Sunday, August 28, 2011

Unleavened Bread

When I was in the States last year, I noticed a line of breads and cereals called Ezekiel 4:9. Ezekiel 4:9 reads 'Take also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it' – and so, millennia later, they did, sealed it up tight with plastic wrap, and slapped on a trademark.

Well, I thought. Those crazy Americans will make a niche brand out of anything.

Then last week I noticed a similar line at my local organic shop; it appears that we are susceptible to crazy niche brands, too. Yet I can't laugh too hard at food with Biblical references: lately I've been enjoying A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land by Kitty Morse. I picked it up to use with the kids at church, and to my delight I have found it to be packed with deeply satisfying recipes. Lentil, watercress and goats' cheese salad; millet with saffron and walnuts; toasted almond and sesame seed dip; pomegranate honey-glazed grilled fish; and all sorts of other good things to eat.

Much of it feels like it's come straight from the earth. For some reason, I never get this sense from root vegetables; instead, it's lentils, goats' cheese, olives and herbs which are, for me, the staff of life. Unleavened bread, in particular, feels healing; I make it when I'm feeling fragile or melancholy and it goes a long way towards setting me to rights.

Unleavened bread exists in many cultures and is known by many names. Fundamentally, though, it's bread made without yeast which sits for only a little while before it is cooked. Thus not only does it have no yeast added; it has very little to no opportunity to gather in wild yeasts from the atmosphere.

Such a bread comes out flat and chewy; it feels real in a way that even the best baguette never will. It can be made from pretty much any flour, but I make mine from a combination of spelt and rye. I love spelt, an ancient form of wheat, for its deep slaty flavour. It tastes strongly present, in the here and now, and yet also like something you'd be served in a stone hut; this is food from the ages. Meanwhile, rye lends a hint of molasses and depth of colour.

However, the bread can also be made with plain wheat flour, or whatever else is to hand. The whole point of peasant food is that it is made with what is available. Run out of spelt? Use a combination of ground millet and rye. Rats got into the millet and the rye is causing mass hallucinations? Grind up oats and barley, and you will still have bread; starvation can wait for another day.

And so, while I cannot imagine buying a shrink wrapped bread with a Biblical verse emblazoned on the side, I can see why people are interested in such breads, crazy niche cook that I am. I eat this bread for a light dinner with my largely unsuccessful homemade olives (too soft, too salty, maybe I'll have better luck next year when I'll try the recipes from this book); homemade dips for the adults; bland supermarket dips for the Philistines; a bit of goats' cheese; and maybe a salad of strong herbs.

Unleavened Bread

- 2 cups spelt flour
- 1 cup rye flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbs nigella seeds
- olive oil

Whisk together the flours with the salt. Make a well, and add about 1 cup of water. Mix in gradually, bringing in flour from the sides of the well, until you have a stringy dough.

Flour the bench and your hands, and place the dough on the bench. Knead for eight to ten minutes – and if you don't know how to knead, this means to fold the dough down from top to bottom with the heel of your hand, make a quarter turn, and repeat – until it feels like a baby's thigh or, if you don't have much contact with babies, like your earlobe. Spelt needs less kneading than regular flour; if you are using regular flour, knead for a few extra minutes. Form it into a ball.

Lightly film a ceramic bowl with oil. Place the dough into the bowl and roll it around so that it is glossy with oil. Drape a tea towel over the top of the bowl, and leave it to rest for anywhere between fifteen and thirty minutes. It will not rise.

Knead it again for a minute or two. Cut the dough into eight pieces (cut in half, then each half in half so that you have quarters, then each quarter in half again so that you get eighths, which is a useful way to teach your kids the square root of four and the cube root of eight, and how denominators work, and what happens when you multiply fractions). Flour the bench again, and a rolling pin. Roll each ball into a pancake about ¼ cm thick; wonky shapes taste better than perfect rounds. Sprinkle with nigella seeds, and roll over the round lightly once again to squish the nigella into the dough.

Warm a drizzle of olive oil in a thick-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When it is pretty warm (but not smoking hot), place a round of bread in the pan. Shake it once or twice to make sure it doesn't stick, and let it cook for two to three minutes. Turn it over; it should be dotted with a round brown circles.

Cook on the second side for another two minutes or so. It will puff up in places; if you want to maximise the puff, take a rolled tea towel and gently press around the edges of the round as it is cooking.

When it is done, loosely wrap it in a clean tea towel while you cook the rest, stacking them as they are done with the first; eat warm.

(This all seems rather a palaver when spelled out in a recipe, but you will quickly develop a rhythm whereby you cook one while you roll out the next or even, like me, have two kids rolling and two skillets on the go, in which case it only takes about fifteen minutes to cook them all. And it's fun.)

Adapted from a recipe in A Biblical Feast by Kitty Morse.

(Local: spelt (Powlett Hill), olive oil. Mysterious provenance: rye, nigella, salt.)

A Biblical Feast: Food from Biblical Times to Today

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