well.
- Follow the recipe for Ordinary Syrian Flatbread through step 4. Mix the za’atar spice blend with the olive oil in a small mixing bowl. It should be a very thin mixture.
- Spoon about 1 tablespoon on top of each loaf.
- Spread the mixture and press down with your fingertips all over the bread, dimpling the top. This will give the loaf a traditional shape, which will prevent a pocket from forming and the za’atar mixture from spilling off the loaves.
- Bake according to step 5.
Khubz Semsom — Sesame Flatbread
Follow the recipe for Ordinary Syrian Flatbread through step 4. Brush the loaves lightly with water and press both sides of each loaf into a dish of sesame seeds before placing the rounds on baking trays. Let rest for 15 minutes and then bake according to step 5.
Taking Challah is one of the three special obligations that Jewish law provides for a woman (the other two are lighting the Sabbath candles and observing the laws of family purity). The act of kneading the dough and producing wonderful loaves for the Sabbath advances a woman’s sacred bond with her family. It is a time of Et Razon, when her prayers are especially heard in heaven.
The commandment requires a woman to separate 1 ounce of dough; this separated dough is known as challah. The woman then recites the following blessing:
Blessed are you, G-d our Lord, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to separate halah which is set aside. Behold, this is halah.
. ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להפריש חלה תרומה הרי זו חלה
This tradition recalls a practice at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The separated dough symbolizes the portion of certain sacrifices that was set aside for the Temple priests. Today, in memory of the Temple, we bless the separated dough and respectfully dispose of it by burning it over the stove top.
The performance of the separation ritual is a time of profound holiness for a woman. It opens a unique window of spiritual connection, allowing a woman’s prayers to reach great heights with a remarkable level of purity.