Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Rant and A (Good) Recipe: Algerian Flatbread - Msemmen [Αλγερινή Πίτα (Ψωμί)]

Farid Zadi's Algerian Flatbread has wonderful flavor rolled into its many layers. Two days ago, it was a terrific accompaniment to Red Lentil and Bulgur Soup with Mint and Lemon.

The Flatbread’s recipe was in the February 2008 Gourmet magazine. The article with the Flatbread had six other delicious-sounding Zadi recipes, including Shrimp Chermoula and Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Spiced Pine Nuts.

Though I enjoyed the article and the Flatbread, I have a bone to pick with Gourmet.

The morning I planned to make the flatbread, I read a New York Times article in which a Gourmet food editor discussed how the magazine tests recipes. She said Gourmet “has 8 test kitchens and 11 food editors. Even if we think a recipe is right the first time, we cross-test it. It’s likely to go through a bare minimum of four iterations, really refining it, before it’s written up and passed along to the cross-tester. Then everyone gathers around for the discussions. Is it right? Could it be better?”

Based on Gourmet’s elaborate testing procedures, the editor said it “made her a bit sad” when people make changes to Gourmet’s recipes “considering how much work went into the original.”

I noted the editor’s arrogance in passing. Cooking well is never about slavishly following a recipe. It’s about pleasing your guests and yourself. It’s about tasting recipes as you make them and refining as necessary or desired. If I prefer lemons to oranges, there’s nothing “sad” about turning an orange cake into a lemon cake.

Beyond using alternate ingredients, some days the lemons I buy are slightly sweet, other days they are extremely sour. Blindly using the same amount of lemon juice each time I cook a dish, just because a particular amount is dictated in a recipe, doesn’t work if the flavor of lemons varies (which it does). If I defer to a recipe instead of my taste buds, the food coming out of my kitchen will never be at its best.

As you might guess, when I finished the New York Times article and started making Algerian Flatbread, I was already muttering about Gourmet. The muttering tuned into ranting when I tried to follow Gourmet’s preposterous directions for Algerian Flatbread.

According to Gourmet’s Flatbread recipe, you make the dough, let it rest, and divide it into 12 balls. You make spiced oil to rub on the dough. So far, the instructions are fine.

But then the recipe takes a sharp turn into a world where chefs have assistants and unlimited time to prepare food. For busy home cooks working alone, Gourmet’s procedure is cumbersome and unnecessarily time-intensive.

Gourmet instructs you to roll out one of the 12 dough balls, “spread 1 tsp. spiced oil on dough with your fingertips,” and shape the dough into a coil. Then Gourmet wants you to pick up another dough ball and repeat the procedure until all balls are rolled, oiled, and shaped.

Huh?? I’m supposed to get my fingers oily and then go back to messing with flour and rolling out dough? And I’m supposed to do this 12 times? Making the mess that would result from following Gourmet’s directions isn’t for me. There’s no need to deal with the hassle of oily fingers; it’s quicker and easier to apply oil with a pastry brush.

It’s also faster and easier to roll out all the dough balls at once, then brush them all with oil, and then shape the breads. It’s called an assembly line; Henry Ford invented it almost 100 years ago.

Rolling Algerian FlatbreadThe recipe has a similar flaw when it comes to the second time you roll out the dough. Gourmet tells you to roll a flatbread, cook it, roll the next flatbread, cook it - 12 separate times. Fully cooking one bread before rolling the next virtually doubles the time it takes to make the flatbreads. It’s far easier to roll them all out at one time and cook them one after the other as fast as you can.

Which brings me back to why I was ranting. If the Algerian Flatbread recipe really went through as many “iterations” as the Gourmet editor described, why didn’t one of the “iterators” identify the technique as unnecessarily cumbersome?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll make Farid Zadi’s Algerian Flatbreads again, no doubt more than once; they’re very tasty. But I’ll do it using the instructions set out below, and not those in Gourmet's recipe.

Algerian FlatbreadAlgerian Flatbread - Msemmen [Αλγερινή Πίτα (Ψωμί)]
Makes 12 Flatbreads
Adapted from Farid Zadi in February 2008 Gourmet Magazine
Algerian Flatbreads are made with whole wheat flour and seasoned with spicy oil to create layers of good flavor. Be sure to cook them on medium heat; if the burner is set too high, spots on the flatbreads will burn before the dough is cooked though. Because flatbreads are best when finished just before serving, I didn’t cook them all at one time. I rolled out all the spirals and separated them with pieces of wax paper. I wrapped the portion of the stack I didn't plan to cook in plastic wrap and refrigerated it. Today, I brought the uncooked flatbreads to room temperature and cooked them just before dinner. They tasted just as good as the first night. If you have leftover cooked flatbread, wrap it in foil, store at room temperature, and reheat (still wrapped in foil) in a 350°F oven.

Dough:
3 cups finely ground whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 - 1 1/2 cups water

Topping:
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric (optional)

Make the dough: Put the flour, salt, and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment (or by hand), mix the ingredients. Slowly stir in 1 cup of water, and then add more water as necessary to form a soft dough. Change to the dough hook and knead, dusting the sides of the bowl with just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes (you can also knead by hand). Remove the dough from the bowl and liberally oil its sides. Shape the dough into a ball, return it to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest in a warm place for 1 hour.

Make the topping: Stir together the olive oil, cumin, paprika, and turmeric (if using) in a small bowl.

Shape the flatbreads: Cut 12 10"-wide pieces of wax or parchment paper. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and, keeping the remaining pieces covered with plastic wrap, flatten 1 piece of dough into a disk. On a lightly floured surface, and using a floured rolling pin, roll out the disk into a 9-inch round. Put the round on a plate and cover with wax paper. Continuing rolling the dough pieces until all are stacked on the plate, divided by pieces of wax paper.

If you have a large counter, spread out all the dough rounds; if not, oil and shape them in batches. Using a small pastry brush, lightly brush the entire surface of each round with spiced oil and roll it into a long, narrow cigar-shaped cylinder. Coil each cylinder into a tight spiral. Place the spirals on a plate and loosely cover with plastic wrap.

Finish and cook flatbreads: On a lightly floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll out the spirals into 6” rounds and stack up, separated by wax paper. Heat a dry large cast-iron frying pan over medium heat until hot, then cook the flatbreads, turning once, until they are puffed and browned in spots, 3 to 4 minutes total. As each flatbread is done, put it on plate and cover with a dish towel.


When all the flatbreads are cooked, serve them with your main course, along with olives and feta cheese.
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This is my entry for Bread Baking Day #6: Shaped Breads hosted this month by Eva of Sweet Sins.

20 comments:

Eva said...

Your flatbread looks awesome! And concerning unnecessarily complicated techniques, I'm definitely with you - sometimes I even have the feeling they do it to make the whole recipe look more sophisticated...
Thanks for participating!

Peter said...

Remind me to never cross you! LOL...I agree wholeheartedly with you Laurie. Its good to make subtle variations to recipes Its a good way to learn about the ingredients we cook with and its also fun! Your flatbread sounds great and I definitely prefer your instructions. Bravo!

Lisa said...

Very rarely do I follow instructions 'exactly' when preparing a recipe as that interferes with the art of the whole culinary process and pays no respect to the ingredients on hand.

Very nice flatbread that I would like to try. Thanks for your revisions and no doubt I'll revise it to meet my own preferences and tastes.

Thank you Laurie. Your recipes are inspiring and refreshing.

Gretchen Noelle said...

Well, I don't get Gourmet here, so I will gladly just follow your instructions! These look really good and I have yet to venture into indian breads, although I think I would really like them!

Peter M said...

The spices sound great for this flatbread.

One of my goals is to try more N. African foods, more Mediterranean, same ingredients, different intpretations.

Lannae said...

Your flat bread looks wonderful! You have done so well with getting a little crispy char on the bread (my favorite part of bread). How would Algerian bread be cooked? In a skillet too, or is there a big brick bread oven?

Susan said...

I'm pretty crazy about North African cuisines, and I like the way you have reworked this recipe to suit yourself.

Your arguments, Laurie, are anything but a rant. I often come across recipes that are ponderously written. Some I dismiss at the get go; others, I negotiate on my own terms if the dish really is worth pursuing. Gourmet likely modified Farid's recipe to suit themselves, but obviously we can't do likewise. Indeed. Kitchen testing is valuable, but for those recipes refined by committee, it can be too many cooks spoiling the soup.

Ivy said...

Looks wonderful Laurie and only beginner cooks follow step-by-step instructions given to them by "experts".

Bellini Valli said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly! A recipe is only a place to start and is limited only by your imagination. We can't always follow a recipe to the letter....and wouldn't always want to.

katiez said...

The flatbread looks great!
But I've never really liked that magazine...and why must you use your fingers? A brush? A bit of kitchen paper?

Y said...

This reminds me of chapatti, one of my favourite flatbreads. Love the use of spices like turmeric - I'll have to try this out one weekend. I wonder if it freezes well also?

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Eva. Your explanation for overly complicated recipes fits with my observations. Thanks for hosting!

Peter, yes, you better look out, I'm really scary when I get annoyed. Just joking! I agree with you about variations, and think that is what makes cooking individual and special.

Lisa, exactly! The only way to respect ingredients is to roll with their unique characteristics. Plus, your revisions to my recipes, and others' revisions to yours advance our culinary knowledge and foster creativity. I'm glad you're enjoying the recipes.

Thanks Gretchen!

Peter M., I love N. African foods and should make them more often. I will if you will!

Lannae, I'm with you, the crispy charred bits are the best! I've read that at least some Algerian cooks make the bread on cast aluminum skillets, but I have no personal experience so can only tell you what I've read.

Susan, I had to tone down the ranting for publication! And I would have just dismissed the recipe as "ponderously written" if I hadn't just read the NY Times article (which, by the way, I reached via a link on your website).

Ivy, yes, you are so right!

Valli, it's almost impossible for me to follow a recipe exactly...I'm not one for blind obedience.

Y, yes, I think it would freeze well, and could easily be rewarmed in the oven. Hope you like it!

bee said...

i am definitely making this. it looks very much like indian rotis. this would be a great entry for the current CLICK.

Cakelaw said...

Your flatbreads look terrific Laurie - I'd follow your instructions any day. (And isn't half the fun of cooking making your own changes and experimenting!!)

ThreeTastes said...

I'm still laughing about your dead-on comments about some food "experts"! You're absolutely right. : )

This looks like a wonderful bread -- better that you went with your instincts after your first LPQ experience!

Lydia said...

Hooray for common sense! The only test kitchen that matters is the one in your own house.

Laurie Constantino said...

Bee, I've never had Indian rotis - I'll check them out because these were good. Click, click, here I come!

Cakelaw, yes absolutely experimenting and making changes is exactly what I like best about cooking.

Manju, that LPQ recipe really taught me a lesson (and one I've "learned" over and over again, sad to say). Gourmet has good recipes, but they definitely have an attitude!

Lydia, in the kitchen, common sense is the most important thing. Well, that and tasting as you go!

zorra said...

I'm absolutly with you - sometimes the recipes instructions are too complicated and confusing. So thank you for your practical tips.

Lien said...

What a great blog you have with such great recipes. Love you flatbread... I'll put it on my to-bake list. Thanks

://: Heni ://: said...

Your bread looks nice! But sorry to say do not like msemmen here in Algeria.