Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Starting April with a Zing: Manaeesh bi Zataar

Nothing like a little zataar to add zing to an April day...
image credit

April is a special month in my family. Everyone and their (well, my) mother seems to have been born in April. It's a time when in Texas the weather is still pleasant (read: you can go outside without experiencing immediate and deadly heat exhaustion), the famous Texan wildflowers are blooming, and people are held in a delightful suspense, a pause in bated breath, before the beginning of full-on summer. For these reasons and many aesthetically-pleasing more, I felt April should be started with a zing. How better than with a recipe for an easy and light pizza dough that can be used for one of my favorite Lebanese foods - Manaeesh bi Zataar - ?

When I was ten years old, I recall my mother's Lebanese friends bringing over some miniature pita
breads with a dark, strange spice mixture containing sesame seeds on it. They could never quite explain what the spice mixture was made of, but it was enough of a family favorite that the dear Lebanese mother was willing to risk problems with customs in order to smuggle the ready-made treats for her daughter in on the plane from Beirut. They were always generous enough to bring some over for us - and thank God for that, because if I recall correctly, those little pitas were hoarded and devoured with an excitement and greed equal only to that of Augustus Gloop in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

This simple but exquisite little snack, along with my traditional Lebanese dress and recipes for things like stuffed grape leaves, real tabbouleh, and fatoush were the first, miniature but nevertheless exciting and delicious insights I was given into the Lebanese culture.

Almost twenty years later, I still dream about that delicious, spicy-sour bread with the long mysterious spice mixture. I've seen it a couple of times at some of my favorite Lebanese restaurants here in London and tried to ask for a name or explanation: sadly, most of the waiters can't tell (or don't know) what the spice mixture is either. It wasn't until my last visit home to Texas that my mother was lucky enough to find a bag of it at an ethnic market. She gave me half (which I promptly stored in my bodega) to use, and I finally did last week when Matt went on his pizza dough kick.

So let's just cut to the chase...

* * *

Matt's Adventures in Pizza Dough and Manaeesh bi Zataar:
What the heck it is and why you should totally
try it.

my manaeesh bi zataar,
ready to be devoured by beastly little old me

Making of The Pizza Dough

A couple of weekends ago Matt went on a cooking kick. It was probably spurred on by much grumbling and many puerile refusals to cook on my part due to swollen hands, impending motherhood, and sheer sloth.

Matt doesn't get to cook much, but when he does, he loves to go all out, which is why I find it particularly pleasurable to indulge him and make sure we have whatever ingredients he requires for his usually highly-involved culinary dalliances. In this particular case, he wanted to make his own pizza (personally, I think my Pepe's Pizza post was haunting him). Luckily, the recipe we found and subsequently used was utterly simple and included only ingredients we pretty much always have on hand anyway.

While he was making the dough, we got into a conversation about the Lebanese pizza-thing he'd had at Noura (one of our favorite high-endish Lebanese spots in London) the week before. Even though he didn't, *I* knew exactly what he was talking about when he described the doughy, spicy-soury deliciousness of my childhood and quickly ran to pull my as-of-yet-unused jar of Zataar out of the bodega.

What the heck is Zataar (and what the heck are Manaeesh)?
After phone calls to mom and desperate googling, I finally got my answer: Zataar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture generally composed of sesame seeds, the highly underused (IMHO) Marjoram, Oregano (Marjoram's cousin), and Thyme. Sometimes it also includes sumac, fennel, cumin, dried coriander, or other savory spices to create variation and cater to individual taste.

It is not only common in Lebanese cuisine; the Palestinians, Israelis, and many other Middle Eastern and Arabic cultures know and love Zataar and use it generously to season everything from meats to vegetables, make dips or use as a spread. I was even once handed a "Zataar shaker" at a Persian restaurant to liberally sprinkle over my food in place of salt and pepper. It is in fact so yummy that I could not help but eat it by the large pinch from my personal stash. Matt was a little shocked and appalled, but hey, that's how I roll.

Manaeesh (or Manakeesh) is a plural, Anglicized version of the Arab word for a dough or pastry typical of the Middle East and which can be topped with a plethora of ingredients (usually Zataar, ground beef, or cheese) and is eaten with one's hands, much like Italian pizza. It is, however, typically served at breakfast or lunch and as an appetizer rather than as a main meal. It can be small (less than 3 inches in diameter like the ones we had when I was a kid) or medium sized (like the ones Matt and I indulged in).

Why the heck should you try them?
When you combine Zataar with Manaeesh you get Manaeesh bi Zataar, a food held to be incredibly healthy and a natural stimulant of the brain. You know how your parents used to make you have that power-breakfast on the morning of the SAT? Well this is apparently the Middle-Eastern version. I'm happy to indulge that cultural practice any day.

* * *

Matt's Simple Pizza Dough
to be used for making Manaeesh bi Zataar

Makes Two Medium Pizzas or Four Individual Manakeesh

flattenin' the dough


Pizza Dough
1 tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water (or just a splash more)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
olive oil for bowl
1/4 cup semolina

Zataar Topping
4-6 tbsps good olive oil
4-6 tbsps Zataar (or to taste)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lemon
salt to taste


1. Mix the yeast and warm water in a bowl and allow to stand for 1 or 2 minutes, until the yeast is creamy or dissolved. If it doesn't bubble at all, your yeast is dead: go buy some more!

2. Separately, combine the dry ingredients (flour and salt) and then add the yeast mixture slowly, combining to form a dough.

3. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour or a splash more water to ensure the dough is not too dry or too wet (this should take about 10 minutes).

4. Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil and put the dough in. Cover with cling film and put in a dry, warm place to rise for 2 hours.

5. Flatten or punch the dough and take out of the bowl. Cut the dough into two or four even pieces and shape into balls. Flatten the dough again slightly and then lightly dust with flour. Cover loosely with cling film on a floured surface and leave to rise for another hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

6. Once the dough is ready, preheat your oven to its highest setting 500F or 250C. If you have a pizza stone, now's the time to pull that sucker out and stick it in the oven. If you don't, put a heavy roasting tray in the oven and allow it to warm up. Use a separate tray to bake your pizzas or manaeesh on. This will help heat the bottom of the dough as quickly as possible, making the crust crisp but moist because of the short baking time.

7. Using your hands or a rolling pin (a "pizza roller" as Matt calls it) flatten the dough to the size and thickness you want. For my manaeesh (or Matt's pizza!), make it thin-crust (about 1/4 inch thick or less). Place on a baking sheet with some semolina scattered on it so the crust doesn't stick.

8. Traditional recipes call for mixing the zataar with olive oil first, but I simply slathered a generous helping of olive oil (2-3 tbsps per medium manaeesh) all over the dough and then sprinkled with heapsof zataar and some minced garlic. I then salted it and baked for 5-7 minutes, or until the surrounding edge is slightly golden but the dough is still somewhat moist when cut.

9. Sprinkle with some fresh lemon juice and eat warm. You can make extra zataar dip for your bread if you really love the stuff by mixing the spices with more oil and a little lemon juice. Delish.

* * *

Matt's Pizza Creations!

Watery but chunky tomato sauce, good olive oil, minced garlic, freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano (and / or shredded mozzarella), and dried oregano are the key to a good base...

Matt loves streaky bacon and kalamata olives,
but wishes he could find good Italian sausage instead.

Half streaky bacon and mushrooms,
half tuna fish, corn and onion - one of my favorites!
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  1. This pizza sounds excellent! Thank you for the info on Zataar - I would love to try it - wonder if I can find it around here.

  2. Do you think pizza has some kind of 'tomfoolery' connotation so that we both had it in mind for our April 1st posts? 8-) At least you offer a homemade crust while I'm telling people to use eggroll wrappers!

    My intro to Lebanese food was in 2nd grade when a classmate (I still remember his name - Nael Ayad) brought in homemade pita and some parsley (it had something to do with learning about Passover). A lot more simple than your family friends' gift but it still made a huge impression. Zataar sounds wonderful - I would love to try it with ground beef or lamb. Oooooh, that would be so tasty right now.

  3. Both pizzas look wonderful, Ive had zataar before and agree its fantastic - I think I saw the recipe in a Saveur magazine - not sure its a recent issue as I hord them. I'll pass it along if I can find it.