In her latest, and sixth, book “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean: Focaccias, Flatbreads, Rusks, Tarts, and other Breads”, she reveals the amazing variety of tempting goodies that are produced around the Mediterranean from bread doughs and pastry.
“All the peoples of the Mediterranean believe that no meal is complete without bread,” Helou points out. Her recipes range from simple breads that accompany main courses to more complex filled breads and pastries which are meals in themselves. Occupying the middle ground are the many savory baked items to be eaten as meze, hors d’oeuvres, snacks, and other little bites, some traditionally made by home cooks, others by street vendors or small family-run bakeries.
“Savory Baking”, published in New York by the HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, comes with glowing reviews on its back cover from the likes of the veteran Middle East food writer Claudia Roden, Mark H Furstenberg - founder of Marvelous Market and The BreadLiine and co-owner of Ma-Mi Bistro and Bakery - and Carol Field, author of “The Italian Baker”, “Celebrating Italy”, and “Italy in Small Bites”.
As with previous volumes in the Helou oeuvre, “Savory Baking” is as much a culinary travel work as a cookery book and is a highly enjoyable read. Helou revels in travel and culinary observation, and while preparing the book she stayed with friends in a number of Mediterranean countries. They introduced her to local experts in preparing breads and other savory baked items.
Among the many places she visited was a bakery in Kfar Rumman, south Lebanon, where she learnt from “a wonderful old-fashioned baker”, Jawad Yussef Daher, how to make the Mishtah Bread which is unique to that area. The ingredients include whole wheat flour, cracked wheat (jreesh), spices, and mahlep – the tiny dried nut found in the kernel of the sour cherry, which is ground into a fragrant powder.
On the Greek island of Kassos Helou watched a woman make Artos, a bread with subtle sweet and spicy flavors which is baked on various saints’ days. In Marrakesh her friend Mortada Chami, owner of the Stylia restaurant, organized a demonstration of the special skills involved in making the leaf-thin pastry known as warqa.
Scattered through the book’s 339 pages are black and white photographs taken by Helou, which have a timeless quality. As Helou says: “I try in the text that introduces the recipes to give a sense of the depth of tradition – in techniques, in ingredients and in the origins of specific recipes – that underlies contemporary Mediterranean savory baking.”
Historically, bread and baking first began in the Fertile Crescent, and Helou’s own engagement with Mediterranean baking began on the edge of the Crescent. The daughter of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother she grew up in Beirut, but as a child she used to spend the summer at her aunt’s house in the Syrian village of Meshta el-Helou.
At that time the village had no electricity, running water or store, and Helou’s aunt made everything at home including bread cooked in a tannour pit oven. Helou vividly recalls her aunt inserting her arm deep into the tannour to slap circles of dough against its walls, peeling the cooked loaves off a few seconds later. Helou has remained an enthusiastic student of Mediterranean baking ever since.
In the introduction to her book, Helou provides useful tips for the home baker, but her attitude is relaxed and she says: “In fact, part of the fun of home baking is the somewhat unpredictable nature of it. One day, your bread will rise perfectly and the slashes will open up beautifully. Another day, the results will not be so perfect, though they will still be good.” She explains how to shape dough into loaves, which she considers the most difficult part of baking.
There are interesting links between bakery products in different Mediterranean countries. The family of Italian flatbreads known as Focaccia, of which Helou gives examples from different parts of Italy (featuring ingredients such as cheese, potato or walnut), is equivalent to Fougasse in the south of France and Fouace in the north.
Crunchy breadsticks coated with sesame seeds are called Grissini in Sicily, and Ka’k in Lebanon and Syria. Helou used to think that the practice of sprinkling sesame seeds on bread in Sicily dated back to the Arab occupation, but she then found it mentioned in the writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides in the first century AD. It thus predates the Arab invasion by several centuries.
There are two basic types of Mediterranean bread: flat and raised. Flatbreads are found in various shapes and forms throughout the region, although one-layered varieties are mostly found in the western Mediterranean and two- or multi-layered ones in the eastern part. Raised breads are mainly produced in the western region. Raised loaves may be divided according to whether they are leavened naturally, using sourdough, or artificially, using fresh or dried yeast.
Bread doughs are also used to make many types of savory pastries. In the western Mediterranean the dough or pastry casing is thick or thin, and made in one or several layers, while in the Eastern and southern parts the casing is generally thin and often made in several layers. Savory pastries are useful for two main purposes: to recycle leftovers, and to serve as portable meals that can be taken to work or on journeys.
Among the Pizza-type recipes in the book is one for the famous Lebanese flatbread Manaqish bil-Za’tar, translated as “Thyme Pizza”, which is served plain or with strained yoghurt (labneh). Its sister product, Manaqish bil-Kishk, is topped with the dried bulghur and yoghurt powder that is a vital foodstuff for inhabitants of the Lebanese mountains. Alongside recipes for Italian Pizzas and the French Pissaladiere, there is one for Turkish Eggplant Pide topped with red peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.
Medfouna is a Moroccan flatbread stuffed with meat, which Helou titles “Berber Hamburger All- in One”. Sometimes flatbreads are crispy, such as Sardinian crackers (Pane Carasau), very thin circles of dough baked until they harden . Khobz Ramadan are date-filled breads found in the souqs of Tripoli, Lebanon and Damascus and Aleppo during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Tunisian Spicy Breads (Touarits) are made from two circles of semolina flour dough sealed around a filling including chilies and red peppers. They are related to the Moroccan multilayered breads known as R’ghayef , and the M’hajjib bread of Algeria.
Many of the savory pastries featured in the book are from Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkish Meat Boreks, Moroccan Triangles with Chicken or Minced Meat, Lebanese Cheese or Strained Yoghurt Triangles and Lebanese Square Meat Pies (known as Sreyjatt or Sfiha). From Syria there are Cheese Fatayer, and from Tunisia Meat Crescents.
Helou’s book is likely to delight all who read it – except perhaps those on Atkins-style low-carbohydrate diets. And even they may find their willpower wilting in the face of her mouth-watering descriptions of Mediterranean baked specialties.
Saudi Gazette February 18 2008