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A Handful of Farina Breads

Simit bread or "beigele" with labaneh and herb spread

It’s been a couple or three weeks since my last post. I am currently in the desperate process of using up as much hametz, which is flour-yeast-bread-beans-lentils-rice-pasta-fillo-dough-oatmeal-etcetera, as possible before Passover. Right after Purim  I discovered I still had about 5 sacks of dried beans and lentils cleverly saved up and a sack of whole wheat flour and a 2-lb. bag each of bulgur AND farina! And a pound of wild rice. And a new bag of soy flour. Most of all which I couldn’t donate to the food shelter because it was either bulk or partly opened. Yeesh. What’s a girl to do?

Well…we’re certainly going to find out in the next couple of posts, aren’t we?…Even my suddenly-vegetarian daughter–yes, the very same one who kept bugging me about why I wasn’t cooking enough chicken for her last year–is wondering whether she has the stomach for more black bean burritos in the next two or three weeks (her conclusion: as long as there’s chipotle salsa around, what’s the problem?) My husband is looking at both of us cross-eyed.

Okay, then. Project #1 (well, after the pot of black beans, anyway; those were pretty standard and don’t call for a post): bread.

Long, long ago, in a kibbutz kitchen far, far away, I made some bread for my parents, who were coming to Israel for a visit during the year I was there. December in Israel–drizzly and cold some days, bright and cool others. You never know what you’re going to get.

But I’d missed my parents dearly for half a year. To celebrate seeing them I had in mind something like one of the blackish poppy-filled strudel I’d seen in a Romanian bakery in the middle of Haifa’s downtown “Hadar” shopping district amid the felafel stands and bookstalls. Only I wanted something not sweet, and with a better dough. A savory bread, like a bialy but with poppy seeds. So onion and maybe a little parsley or dill, now that I’d worked in the side kitchen for 5 months and knew the Hebrew names for both herbs.

I decided on a basic bread dough, flour-water-yeast-salt with a bit of oil. I rolled it out flat into a long rectangle and filled it with chopped, fried onions, parsley, dill, thyme and salt (it actually had too much salt, to my embarrassment, but my mother loved it anyway) and a couple of handfuls of poppy seeds. Then I rolled up the column of bread, twisted it around itself into a longish double rope, glazed it with egg yolk and baked it. It was pretty good and looked impressive. And it was really easy. My mother ate it all week sightseeing while my dad was at his conference.

Those days are gone, but a recent trip my husband took brought back the memory along with a couple of loaves of multigrain herb bread from a traditional German bakery he discovered in Tehachapi. The breads lasted an entire week at room temperature (of course, our humidity’s so low in Pasadena that this may be an exception) without seriously high salt in the dough, and every time we passed the dining room table, the aroma of dill and thyme and scallions and sourdough made us want to tear off a chunk to eat just as-is.

Two weeks ago was Purim, the feast of lots (as in drawing lots to determine someone’s fate, not lots as in lots-of-hametz-to-use-up). It’s the holiday from which we get the term “the whole Megillah”–the Megillah being the Scroll of Esther, a long Scheherezade-style story set in Persia and very long to read out loud in one sitting to a large congregation while they cheer the heroes and boo the villain (also Scheherezade-style, it’s the wicked vizier–am I giving anything away? It’s always the wicked vizier, except when it isn’t. And did I mention it’s kind of long? Okay, then).

So anyway, I decided to make some of this scrolled bread to give as Purim shalachmones–food baskets sent to friends, but didn’t get that far this year. Hamantaschen was about the limit of my ability, since it’s also get-your-kid-into-a-decent-school-for-next-year lottery time.

Usually these days the mishloach manot (same term, without the Yiddish accent) are candy bars, bagged snack foods, and maybe some raisins or an orange to round out the “3 different foods” custom. Occasionally you still see hamantaschen but the junk food factor has really taken over very sadly, I gotta say, even if it’s Israeli junk food. I mean, okay, felafel-flavored Bisli is fun once, but it’s really not much better than Cheetos, except that the wrapper is a good exercise for my daughter’s Hebrew reading skills (especially once she figured out which word meant “carbohydrates” on the nutrition label).

Nobody on the west coast even makes poppy seed hamantaschen anymore, to say nothing of prune lekvar filling, the two classics of my childhood. It’s a cultural deterioration I aim to remedy. Maybe next year–but for now, this weekend, with a container of poppy seeds still in the freezer, I’m thinking about making the bread, since it’s delicious, also involves poppy seeds and is unlike anyone else’s. And because I have flour and yeast to use up before Pesach, which is now right around the corner.

So I started pulling the flour off the shelf and realized I’d used up all the bread flour for hamantaschen but I still had a good 3-4 pounds of whole wheat, which wouldn’t make a good bread all by its lonesome. And on the other hand, I had both bulgur and farina–bulgur for tabbouleh or a wheat version of polenta, but farina–2 pounds of it. Well…it’s wheat and fairly fine. Maybe if I ground it up a bit further in the coffee grinder? I did, though the end result seemed less than convincing that I’d made any difference in it at all. Still pretty grainy. Dumped it into the food processor anyway along with an equal amount of whole wheat flour, some yeast, a little salt, and enough water for a fairly stiff but elastic ball of dough once it was processed.

The dough was pretty heavy to lift out and the farina absorbed a lot of water but it did seem to be developing some stretch, at least. I let it rise overnight in the fridge and started testing it out the next day.

First off–a quickie version of the poppy-onion bread (sorry, no photo). I chopped a bit of onion, enough for a roll, and microwaved it on a plate. Tossed a spoonful or so of poppy seeds and some wild thyme on top, mixed it with my fingers and spread the mix on, rolled it up and twisted it, let it rise a bit more and baked it on foil in the toaster oven.

Result–all in all, pretty good, but the farina makes for a chewy, moist dough, and you definitely want something lighter and yeastier, more pizza-ish, for a full-sized loaf. Same kind of experience rolling a ball into poppy seeds for a flatbread–it toasted up nicely and even puffed a bit in the middle, but had a substantial, very crunchy crust and wasn’t flexible or light like regular pita.

So I thought, maybe bagels? I made a little rope of risen dough and simmered it quickly on both sides in a small pot of water, then sprinkled on sesame seeds and baked it. It broke a little when I lifted it out of the water–not enough gluten developed? but the dough was fairly suitable for a bagel.

What else–maybe beigele or simit, the longish loops of sesame-encrusted bread that Arab bakers sell from carts or longish wooden poles inside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem.

Simit or beigele loops of sesame-encrusted herb bread rising before baking

And that’s the last project for this bowl of dough–ropes of risen dough rolled in sesame, caraway, sumac and oregano, bent into longish ovals, risen again and baked really hot for about 15 minutes on oiled foil. They turned out the best (though again, they were best eaten fresh and toughened up after a couple of hours).

Still, it all goes to show–you don’t always need standard ingredients to make good bread, you just have to figure out what shape works best for the texture of your dough.

Notes on the flavorings:

Poppy seeds require careful storage–preferably tightly wrapped in the freezer–to prevent them from going rancid. Try to use them up quickly once you buy them, and buy from the freshest source you can. Rancid poppy seeds won’t always smell bad raw, but they will be VERY off-putting once they’re cooked and can spoil all your hard work, so always taste them before adding them to anything you bake–toss them if they have any funky or off flavors. I’d say same for sesame seeds.

As to herbs, if you’re lucky enough to have fresh za’atar, known in the US as wild thyme or winter savory, use that in the onion filling. Otherwise thyme and/or oregano (especially fresh!) will do fine, especially with some dill added in.

All the amounts in this recipe are approximate for a salad bowl of dough, enough for maybe 2 medium loaves or one large loaf. As with most bread instructions, the amounts are loose because unlike cake recipes, bread goes by feel.

The only really hard and fast rules for bread are:

1. Don’t kill the yeast (culprits: direct contact with salt, too much salt in the dough, or dumping in hot water instead of lukewarm) and

2. Don’t dump the water in all at once. I can’t tell you exactly how much you’ll need, so save the water to add little by little to the bowl that already has the dry ingredients mixed together. You want to add just enough water for a smooth, supple dough that incorporates all the flour without being too sticky or pasty. Knead it in until you get a ball of dough with a texture that feels right–elastic, not too loose, not too tight and stiff. Then add a drizzle of oil and knead that in, cover the bowl and let it rise.

Or you can work the dough in a food processor, putting the flour, yeast and salt into the workbowl and then drizzling in the water through the feed tube and pulsing until you get a decent ball of dough, and stopping to poke the dough with a finger and make sure it’s not too stiff.

Farina/Whole Wheat Bread Dough:

  • For the farina/whole wheat dough, about 3 cups each, favoring the whole wheat for dusting and so on if you need extra flour.  OR (for sane people who have normal flour instead) 6-7 c. bread flour with or without whole wheat in the mix for a better version of the poppyseed-onion filled bread below, especially if you’re making large loaves, though the farina/whole wheat wasn’t bad for small rolls.
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 packet active dry yeast
  • 1/2 c. warm water (warm, not hot, to the touch)
  • 1 T. sugar
  • just enough additional warm (not hot) water to give you a smooth elastic dough, maybe 1-1.5 c. extra
  • 1/4 c. salad or olive oil

Proof the yeast by mixing into the 1/2 c. water with 1 T. sugar dissolved in. Let sit 10 minutes–it should be frothy on top.

Food processor mixing/kneading: Blend the yeast mix with the flour and salt by pulsing, then drizzle just enough extra water through the feed tube to make a supple, elastic dough that forms a ball. Stop and poke the dough with a finger to make sure it’s neither sticky or too stiff–if it’s still sticky and wet, sprinkle just a spoonful or so of flour in and pulse again–repeat if necessary just until it’s right. If stiff, a spoonful of water and pulse. Recheck. Once it’s the right texture gather it into a ball and put it in a large bowl to rise. Drizzle a little olive oil over it and cover the bowl.

Hand mixing/kneading: Mix the flour and salt together in a large mixing or salad bowl and make a well in the center. When the yeast mixture has proofed, pour it into the well. Slip a plastic sandwich bag over your mixing hand and start to stir the water and yeast into the flour. The flour in the center will start to form a dough but there’ll still be dry flour around the sides of the bowl. With your other hand, drizzle a little more water around the sides, maybe a quarter- or half-cup, and keep mixing. Add just enough so that all the flour is moistened and forming a ball of dough. Gather it all together and squeeze–if it’s stiff and clayish, drizzle a bit more water into the bowl and work it all in to loosen up the dough. If the dough is runny and won’t hold its shape at all, add a bit more flour a little at a time. Start kneading in the bowl–gather all the dough into a ball, push it forward with the heel of your hand, pick it back up, double it over on itself, and keep going. When it no longer looks ragged, about 5 minutes in, gather it into a neat ball, cleaning the sides of the bowl as best possible, drizzle on a little oil, and cover to let rise.

Poppy-Onion Filled Bread

Filling:

  • 2-3 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 t. dry or 2 t. fresh chopped thyme, za’atar or oregano
  • 1 t. dry or 1 T fresh chopped dill and/or basil if you have it
  • 1-2 handfuls poppy seeds (taste first; omit if rancid)
  • handful of washed, chopped parsley, optional
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic or 1/2-1 chopped shallot, optional
  • 1/2 t. salt or to taste
  • oil for frying

Make the filling: Brown the chopped onions lightly in a spoonful or so of salad or olive oil, then remove to a bowl and mix in the other ingredients. Add the salt last and be sparing–if it tastes good with just a pinch, leave it at that. Let it cool down before using–warm is okay; hot could kill the yeast.

Divide the dough into 2 balls for larger loaves or several balls for small loaves or individual rolls, as you prefer. For large loaves, form each of the two balls into a rope 1-2 ft. long, then flatten into a rectangle about 4-6 inches wide. Let rest 20 minutes. Mix the filling and spoon a layer of it down each strip of dough, then roll up each strip into a long rope again and press the outside edge to seal in the filling. Carefully fold each long rope double so that the ends meet and twist the doubled rope a couple of times to form a longish coiled loaf. Press the ends together. For smaller loaves (4 balls of dough? 6?) you can shape them the same way or coil two strands together and divide into small loaves once they’re twisted. For individual rolls (golf-ball-sized balls of dough), flatten them out, spread filling on, roll them up and tie them in an overhand knot. Or whatever suits your fancy.

Let each loaf rise covered until about double in bulk on an oiled baking sheet. Heat the oven to 350°F. Gently remove the covering so the risen loaves don’t deflate. Brush the tops of the loaves with egg yolk and bake about 40 min to an hour (less for rolls; maybe 20-30 min) or until golden on top and smelling good. Let them cool all the way before wrapping.

Beigele or Simit

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Put a pan of water in the bottom of the oven before you start to heat it so the crust on the rings of bread will be seriously crunchy. Cut the dough into chunks about 1.5 inches thick by about 3 inches long, roll out into a rope, dip to coat all over in a plateful of sesame seeds mixed with oregano flakes and a couple of pinches each of sumac and caraway. Pinch the ends of the dough together to form a stretched oval ring and let rise on oiled tinfoil or a baking sheet. When the oven’s hot, carefully put each sheet of beigele in and let them go about 10-15 minutes or until cooked through. Turn the oven off and wait another 5 minutes to let the sesame seeds start to color.

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