Friday 19 February 2016

Flatbreads... fast and not necessarily flat

Home made fennel flat breads... made with yeast.

Making flat breads has become a common endeavour in our house. I think it started with pizza bases to which Etien added some crushed fennel seeds. After discovering how delicious this was, our only option was to make more. OK, apparently the Sicilians have been doing this for a couple of thousand years but I like to believe we were the fennel seed flatbread pioneers of Palmers Green.

I'm amazed at how flour mixed with water, salt, a dab of oil and then fried can be so damn delicious. And with tiny tweaks in the ratios of flour to water and oil the outcome is manifold; from chapattis to tortilla, naan to farl, pitta to piadina.

The strange thing is, despite there being a huge variety of flat bread around the world, many of which are hugely popular in the UK, we seem to have lost our connection with own flat breads. There is of course, the diminutive muffin. But is that a bread? Technically I suppose but it seems a little lacking when put next to the Scottish bannock or the Irish soda. But when did you last tuck into a farl of bannock? There was a long tradition of baking barley breads and oatcakes which has all but disappeared. While researching (OK, lazily leafing through Google returns) I found this quite wonderful book.

Another strange thing about flat breads is that they sometimes, paradoxically, aren't that flat; many include leavening agents such as bicarbonate of soda or yeast.

Flat bread is fast to make. How fast? About as long as it took me to write this sentence  OK, not really but not far off. Ten minutes tops. You can make flatbread literally with just your hands and a hot rock - and in fact, all over the globe, people do. These are perfect for children, as no matter what kind of mess they make... there will be something edible at the end. Send your kids to school with lunch bread pockets they made themselves.

The joy of these is their flexibility  You can add so many different flavourings: fennel seeds, black pepper, nigella seeds, poppy seeds, black and white sesame, dried or fresh chillies, crushed cumin seeds, rosemary, thyme... You get the idea? You can also use flavoured oils.

The other joy is the cost. This will doubtless be the cheapest recipe I ever endorse. The bread pictured below cost no more than 6p each. How much do those supermarket packs of anaemic tortilla wraps cost? 

If you fold them over, deliberately creating an air pocket, it will swell when cooked. You can stuff this pocket with hummus, veg, chilli etc. You don't really need me to tell you how to eat a pitta though do you?

The first recipe is for the basic dough. There are four ingredients.

Basic flat bread

Allowing around 50g of flour per bread mix flour in a bowl with a big pinch of salt and enough water and a couple of plugs of oil to bring it together into a dough. You can use pretty much any oil but bear in mind that it will flavour the mix. Knead the dough a little until smooth and elastic... or you know what... don't. It really doesn't matter what you do. So long as you manage to get flour wet, roll in into a ball and fry or grill it, it will be very pleasant. A worked dough will develop more gluten, resulting in a bread like texture. An unworked dough will be more cake like. Think of soda bread.

In these pictures, I mixed 300g plain flour with salt, some water and about 50ml of groundnut oil. The dough was kneaded for a few minutes and then split into seven  equal balls. Flatten the balls and, on a floured surface, roll them out or simply squash flat with your fingers. place the rounds in a very hot pan, wiped with a little oil and cook for about three minutes on each side. Pile the cooked breads on top of each other and wrap in foil in a very low oven to keep warm until your need them. 
You can roll the rounds thin for a tortilla/chapati style or leave it thicker. Thick doughs may need a couple of turns in the pan.

You can also grill the dough. This results in a dryer bread I find but no less edible.

Does look tasty doesn't it?
Once you're comfortable with the mix-roll-fry gig it's time to try a leavened flat bread. Yes it is a contradiction but take it up with the nomenclature people. Examples of leavened flat breads include the wildly popular pitta, the naan and Irish soda bread. 

A leavening agent changes the texture dramatically. Your bread will be softer, less chewy and, naturally, less dense.

I'm going to detail my naan recipe. You could argue that it's only a naan if it's made on the inside walls of an ultra hot tandoor oven. I would be inclined to agree with you. But unless you have room in your kitchen for a five foot earthenware pot, encased in sand and bricks and with a temperature approaching 500°C, we'll have to make do with a frying pan. 

Naan in pan.

Yeast leavened flat bread with nigella seeds (naan)
Makes six small rounds.

Mix 7g (or one pouch) of dried yeast and a teaspoon of sugar with 300g bread flour. Add: 150ml of warm water, 50g melted butter (or the more traditional ghee), three big tablespoons of natural yogurt, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of nigella seeds. The mixture should be sticky but not unmanageable. Balance with more water (careful!) or a little more flour.

Beat with a food mixer (that's what I do) or knead it on a floured surface for five minutes until slightly less sticky.

Once mixed, scoop up the dough, place in a bowl, brush with some oil to stop side sticking later, cover with cling film and leave for a couple of hours in a warm place. Or leave it in a cold place for longer. Doesn't really matter. Just allow the dough to swell to twice it's size. Although I've never quite worked out how to properly estimate that.

Once risen, divide the dough into six. It will sink of course but worry not: a kitchen miracle awaits. Roll each ball into a flat round.

Now: heat. You need a hot pan. I mean left on your biggest burner for five minutes. A whacking great cast iron job is your friend here. Ideally  you should be  looking to make the more nervous household members to come rushing in, asking if anything is burning. Once really hot, lubricate the pan with some oil. Not much.

Place the rounds in the pan and watch the magic happen. The intense heat makes the micro bubbles balloon. I can't get enough of this. I call the family down to watch. Admittedly they don't always come. Flip once, twice maybe, until there's no doughy bit left.  brush with some melted butter (or not). And then again with the foil-low oven trick.


  1. I look forward to trying this recipe. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Do try. It's a great introduction to bread cooking. You can eat all your mistakes.