A few years ago, shortly before the Arab Spring, we had the trip of a lifetime in Syria. We met a friendly hotelier who used to live in Perth, Australia (his neighbours called him Abu Salim of Australia), saw some incredible Roman sites and Crusader-era castles, and wandered around the ancient cities of Damascus, Hama, Aleppo.
Some of our most cherished memories are of food. Knowing no Arabic, we looked, wondered, pointed, smiled, and began to understand the meaning of true Arabic hospitality. We walked into bakeries by the street, and walked out bearing bags of round, soft, silky bread, more refined than any lebanese-style bread we could find at home. I bought bags of fresh nuts, walked past sacks of spices – so many colours and smells, many barely recognised.
We walked past shops that sold rounds or pockets of silky bread. Some had a smear of lamb and tomato and mysterious spices, others were stuffed with unknown (but so tasty) white cheeses and herbs. Each one we tried was delicious. We had something similar on our day trip to Baalbek, Lebanon. Knowing no Arabic, we called them Syrian/Lebanese lamb pizza things.
A couple of years later, I found a recipe for the lamb pizza in Greg Malouf’s Saha, a culinary journey through Syria and Lebanon. The proper name is lahm bi ajine. (But I still call them lamb pizza things)
This is a long-winded way of saying this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) assignment, Eastern Mediterranean Pizza by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, reminded me of those lamb pizzas. Both use a mixture of chopped tomatoes, minced lamb and spices on a thin dough base, which is cooked quickly on a hot pizza stone or baking tray. I made both the (Greek?) pita dough and Greg Malouf’s yoghurt dough, but played around with Greg Malouf’s recipe for pizza topping.
What made Greg Malouf’s topping stand out is the use of pomegranate molasses in the tomato and lamb mixture. We still have sad, pale, watery winter tomatoes here in Australia (and I miss Scottish raspberries – I never thought I’d be wanting a Scottish summer!), but a splash of pomegranate molasses made the tomatoes perk up no end. Mixed with parsley, spices and chillies, even the pale winter tomatoes began to look and taste exciting.
Malouf’s recipe asks for the tomatoes, lamb, parsley and spices to be chopped together, very finely, until the mixture resembles a paste. I whizzed up a chunkier tomato mixture for the first batch of pizza. For the second batch, I followed his instructions and used tomato-lamb-spice ‘paste’, chopped with much patience with a Chinese cleaver and chopping board. (My mother would have been proud of the way I handled that cleaver.)
While chunkier tomatoes are more photogenic, the paste-like mixture was – somehow – tastier, maybe because the flavours had more time to mingle. The pizza made with the paste also looked more like the Syrian pizzas that we remembered.
Alford and Duguid’s pita bread recipe uses a simple water, yeast and flour ‘sponge’, and relies on a slightly longer proving time and wholemeal flour for flavour. Malouf’s recipe uses plain or strong flour, yoghurt and sugar, and does not use a sponge.
The instructions for the pita bread were simple to follow. The dough came together almost without thought over a Saturday morning. Even though it was the first bread I made in almost 2 months, the dough felt intuitive, elastic, playful, even happy.
After making a few small pizzas, I turned the rest into pita bread. Mr Gander kept nibbling on the pita bread while listening to cricket on the radio, so that they were all gone by dinner time. Isn’t that one of the best compliments a baker can receive?
As for the Greg Malouf recipe, we liked the slightly tangy flavour from the yoghurt, and it was easy to roll the dough into very thin rounds that required less than 5 minutes of cooking on the pizza stone.
On the other hand, the recipe was fussy, unhappy. The ratio of liquid to flour felt wrong, so much so that I almost doubled the quantity of water to get the dough to a malleable consistency (in hindsight, maybe using a thinner yoghurt, rather than Greek yoghurt, could have helped). Since the yoghurt was cold from the fridge, this lengthened the proving time for the dough so that I ended up using it for dinner rather than a late lunch or afternoon tea.
We really liked this pizza and its variations. For the topping, it’s hard to go past the tomato-lamb-pomegranate paste. Mr Gander even said it’s as good as one of the Lebanese pizza shops around here! As for the dough, we are already wanting to have the pita bread again, and I’m also willing to give Greg Malouf’s dough another try because it was quite tasty.
Please go and see what other TWD bakers have done, and buy the book, Baking with Julia.
And then, the search for large, round, soft, silky bread from Syria continues…
Pizza, after the style of lahm bi ajine
Below is the pita dough recipe from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and the topping recipe from Greg Malouf. If you want to read about the original pizza topping from Alford and Duguid, please go and see what other TWD bakers have done. And Greg Malouf’s yoghurt dough recipe is available on the SBS Australia website.
1/2 teaspoon dry active yeast
1 1/4 cups tepid water (80 to 90 degrees)
1 1/4 cups (approx 170g) wholemeal / whole wheat flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/4 to 2 2/3 cups (approx 170-300g) plain / AP / strong flour (as much as you need to get the right consistency in the dough)
250g (9 oz) minced lamb, not too lean (the recipe suggests: “ask the butcher for leg lamb with some fat, but no sinews.”)
1 tomato, seeded and finely diced
1 small purple onion or a couple of shallot, finely diced
1⁄3 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, finely shredded
1 teaspoon ground allspice (I used a mixture of cinnamon, cumin and allspice)
1 red bullet chill, seeded and finely diced
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses (I used 3 teaspoons to perk up winter tomatoes)
Salt and pepper
1. Sponge: Stir the yeast and water together in a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon, stir in a mixture of wholemeal and strong/AP flour, until the mixture looks smooth and silky. Cover the mixture and rest it for at least 30 minutes, or up to 8 hours in a cool place.
2. Dough: Sprinkle salt over the sponge and stir in the olive oil, mix well. Add the flour about a cup at a time, mixing until the dough is just coming together and stiff. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Alford and Duguid say “The dough will be moderately firm and have a slight sheen.”
3. Clean, dry and lightly oil the mixing bowl. Put the dough into the bowl, lightly oil its surface, cover and let it rise at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, or until doubles in size. Cover and rest until it’s pizza time.
Topping and pizza
4. Preheat the oven, with pizza stone, to its highest temperature.
5. Topping: place the mince on a large chopping board and put all the other ingredients, except for the salt and pepper, on top. Use a large knife to chop and mix everything together until well combined. It should be the consistency of a fine paste. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Roll the dough into small or large rounds, brush with olive oil. Smear the paste thinly over the rounds and bake for 3-5 minutes on the pizza stone. If your dough rounds are thicker like pita bread, you will need 7-10 minutes.