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Archive for the ‘dough’ Tag

Food for the mind: Middle Eastern Za’atar Pizza

A couple weeks ago I saw a lot of snow; more snow than I had seen in my entire life. That doesn’t say much since I grew up in Miami, but it was a big heap of snow. Around 50 to 70 inches total, according to the Washington Post. My car was completely covered and I was snowbound for almost 10 days. It was the perfect excuse to stay in my PJs, not shave, tweet about snowmageddon, snuggle in bed with a few good books, knock movies off my Netflix queue, and cook — I kept busy.

za’atar (زعتر) from Aleppo

My pantry is usually well-stocked with boxes of pasta, cans of tomato, rice, chickpeas, Oreos and other essentials; probably enough food to last me an entire month, but I wasn’t in the mood for any of it. As much as I love Oreos dunked in cold milk, or an over-sized bowl of pasta, I was craving something different. I wanted something warm and billowy, chewy and filling. I was thinking bread. I had all the ingredients for dough and the obscenely large bag of za’atar that I had brought with me from Aleppo. With these, I was going to make manaqeesh.

If you’re Middle Eastern, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Manaqeesh (pronounced mana-eesh) is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pizza, usually eaten for breakfast, and probably one of my favorite foods of all time. This is what I grew up eating. I remember my mom used to tell my brothers and me that za’atar is food for the mind and good for your memory, so we happily ate. I’m not sure whether the za’atar lost its effects on me, but it was delicious: a combination of tangy flavors from the herbs and a warm nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds. It’s something you have to try. While I was in Aleppo, my most memorable breakfasts included za’atar manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر) or mamounieh (مأمونية), but I’ll probably talk more about the latter in a different post.

typical breakfast in Aleppo, Syria

Bakeries in the Middle East offer different types of manaqeesh. Some have cheese, others have meat. My grandmother likes ones that are topped with a slightly spicy red pepper paste. Those are good, but my favorite are the traditional manaqeesh slathered with a mix of olive oil and za’atar.

mise en place

The preparation for this dish is exquisitely simple. The dough is the same as the one I used for the spinach fatayer I blogged about a couple months back. I’ve also gotten away with using pizza dough when I’m in a bind, but the results aren’t the same as the original manaqeesh dough that uses oil and milk. If you’re pressed for time you could do what my mom often did, which is mix za’atar with extra virgin olive oil and roll it up on pita bread as an afternoon snack or sometimes as a quick breakfast whenever my brothers and I took too long to get ready for school.

za’atar + extra virgin olive oil

The word za’atar (زعتر) in Arabic literally refers to a variety of wild herbs in the same family as thyme, marjoram and oregano. What is commonly referred to as za’ater in the Levant is the spice mix made from this dried herb after it is combined with toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt and other spices.

before baking

I never measure how much oil I add to the za’atar. You just need to make sure that it’s enough to make a smooth paste so that it doesn’t dry up in the oven.

Za’atar Manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر)

The trick to making the manaqeesh, like any pizza, is to add the dough to a scorching hot oven. If you have a pizza stone, that is ideal. Otherwise you can pre-heat an upside down baking sheet in a hot oven and add the manaqeesh to the reverse side. Once the dough cooks through, remove the manaqeesh from the oven and enjoy. Saha w hana (صحة و هنا), bon appetit!

Za’atar Manaqeesh

yields approx 16 small pies


  • 1/2 recipe of fatayer dough
  • 3/4 cup za’atar
  • 1/2-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the dough as described in the fatayer recipe
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  3. Mix together the za’atar and the olive oil
  4. Roll out 1/4 inch thick disks and top with za’atar and oil mixture.
  5. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until the dough is golden brown


bless your hands

If I had to pick one dish to become a vegetarian for, it would be fatayer (فطاير).

It’s a strong statement, and I’m not sure whether I would actually do it, but hypothetically, if I had to choose one dish to give up meat for, this would be the one. That’s all I’m saying.

My sito is an expert at making these, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my grandmother. She’s good — not only at making these pies, but at everything she cooks, really. There’s a saying in Arabic, يسلم يدك (yeslamou eedaik), that is used to thank a cook for preparing a delicious meal — it literally translates to, bless your hands. My grandmother’s hands have been blessed plenty of times. The truth is, she’s happiest when she’s cooking, and it shows in the food she prepares. It runs in her veins, and even mine, she tells me.

Fatayer is a simple dish, in theory: just dough and filling. The dough can be made with either milk or water. My grandmother tells me she makes hers with water, but that she’ll sometimes use milk (or powdered milk), depending on what she has on hand. Somehow she manages to make both versions taste equally amazing. I am convinced her hands are blessed! Luckily, we live in the age of twitter and blogs and facebook,  so I knew this would be a perfect question to ask tweet Anissa Helou. Chef Helou is a Mediterranean food scholar and instructor based in London, who also keeps a Mediterranean food blog. To her knowledge some cooks use milk in Syria, but no one does in Lebanon. My grandmother is Syrian, so this made sense to me.

mise en place

I have a feeling there will be some tension around the red bell pepper. While the red bell pepper is not traditional, I don’t think, it works on many levels – photogenically and culinarily. The specs of red in the filling add contrast to the shades of dark green spinach, while adding a subtle sweet undertone to the dish. It works. Try it, at least once, and let me know.

salt = spinach kryptonite

The filling starts with freshly chopped spinach. I used baby spinach, but that wilts down to almost nothing. In the end, any spinach will work. After you roughly chop the leaves, add salt to release the water from the spinach and let sit for 5-10 minutes, while you prepare the dough.

pretty red specs: point in case
make sure the yeast is alive ‘n kicking

If you’re using dry, active yeast, you don’t necessarily need to make it bloom. I do this as a check to make sure that my yeast is alive and well. Simply add the yeast to warm water with a bit of sugar or honey, cover and let sit for 10-15 minutes. If it gets bubbly and foamy, it’s alive, if not, you just saved yourself a lot of frustration (and cussing).

small tennis ball / large golf ball size is ideal

The smaller you make the dough, the prettier the fatayer will be, but the more patience you’ll need. In the Middle East, these involved dishes are almost never prepared alone. The women of the family usually gather to help the host and also take that time to catch up with each other and talk about stuff I wasn’t allowed to listen to as a child.

these are worth every step

Just imagine how much quicker this would be if you had four or five pairs of hands helping you.

you’ll be happier once they bake, I promise

Once they’re all formed, make sure the seams are well-sealed before they go into the oven. I like to brush the surface of mine with a little milk, or a light egg wash, just to give the crust a nice sheen after they come out of the oven.

ready to eat
فطاير بالسبانخ (Spinach Fatayer)

These pies are surprisingly better the next day, at least in my opinion. You can heat them up for 7-10 seconds in the microwave, or eat them at room temperature, which is what I will usually do.

Spinach Fatayer

yields approx 32


For the dough:

  • 425 g. flour (approx 3 cups)
  • 3/4 cup milk*, warm
  • 1/2 tsp sugar or honey
  • 1 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1/4 cup canola or extra virgin olive oil

For the filling:

  • 500 g spinach, finely chopped
  • 2 medium onions, finely diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
  • juice of 2-3 lemons, to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp sumac
  • salt and black pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Bloom the yeast to make sure it is alive. Add the yeast to the warm milk with the half teaspoon of sugar or honey. Cover and set aside for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Prepare the dough by mixing the oil with the flour and slowly mix in the yeast-milk mixture. Add salt to taste and knead for 10-15 minutes or until the dough is soft and elastic.
  3. Divide the dough into individual balls (small tennis/large golf ball size) and cover with a damp towel while you prepare the filling.
  4. Add salt, pepper and sumac to the diced onions and red bell peppers to soften them. In a separate bowl add the salt to the spinach and rub the leaves with your hands until they begin to wilt.
  5. Squeeze out as much water from the spinach as you can and then mix with the seasoned onion and red bell pepper mixture. Add lemon juice and adjust seasoning to taste.
  6. Begin forming the fatayer by flattening out each piece of dough. It helps to do this on a lightly oiled plate. If the dough begins to contract too much, that means it is not well rested yet.
  7. Add a spoonful of the spinach mixture to the center of the disc while making sure to keep the sides clear of oil or filling. This will help create a better seal later.
  8. Crimp the dough into a triangular shape and set on a parchment lined baking sheet.
  9. Brush with milk or a light egg wash and bake in a 450 degree F oven for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.
  10. Serve warm or at room temperature.


saha wa hana صحة و هنا (bon appetit)

A world outside of mozzarella & pepperoni

A simple google search for kid-friendly recipes is scary. What shows up, in fact, is a harrowing slew of butter-saturated, sugar-filled recipes written with a complete disregard for health. I discovered this last week because I was looking for just that – simple recipes that I can make with kids.

My friend Beth invited me to cook in front of a class of kindergarten students. Her son is in the class and they were looking for someone to do a cooking demo for the kids’ end of the year party – I was flattered that they thought of me and happily accepted.

I took this as my tiny opportunity to make a difference in the way these kids looked at food. While this was not the time to introduce them to the delicate flavors of perfectly-seared scallops or steak tartare, I wanted to cook with them something they’re familiar with, but probably never had before. I decided to let them make their own pizzas. Instead of just mozzarella and pepperoni though, I brought with me a ton of different vegetables and all sorts of sauces for them to experiment with. Well-aware of the fact that the kids will have a short attention span that rivals mine, I also brought with me my pizza paddle and pizza stone so they could take turns sliding their pizzas into the oven.

flying food is always fun for kids

One of my favorite pizza combinations we made with the kids was a lemon-infused, goat ricotta, white pizza topped with thinly sliced zucchini. The flavors are light, refreshing, and clean — perfect for the hot summer days ahead.

mise en place

Count them – four ingredients; five if you include the extra virgin olive oil. This means no skimping on ingredients! I tried this same pizza with regular ricotta and it doesn’t work. The wow factor just wasn’t there. If you absolutely cannot find goat-milk ricotta, however, not to worry. Mix a semi-firm chevre (like Spanish Capricho de Cabra) with some good quality, fresh ricotta and you’ll get a similar result. Like I said, it won’t be spot-on, but it will get you pretty close.

lemon zest makes me happy

The lemon zest in the ricotta serves two purposes. Not only does it heighten the flavors of the goat cheese, but it also gives the pizza a clean, crisp flavor. I recommend using organic citrus whenever a dish calls for using the zest or rind.

almost paper thin, almost

Zucchini has lots of moisture and moisture is the kryptonite, so to speak, of pizza. To remove some of this excess moisture you’ll want to thinly slice the zucchini (preferably with a mandoline) and fan the slices out on a plate so they’re not on top of each other. Then season the slices with salt and pepper and the salt will start to break down the cell walls of the zucchini, and thus allowing it to give up some of that moisture. Soak it up with a paper towel and your ready to roll.

extra virgin olive oil

The kids were shocked when I hinted at the idea of a pizza without tomato sauce. Their facial expressions were absolutely priceless. And although not many chose to forgo the traditional red sauce, I feel like those that did may have a bright culinary future ahead of them!

Lemon-Infused Goat Ricotta White Pizza With Sliced Zucchini

Lemon, Goat Ricotta & Zucchini Pizza

makes 1 large pizza


  • 24 oz. pizza dough
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 lb goat milk ricotta
  • zest of 1-2 lemons
  • 1 zucchini, thinly sliced
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Zest the lemon(s) and stir the zest into the goat ricotta
  2. Thinly slice the zucchini (preferably with a mandoline), fan out on a plate, season with salt and pepper, and cover with a paper towel to soak up some of the moisture.
  3. Stretch pizza dough to approx 1/8″ thickness – this pizza is better thin than thick – and brush a thin coat of olive oil over the top.
  4. Spread the goat cheese mixture over the top and top with the thin slices of zucchini.
  5. Preferably bake on a hot (550 degrees F) pizza stone for 5-7 minutes or until the crust gets golden brown.


This is why everyone should invest in a pizza stone:

perfectly crispy crust

Taking the Danish on a Middle Eastern Date

Special thanks to Kelly from Sass & Veracity and Ben from What’s Cooking? for hosting this month’s challenge!

Blue Logo

medjool dates
medjool dates

Growing up in a Middle Eastern home, dates were something my family always had around.  The medicinal properties that my grandmother claims this humble fruit holds are endless, but I was never one who needed any sort of convincing to eat these sweet, chewy nuggets.  I did find out, though, that there is archeological evidence of date cultivation since 4000 BC,  to which my grandmother simply responded with the Arabic equivalent of, “I told you so.”  I want to dedicate this entry to my grandmother because I drew inspiration for this challenge from her date-stuffed semolina cookies that I grew up eating.

mise en place
mise en place

I didn’t tweak the recipe for the pastry too much.  I used the zest of a lemon instead of an orange because I thought it would go better with the lemony undertone of the ground cardamom.  I also didn’t use vanilla beans because, let’s face it, even though I already graduated, I’m still living on a college student budget. 

1, 2, 3, 4, repeat.
puff pastry dough folding

The recipe for the dough was great.  I loved that cardamom was already included in the recipe because I felt that it went well with my Middle Eastern theme.  

tiny specks of cardamom & butter
cardamom specks

This is a shot of the dough after four turns and I absolutely loved how you could see the specks of cardamom and the laminated butter running throughout.   

filling the danishes
filling the danishes

Of course, the braid part of the challenge flew right over my head and so I opted to make individual portions by cutting out disks using the rim of a small drinking glass.  This was not a great idea when it came around to eating the little things because I never felt guilty about having one more piece.  In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m munching on a piece and telling myself that a visit to the gym will be necessary tomorrow.

for the picky eaters who don’t want date-filling
strawberry topping

Since I know that dates might not be everyones cup of tea, I used the scraps to make star-shaped pastries with a strawberry jam center.  Because I know EXACTLY how it feels to be that kid unpacking the “weird food” during lunch while Timmy gets to build his Pizza Lunchables and enjoy his chewy chocolate chip cookies. Anyway, I digress.

strawberry stars
strawberry pastries

The star-shaped pieces tasted good, but I had my eyes set on the prize – the medjool date, Danish-inspired pastry.

Middle Eastern Inspired Date Danish
Date Danish

The secret to the date filling is to throw in a couple teaspoons of butter so that the filling doesn’t dry out in the oven.  Other than that, the filling is nothing more than pure dates that have been pulsed in the food processor.

Date-filled Danish

(yields approx. 12 servings)

Modified from Sherry Yard’s recipe


  • 1/2 tbsp. dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp. whole milk, lukewarm
  • 35g. sugar
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. cardamom, ground
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, chilled
  • 2 tbsp. fresh orange juice
  • 250 g. flour + 40g.
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 10 medjool dates, pitted
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Putting them all together

  1. Combine the milk, yeast, sugar, lemon zest, cardamom, vanilla and egg using a paddle attachment.
  2. Switch to a hook attachment and add the 250g. of flour and salt gradually and mix until a dough is formed. Combine 1 stick of butter with the remaining flour until just throughly combined.
  3. To make the filling, process the medjool dates with 1 tbsp. of butter until smooth and set aside.
  4. Roll out the dough into a long sheet and cover 2/3 of it with the butter mixture.  Fold so that you have alternating layers of butter and dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Repeat this process 4 times, making sure to refrigerate after each step.
  5. Roll out the dough one final time and cut out into small disks.  
  6. Top half the disks with a small amount of the date mixture and seal using the remaining disks.
  7. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

Note: For a nice shiny golden brown finish, brush the top of each pastry with an egg wash (an egg with a tsp. of milk or water).


breakfast with friends
breakfast with friends

One of my best friends from high school, Yuliana, was visiting this weekend so I was happy to share the fruits of this challenge with her (and my roommates, of course). Raquel also went to high school with us and so we all had a fun weekend talking about how OLD we all are and how crazy it is that high school was so long ago.