Aish Baladi

Right about the time I hit fourth grade, I decided a career change was in order. Instead of being a construction worker, I was going to be an Egyptologist.

So, I did what I normally did. I went to the library and checked out all the age-appropriate books on Egypt I could find. And when I ran out, I moved on to the age-inappropriate ones in the adult non-fiction section. Long story short, by the time we got to the chicken mummification project that year, I felt pretty confident that I knew the material.

Obviously I’ve grown up some and the realities of Egyptology are no longer so appealing – largely because I’d be forced to live and work so far from my home and family – but my fascination with Egypt’s culture hasn’t waned much over time.

Case in point: I watched the first episode of A Cook Abroad on Netflix the other day and suffered an intense and immediate desire to experience Egyptian breads.

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The flatbreads especially looked delicious – as much staple food as eating utensil, but with a simple elegance that begs to be eaten unadorned. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Egypt is, quite literally, the bread basket of civilization. Without them, we would still be eating unleavened bread.

And man did they get it right. Crunchy-crisp crusts yield to a deeply nutty, fragrant interior that manages to straddle the line between pillowy and pleasantly chewy. The ratio of crust to crumb is perfect, so neither overwhelms the other. And every bite is punctuated with crunchy pieces of bran or germ that underscore the sweet earthiness of unadorned whole wheat flour.

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If you can resist them plain and warm from the oven, these loves are perfect for scooping up juicy piles of cucumber and tomato salad, or dipping into hummus alongside bright summer veggies. Or you can do what the Egyptians do and dip them into soups, dollop them with spicy beans, or fill them with fava falafel.

Even better, they take just five ingredients and 36 minutes of actual work to throw together in your own kitchen.

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What could you possibly be waiting for? After all, in Egyptian the word for bread, Aish, also means life.

Aish Baladi (Egyptian Flatbread)
Adapted, just barely, from Saveur

1 T active dry yeast
2 1/2 c warm water
5 c whole wheat flour (plus a bit for dusting your counters)
1 T kosher salt
1 T vegetable oil (plus a bit for greasing the bowl your dough will rise in)
Wheat germ or cracked wheat bran for proofing (this is optional, but nice)

In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and water until the yeast dissolves. Let stand 10 minutes, or until you see foamy bubbles starting to form on the surface.

We’re going to be making a sponge here, so add 2 1/2 c of flour to your yeast mixture and stir it until it’s smooth (I just used my hands). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let everything sit until your water/flour mixture has risen a bit and looks bubbly. This should take about half an hour.

Once your sponge has risen, stir in the salt and oil, then add the rest of the flour and mix until everything is incorporated. Your hands are unequivocally the best tool for this job. This dough will be on the loose side for bread doughs, and it’s very sticky.

Turn your dough ball out onto a floured countertop and knead it until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Don’t be afraid to add a bit more flour if the dough is sticking to you or the board. Because that will happen.

Once your dough is kneaded, grease up a large bowl (I rinsed out the one I used to make the dough in) and drop in your dough. Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This should take about one and a half hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is.

Pop a pizza stone or heavy baking sheet into your oven and crank it to 500°F (or as high as it will go). You’re going to want to let it preheat at least half an hour.

While the oven is preheating, divide your risen dough into 16 balls, and flatten each ball into a round about 5 inches in diameter, although this dimension isn’t super important. You just want your disks to be less than 1/4 inch thick.

Spread out the dough rounds onto parchment-lined baking sheets (dusted with wheat germ or bran if you’re into that), cover them with a towel, and let them rise until they’re lightly puffed. This should take about half an hour.

Once your rounds are risen, bake them a few at a time on your pizza stone or baking sheet until they are puffed, deeply browned, and even charred in spots. In my oven, this took about 9 minutes, but you’ll want to watch yours and see how your oven does for the first few batches.

If you can resist, let the loaves cool for five minutes before devouring serving.

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