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While one might think of northern Africa as being quite desert-like -- think of the Egyptian Sphinx and pyramids, for instance -- the parts of it that border the Mediterranean Sea are actually very temperate. Olives, wheat, barley, fruits and vegetables, similar to what grows in other areas around the Mediterranean, are successfully raised here. Inland, in the mountains and deserts, only the oases support much growth. But what bountiful growth this is! Pomegranates and figs, grapes and oranges, tomatoes, chili peppers and other vegetables and herbs are plentiful.
When the region was still mainly peopled by a nomadic culture, cooking was a challenge; camel dung was among the scarce fuel sources used. Breads were generally leavened, but also generally flat; a flatbread cooks much more quickly than a thicker loaf. In addition, practicalities of the nomadic society dictated that people travel light; flatbreads substituted for both plate and cutlery, as they became an edible vessel as well as a method of transport from pot to mouth.
These days, many formerly nomadic people have become permanent residents of the oases. And, though their cooking methods have changed, their breads haven't. Flatbreads are still the bread of choice, though now they're cooked on clay skillets, or in clay ovens. Hard durum wheat is also the basis for golden semolina, which is used in many breads. The following flatbread, a soft, spongy round topped with sesame seeds, is perfect for soaking up the juices from a savory stew or a warming curry.
2 cups (11 1/2 ounces) semolina flour
1 1/2 cups (6 5/8 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup (1 7/8 ounces) olive oil
2 tablespoons (3/8 ounce) King Arthur Easy-Roll Dough Improver (optional, but recommended)
1 cup + 6 tablespoons (11 ounces) warm water
1 large egg white (reserve the yolk for glaze)
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup (1 ounce) sesame seeds, for topping
Combine all the dough ingredients and mix and knead them together -- by hand, mixer, food processor or bread machine -- till you've made a soft, pliable dough. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to coat, then cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until it's puffy and almost doubled in bulk.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased or floured work surface and knead it briefly to expel the excess carbon dioxide. Divide the dough in half, round each piece into a ball, and cover the balls lightly. Allow them to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Flatten each ball and roll each out to a circle about 10 inches in diameter, and 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Place the circles on a lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.
Mix the egg yolk with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the tops of the loaves with the glaze, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Let them rise for 30 minutes, until they look puffy and have almost doubled in height.
Bake the bread in a preheated 400°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until it's golden. Remove it from the oven, and cool on a wire rack. Serve it with soup or stew, or salad. Yield: Two loaves, 6 wedges each.
Nutrition information per serving (1 wedge, 74g): 218 cal, 7g fat, 7g protein, 32g complex carbohydrates, 2g dietary fiber, 18mg cholesterol, 280mg sodium, 120mg potassium, 14RE vitamin A, 2mg iron, 26mg calcium, 97mg phosphorus.
This recipe reprinted from The Baking Sheet Newsletter, Vol. XI, No. 6, Autumn 2000 issue.