Vegan Monday: Sourdough Flatbreads

Vegan Monday this week has to be totally bread related. I know that bread is my gig right now, and that I am living and breathing dough daily for the past two months. I am reading, simultaneously mind you, no less than 5 separate bread related books and I would be lying if I said that I could remember everything that I've been reading. Every baker has a different approach to bread, every sourdough cultivator a different feeding schedule and method. What I really love about experimenting with sourdough is that there are only three ingredients in my bread: starter, water and flour. That's it, and it can feed almost anyone. And it is amazing how tweaking the proportions even in the smallest degree changes the entire finished product.

I am beyond excited now that I have successfully converted, with success, several regular yeast recipes into sourdough starter recipes. If I run into you and start elaborating at length, please forgive me (and/or stop me). In part, I'm excited because the more I can incorporate the culture into my daily life, the less I have to wash away down the sink, and given my recent focus on waste, that makes me very happy. It would also make me very happy to share my starter, so once again, if you are local(ish), let me know and you can have some to experiment with yourself!

I think the key to my successful conversions is counting my sourdough starter as liquid, and adjusting the water in a recipe ratio accordingly. It also probably helps that I am an obsessive type, and regularly bake by weight and not by measure. I usually feed my starter equal weights of water and flour, keeping it roughly the consistency of pancake batter.

Earlier this summer, I had tried the Msemmen (Algerian Flatbread) recipe from the Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day book and loved the flavor. I had never seen a flatbread recipe that actually incorporated a spice mixture right into the dough, and being a spice fanatic, I loved it. The day after making the cauliflower pizza, I figured I would try a few of these breads with the leftover dough, and it worked out better than I imagined. The flatbread is called "msemmen", which is a Morrocan or Algerian bread that is almost like a crepe. From what I have read elsewhere, it is less pliable than traditional flatbread, maybe a bit more similar to a cracker.

This could be what I love most about cooking "ethnic" foods: I don't have a frame of reference, so I can infer all of the best things and from reading about food and countries and eat something I find truly delicious, that suits me alone. My apologies to those who have grown up eating this delicious staple, and on whose authorities I would likely change my opinion... But as of this writing, and short of taking a very long trip, it is unlikely that I could gain a frame of authenticity no matter how much I would LOVE to do so.

I made tortilla-sized breads, maybe about 6 or 7 inches across, but rolled them up the same way that Jeff and Zoe suggest in their book. I have scaled the recipe back here, but you can find the original recipe and conventional measures in the HBin5 book. If you are interested in adding more sourdough to your life, I hope my scribblings of a recipe will help!

I add only enough olive oil to the spice mix to make a thick paste. This way, it doesn't run out of the dough as much when it is rolled out. It is inevitable that some escapes, but it stains the bread a gorgeous deep turmeric yellow so I count it as a positive.

This is a lolly-gagging, beat-around-the-bush approach to writing a recipe, and I do apologize in advance. If you have a question, please ask! Since I am making far more work out of a quick and easy recipe, it seems par for the course... but really the work is in the natural yeast taking longer to do what it needs to. If you do give the dough time to rest in the refrigerator overnight, you will have more "sour" flavor in the sourdough.

Coiled doughs, resting.

Sourdough Msemmen (adapted from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day)
makes about 10 flatbreads
(Begin the dough the day before you'd like to bake the breads...)
  • 180 grams whole wheat flour (6.25 oz.)
  • 67.5 grams AP flour (2.5 oz.)
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten
  • 80 grams sourdough starter (heaping 1/4 c. or 2.8 oz.)
  • 145 grams water, room temperature (5.11 oz.)
(The total amount of liquid for the recipe should equal roughly 225 grams or 8 oz. ) In a small bowl, I first measure in my starter, and add liquid to come up to the correct weight. Stir the starter well with the water to emulsify, then add to the dry ingredients. Correct with additional water if the dough seems too dry, but remember than the dough will slacken some with the long rising time. You don't really have to knead the dough, but I like to turn it over several times in it's bowl to make a cohesive ball of dough. Let rest until double in size, about 8 hours depending on the strength of your starter. At this point you can refrigerate the dough. (I haven't attempted any longer term storage, but left the dough under refrigeration for a day, and had positive results.)

for the spice paste:
  • olive oil
  • 1 t. ground cumin
  • 1 t. paprika
  • 1 t. turmeric
  • 1/2 t. cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 t. salt, to taste
Mix all the spices in a small dish, and add oil enough to make a semi-liquid paste.

When the dough is raised, you can make the breads right away, but since mine was refrigerated, I took out the dough and pinched off golf ball sized pieces. I formed them quickly into balls, taking care not to deflate the dough too much. Just try and be gentle. Then, I let them under a towel for at least a half hour. Roll each ball into a thin round, spread with the spice mix to within an inch of the sides, and then roll up the round tightly like a cigar. Then, coil the cigar tightly onto itself to form a "cinnamon roll looking shape". Let these coils rest on an oiled sheet for about 20 minutes.

When ready to bake, heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles when tested. (I did not need to grease my pan at all, since I have a very well seasoned one.) Roll the coil out into a thin round and don't worry if some of the spice mix escapes. Use a bit of flour to keep it from sticking as you roll, but try not to add too much. Transfer to the pan and bake until small bubbles form on the surface of the bread. Flip, and continue cooking on the second side until deep brown speckles form, maybe a minute or two. (I covered the pan with the lid of a larger, non-related pan during the cooking of the first side. I don't know why, but I figured it would make it more tender. You wouldn't have to - it boils down to doing it how you like!)

A good rule of thumb for handling this dough is to treat it gently. It is fragile, or at least I pretended it was and it worked for me. Wheat flour has far less gluten in it that regular old white flour, and there is but a whisper of the white stuff in this dough. You can't hurt by erring on the side of caution.

I think, since I was raised on them, I equate all things baked in a cast iron skillet to tortillas. My Mom's version unmatched still by anything I have ever made or likely will make. She does not measure, but the flour tortillas are so light and tender, fully floppy and studded with brown 'beauty spots'. I tend to compare everything round to them, even things like this that are not really that similar, just to see how they stack up.

These are tender in spots and crisp in others, spicy with cayenne (heavy on that, in my case...) and interesting in general. They separate into layers due to how they are coiled and then rolled, and I am amazed that they are still soft at all after the beating they seem to take with the rolling pin. I ate them for lunch with ample amounts of hummus I made using roasted red peppers I had made in advance and frozen (I do about 10 lbs of them late every summer, and then use them throughout the year), and with garbanzos I had pressure cooked a month ago and frozen. With totally unrelated, but no less delicious, chile marinated olives from Outpost, I was in vegan dining bliss.

Had I had some cucumber and tomato, maybe some lettuces, I could have served it to others as a main course. But for me, bread alone is worthy of a meal. Simple, yes, but wholesome and satisfying - and now successful which makes it even better.

These two that were leftovers were cooled several hours and then cut into wedges and polished off when SS came for dinner later that evening. We had pizza for supper, since I did make the Lahey Cauliflower pizza again using the traditional Lahey crust. I have officially crossed it off my list. I may just have to try more Lahey recipes using the sourdough starter. I can't help it. It's in my blood now.

I tried making a version of these using this leftover sourdough dough that I had in the refrigerator for several days. The dough is from Burp! blog, and it also makes great pizza. I didn't even let it come to room temperature, I just broke off a couple balls of dough, and rolled them out as described above. They puffed up and made a more puffy flatbread, but they were delicious! Creamy inside, with a nice, brittle crunch to the outside - I'll definitely make them again soon. Pictures here.