Arabic Bread/Khubz is commonly known as pita in the west where it is usually thicker and in an oval shape. Traditional Arabic bread is flat, leavened, circular and usually about 10in/25cm in diameter although it can vary. It is baked at high temperatures causing the dough to puff and create pockets. Once cooled, the bread deflates and can then be opened around the seams and the layers used to form sandwiches/wraps, or pieces are torn off randomly to create bite-size scoopers for dips and other foods. It can also be toasted, then gently crumbled and used as a garnish on salads and stews. It is essential that Arabic bread be baked using high temperatures. It is easy to bake the bread in a conventional oven at home and this will yield successful results as long as the aforementioned factor is practiced.
The traditional way of cooking Arabic bread is on the Saj, or a convex metal disc. It is what is called Markouk and was the bread of choice until the later 50’s although people are now going back to making it for it’s health benefits. It is something really sensational to witness; the dough is tossed across from one hand to the other, as the dough continuously stretches yielding a large, circular, and paper-thin dough that is then placed onto the Saj using a big cushion. It will then bake for a couple of minutes before being peeled off. This wonderfully precious, paper-thin bread is called khubz markouk. In the west it can be found in Middle Eastern specialty stores labeled as village bread.
Another traditional but sadly uncommon way of baking Arabic bread is using the clay oven or tannur (also known as tandoor). The clay oven is built into the ground and the dough is slapped onto the sides of the oven, again, with the help of a cushion. Once cooked, it is then removed with a long wired hook.
In the past women would make the bread at home and the villagers would gather at each others houses to help in the baking in a rotation. However these days, fresh Arabic bread abounds in bakeries around Lebanon, thanks to sophisticated machinery and so few people still make their own bread. Thus the beautiful process of artisan bread making is really reserved to Lebanon’s villages.
Below are images of my distant aunt Saidy, in Baskinta, showing us how it’s done. Normally, she’d have used a cushion to lay the bread on the saj but this setup was rather impromptu and she’d left hers at home. She’s one of the sweetest souls I’ve ever known.
- 300g/10½ oz/2½ cups strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp dried active yeast
- Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, add the salt and sugar and pour in the oil, then mix well with your hands.
- Add the yeast to 150ml/5fl oz/scant ⅔ cup lukewarm water and stir until dissolved. Pour the water and yeast mixture into the flour and oil mixture, little by little, combining it with your hands as you go, until a ball
- is formed. Depending on the age and brand of flour, you may find that you need more or less water.
- Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface and continue kneading it until it is smooth and elastic. Return the dough ball to the mixing bowl, then score the top with a knife to loosen the surface tension. Cover with a damp, clean kitchen towel and place it in a warm, draught-free place for about 1 hour or until it doubles in size.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out on to
- a lightly floured work surface and knock it back, then knead gently before rolling it into a log. Divide the
- log into four balls of equal size, each weighing about 125g/41?2oz. Lightly flour the work surface once more and use a rolling pin to roll out each ball, re-flouring the surface as necessary. For small loaves, roll out each ball
- of dough into a circle about 20cm/8in in diameter. For large loaves, roll out each ball of dough into a circle about 30cm/12in in diameter. Cover the loaves with a kitchen towel and leave to rest for a further 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 230 ?C/450 ?F/Gas 8 and place a baking sheet in the oven to warm up. Baking one loaf at a time, spray a loaf lightly with water and bake for 2 minutes until the top and edges are lightly golden (the cooking time depends on the heat of the oven and the thickness of the bread) and a pocket of air has formed. Do not cook them for longer than 1 minute after the air pocket has formed, or they will turn out more brittle than pliable. Repeat with the remaining loaves. Leaving the breads to cool uncovered will also make them brittle, so if you are not serving them immediately, cover with a damp tea towel and store in a sealed plastic bag.
- The breads can be kept, wrapped, in a fridge for up
- to 2–3 days or in a freezer for up to 1–2 months. Allow 20–30 minutes’ defrosting time. Alternatively, microwave briefly or bake in a hot oven for a couple of minutes.