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.

Beer (can be) toast

Let me set the scene for you. It’s a little over a month into my second semester of college and I’m sitting in a hotel room in Houston, Texas, with 10 other people. The sounds of slightly overserved twenty-somethings mix with fragments of Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Ni**as in Paris” pouring out of a jailbroken iPod Touch. I’m wearing a screaming green ballcap from a sorority date night  because one of the boys put it on me and I was too tired to do anything about it. A couple people are swing-dancing in the sitting room-cum-office that meant we were allowed to call the room a suite.

I am 19 years old, and have not yet learned the futility of arguing with drunk people. So when Ross came out with the now-infamous argument that “beer is toast,” I didn’t leave well enough alone.

“What?” I said, putting all the incredulity I could muster into my voice.

“Beer is toast,” Ross said. “Beer is made of wheat. Toast is made of wheat. Therefore, beer is toast”

“No, it’s not,” I said. I then went on to explain all the ways in which beer and toast are different, up to and including the maillard reaction and the fermentation processes that turn the sugars in wheat into ethanol.

“Beer is wheat. Toast is wheat. Beer is toast because reasons” was the reply.

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The argument is ongoing.

The repertoire has expanded into both bread and salad, and despite the fact that bread is probably the closest edible analogue to beer we have, beer is not, nor will it ever be, toast or anything else. Beer is beer. Toast is toast. Drunk arguments, bless them, are drunk arguments.

That doesn’t mean that beer doesn’t make great bread (and, by extension, great toast). Googling “beer bread” turns up 10,400,000 results that range from quick breads to beer-scented yeast loaves.

But if I’m going to turn beer into toast, I have some very specific requirements. One, beer should be prominently featured in the flavor profile. That means the bread should be malty, dark, and maybe just a little bit bitter – which drives me towards the whole wheat end of the spectrum. Second, the recipe better use a whole bottle, because I can’t stand having tail-ends of beer lying around going flat in my refrigerator. It shouldn’t be sweet or cakelike. I’d also like to be able to whip it up in the same amount of time it takes to grab a cold one from the ‘fridge, which pretty much knocks yeasted doughs out of the running.

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I’m pretty sure this hits the spot. It took a little tweaking, but I think I’ve got the balance right – dense and not too sweet, with the pleasant chewiness of whole wheat and a hint of bitter salt from the baking powder. Best of all, it takes about 5 minutes to throw together and goes from thought to table in less than hour. And it makes the house smells amazing.

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Whole Wheat Beer Bread
Inspired by Ali’s Honey Beer Bread at Gimme Some Oven

168g (1 1/2 c) all-purpose flour
170g (1 1/2 c) whole wheat flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp butter, melted
12 oz. (one bottle) beer, preferably something malty. I used an amber my roommate and I brewed a month or two ago.
rolled oats, for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

This is a quick bread, which means that devotees of Alton Brown (like Ross and myself) will be unsurprised to discover that we’ll be employing the muffin method – the wet and dry ingredients will be assembled separately, then wet is added to dry and briefly mixed to combine.

So let’s start with the dry ingredients. Combine both flours, the baking powder and the salt in a medium mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine. You could also sift everything together, but I find that the wheat germ and bran can get stuck in the sifter mesh, which sort of defeats the purpose of using whole wheat flour in the first place.

Melt the butter in a small bowl, then add the honey. If you want, you can microwave the honey for a few seconds so it pours more easily. Mix the two together, then add the beer (if you’re like me, you’ll open it with the back end of a paint key because you lost your bottle opener in the move). If your beer is cold, the butter might solidify again. You’ll be able to tell if the mixture looks a bit curdled. Don’t worry about it – it won’t affect how the bread comes out.

Pour the beer mixture into the dry ingredients and mix them with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until they’re just combined and no dry pockets of flour remain. Pour the batter into a greased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan (or whatever you have around – quick breads are pretty forgiving), and sprinkle the top with rolled oats if you want to.

Bake for 40-60 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the fattest part of the loaf comes out clean. You’re supposed to let the bread cool to room temperature so the proteins can set before you cut into it, but so far I haven’t managed it.

And yes, this bread makes fantastic toast. I love it glazed with orange marmalade or thickly spread with salted butter and honey.