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.

The Intelligentsia

I went out in Chicago this morning, handling the ferocious -20° wind chill in the best way I knew how – by huddling up in a somewhat pretentious coffee shop with my friends and teammates.

Now I’m somewhere between here and there, 36,000 feet above the surface of planet Earth. It’s not a bad place to get some perspective.

That coffee shop wasn’t a place I would go normally, and it was certainly not a place I would have picked out on my own. Full of chromed coffee equipment, fancy origin cards, and lots of sleek wood, concrete, and industrial metal, it’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you should sip your coffee alongside painstakingly compiled tasting notes rather than a crumbly muffin and a good book. I’ll freely admit it – I’m not a coffee person, and I don’t enjoy feeling like I need the caffeinated version of a sommelier’s degree to properly appreciate what I’m drinking.

But it is nice, sipping something carefully prepared and presented, especially when it’s an experience shared. Then it’s not so much about the coffee – the coffee becomes a gateway to something more.

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The freezing wind kept most people off the lakefront – though it didn’t stop Ayman, Caroline, Nancy and Kenzie. Or the guy we saw walking from the top of the tower.

My friend Caroline and I were talking, sitting there in the warmth of the shop. She was nursing a vanilla mocha while I sipped oolong tea from a tiny ceramic cup without a handle. The conversation meandered  from the competition this weekend, to my graduation plans, and finally to food and cooking. We talked food, restaurants – reviews we’ve read and meals we’ve shared. We talked about the culture of food.

Not food culture in the culinary sense; not deep-dish pizza, or hot dogs “dragged through the garden,” or caramel and cheese popcorn, or any of the wonderful regional idiosyncrasies that make this the city that it is. We talked about the way food bridges cultural gaps and brings people together in a way that both fosters and forges relationships in a way nothing else can.

For me anyway, food is viscerally tied to memory. Arguing with my mom over the proper texture for biscuit dough. The warmth and bustle of my grandmother’s kitchen just before Thanksgiving dinner. Explaining the smell of stale beer in a jacket after the guy behind me spilled at a baseball game. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has a story about food.

Maybe slowing down long enough to refuel our bodies makes us vulnerable, or maybe sitting down across the table from another human being to share time and break bread is inherently intimate. Either way, that table has the power to break down walls and make connections, whether you’re serving Kraft mac ‘n cheese on paper plates or a standing rib roast on your wedding china.

I love cooking for my friends and family, partly because they’re excellent guinea pigs who tolerate my experiments, but mostly because I love the warmth of a shared table – and I love making space for others to enjoy it too. Because, although good food is always the goal, the meal is never really about the food. It’s about using my time and the gifts I’ve been given to return at least a small part of the love that the people at my table have given me. It’s about respect, and about sharing, and about connection. And, yes, it’s at least a little about the food too.

My kitchen island in Athens is definitely a far cry from the wooden table in Intelligentsia near Millennium Park, but they share much of the same DNA. That’s exactly as it should be. Because when I think about the meals that have been most important to me, I almost never remember exactly what I ate – I remember the people and places and stories that made that particular table special.

What about you?