Week Twenty-Nine: African Breads
Previously in this project, I’ve featured breads of France, Italy, America, and Scandinavia. This week, I thought I’d take a plunge and look at the land that originated yeast bread as we know it (and, you know, humanity itself): Africa. (And yes, I’m fully aware that Africa is a huge continent, full of myriad cultures, and that I’m grossly generalizing things when I say “African Bread”. But I’m just baking bread here, not writing my dissertation. I figure I’m allowed some leeway.)
First, a confession: I don’t really know much about African breads. Or anything, really. Part of this ignorance comes from being your standard, off-the-rack American, but part of it comes from the fact that Africa isn’t really known for their bread. The climate generally not being suitable for growing wheat (except for regions of North Africa), few nations or groups in Africa have quite the same relationship with bread that, say, the French do.
But climate notwithstanding, some very lovely breads have nevertheless come from Africa, made either with non-wheat grains, or with imported wheat flour, first actually brought over by the Carthaginians. This week, I hope not only going to learn about African breads, but to teach you about them too!
I have long known that the Ancient Egyptians were the first humans to bake yeasted bread as we know it on a large, almost industrial scale (in the 12th Century BC!), though leavened bread likely dates to prehistoric times. But fascinatingly, I have only recently learned that another grain- and yeast-based staff of life – beer – was created at about the same time. In fact, beer and bread were very nearly the same thing for the Ancient Egyptians: an early type of beer was made by crumbling a half-baked loaf of bread (not cooked enough to kill the yeast) into a vat of water, and letting the mixture ferment.
Beer and bread were so vital to survival for the Ancient Egyptians that wages were even often paid in the form of beer and bread (or in the grains used to make both, emmer wheat or barley). One of the oldest hieroglyphs was what’s called a “bread cone“, which translates to mean “to give”. Very telling of the culture, that!
Giving a nod to this history, I’m kicking things off this week with a yeasted flatbread (as might have been typical), flavored with an Egyptian spice mixture called dukka. Also known as duqqa or dukkah, this mixture can vary wildly, depending on who’s making it. Generally speaking, though, it is a mixture of nuts (usually hazelnuts or chickpeas), pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame seeds, though it can include a dizzying array of additional seasonings. It can be loose and crumbly, or it can be a thick paste, depending on preference and intended usage.
But all I know is that man! does it make your house smell good! So fragrant! So earthy! And really, it doesn’t matter what you put in it – I’ve seen recipes using coconut, cinnamon, coffee, pumpkin seeds, thyme, five-spice, curry, and every nut from here to next week – just use whatever you love or have on hand. It’s similar in many ways to a blend called za’atar, which you may be familiar with, except that za’atar generally uses thyme as its main ingredient (za’atar is the Arabic word for a certain type of thyme).
The recipe below for the dukka makes more than you’ll need for flavoring the bread, but you’ll surely want to have extra around after you smell it. Like any spice blend, it’s got a million and one uses, but a very traditional use is to set a plate out next to a dish of olive oil, for dipping a piece of bread into (oil first, then dukka). It can be used as a rub or crust for meats, for sprinkling over eggs, for flavoring rice, or simply garnishing soups or salads or anything else. One extremely enticing suggestion I saw was to use it in an Arabian-style guacamole. This, of course, means I’m having Arabian guacamole for dinner tomorrow.
The bread here is a fairly standard flatbread; the dough is lightly flavored with honey and olive oil, but otherwise simple enough. It does, however, have a long, slow rise, which contributes greatly to the excellent flavor it has. If you have time, it’s even better if you let it rise overnight in the fridge, though it’s not necessary.
Yes, this bread is good enough on its own; but spiced up with dukka, it’s amazing. It’s just really, really good. Crisp and chewy, complex and intensely flavorful, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. If you happen to have any leftovers, I highly recommend cutting the bread into wedges, toasting them, and serving with hummus. Yes, please.
Egyptian Spiced Flatbread
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Makes 8 six-inch flatbreads
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted
1/4 cup pistachios, toasted
1/4 cup almonds, toasted
1/4 cup peanuts, toasted
5 teaspoons coriander seeds
4 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons nigella seeds (see note 2 below)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon paprika (hot or sweet)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra
A scant 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup very warm water (115 – 125° F)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for brushing
Kosher salt, for finishing
1. To make dukka: toast nuts together in a 350° F oven for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until just golden and fragrant. Let cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, toast remaining spices (except for paprika, cinnamon, and salt) in a large pan over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, or until fragrant and toasted. In a food processor or an electric coffee or spice grinder, pulse all ingredients until very finely ground, about 3 minutes. Leave a little powdery; do not grind to a paste. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, yeast, and salt. Add the warm water, honey, and olive oil. Using the dough hook, mix at low speed until a rough dough forms. Increase the speed to medium and continue kneading until the dough clears the sides of the bowl and forms a cohesive ball, about 5 minutes. If necessary, add 2 to 3 teaspoons more flour, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough achieves the proper consistency.
3. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Place the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 425° F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Punch down the dough and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and let stand, covered with plastic wrap, for 15 minutes.
5. Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece of dough (keep remaining pieces covered) on a lightly floured surface into a very thin round, about 6 inches across. Transfer each round to one of the prepared baking sheets, and cover with plastic wrap. Repair any tears in the dough by pinching it together. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. Brush each round with olive oil, and sprinkle each round liberally with dukka. Dust kosher salt lightly over the tops.
6. Bake the rounds at 425° F for 5 minutes. Switch the position of the pans and rotate them 180 degrees, then continue baking for 5 additional minutes, or until golden brown. Cool the bread on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer flatbreads to a rack. Serve warm.
1. Because dukka contains nuts, which go rancid fairly rapidly, you should store dukka in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, or in the freezer for about 6 months to a year.
2. Nigella seeds, also known as black cumin, can be found in Middle Eastern or Indian markets, and have a wonderful complex, earthy, and spicy flavor. If you can’t find them, you can simply omit them.
3. I used toasted nuts here, because I wanted the depth of flavor; but raw is just as good. In fact, if you use dukka for dishes that benefit from long, slow cooking, you may prefer to use raw nuts to avoid any burnt flavors that may result from the nuts being overdone.