After living in the Middle East for several years, I can honestly say that I grew tired of hummous, falafel and tabbouleh. Like all things available in excess, you take them for granted until they’re gone. Za’atar, however, is one thing that never bored me. I first tried this heady herbal mix of thyme, marjoram, oregano and the tangy spice sumac on a manaeesh (a doughy flat bread) served fresh from the oven at Al Mallah’s takeaway window in Dubai, and would eat it at every opportunity hence.
It wasn’t until a recent trip to Beirut that I had it again. It was years later at breakfast at the gorgeous Phoenicia Hotel and I fell in love once more. Although za’atar can be added to all sorts, including omelettes, dips and meat rubs, I love it sprinkled over flatbread with cheese. In Lebabnon, they cook it at high temperatures on pitta with halloumi.
It’s so delicious and I miss it so much, that I thought I’d give it a go myself. For this recipe, which I’ve adapted from the Comptoir Libanais cookbook, I’ve actually used akawi cheese, which I prefer because it’s creamier and less salty.
I actually made the mistake of making double as much dough as I needed (the correct measurements for six are in the recipe below), so I had a little play around. First, with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of nigella and sesame seeds (a la my Turkish bread recipe).
And then I went au naturale. I was so chuffed to see them puff up so beautifully. Maybe it’s time I ventured back into the realms of hummous…
Pitta Bread Dough
200 ml of warm water
½ tsp of fast action yeast
1 tbsp of olive oil (with extra for drizzling)
300g of strong white flour (with extra for rolling the dough)
½ tbsp of caster sugar
½ tsp of salt
Akawi cheese, thinly sliced
Makes six flatbreads.
Pour the water into a mixing bowl and stir in the yeast, mixing until it’s dissolved.
Add the oil, flour, sugar and salt and mix together until a fairly firm dough is formed. Add a little more water if it’s too dry or more flour if it’s too moist. Cover and leave the mixture for 10 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and lightly knead until smooth. This can also be done with a stand mixer and a dough hook on a low speed setting.
Return the dough to the bowl – if you’ve been kneading by hand – cover and allow to rest for 60 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan and place two large baking trays in the oven to pre-heat.
Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll out each until it’s around 15cm in diameter.
Lay the tops with the slices of akawi cheese, a generous sprinkling of za’atar and a drizzle of olive oil.
Slide the man’oushas onto the baking trays and cook in batches until the dough crisps and the cheese has melted – about 12 minutes.
Slide onto a board and serve while still warm.
Za’atar is a thyme-based herb mix available at most Middle Eastern supermarkets.
I prefer akawi cheese to halloumi because it’s much creamier and less salty, though the latter also works a treat.
This recipe is adapted from the pitta bread and man’ousha jabneh recipes found in the Comptoir Libanais cookbook.
© Kate McAuley 2013