Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Flatbread Over The Fire

I hear the east coast has been sweltering this summer. I feel for you, I really do. When New Yorkers start going naked, there is good reason to fear for your lives. Here in San Francisco we have been living inside of our own horror movie. It's called The Fog. It has the city in its grip, and it won't let go.

To save ourselves, and our sanity, we run from The Fog every chance we get. Our most recent escape took us to Napa, where we spent the weekend with friends. As we made our getaway over the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue sky emerged miraculously from behind the gray. We marked our travels by miles and by degrees. While the odometer ticked upwards, so did the dashboard thermostat. By the time we reached St. Helena, the afternoon was 40 degrees warmer than the morning we had left behind.

The problem with our frequent escapes is that I have been reluctant to take my bread baking on the road. I fear failure once I leave my own little kitchen microclimate behind. But this time, I decided to give it a try, as we were lucky enough to share the weekend with friends who like to eat as much as we do.

I planned to make flatbread, based on the Lavash Crackers recipe from the Bread Bakers Apprentice. According to M. Reinhart's instructions, you can go from mixing to eating in about three hours, which I figured would leave me some time to lounge in the pool. So I loaded up my flour, my honey, my yeast, my scale, my rolling pin, and my bench scraper into a canvas bag that ultimately weighed about as much as my two year old. Indeed, I was not packing lightly.

Once we arrived in Napa, we drank in the sun like refugees from the fog. After a swim and a cocktail, I settled into the kitchen to mix and knead the dough. Once the dough came together into a tight little ball, one friend observed, "Is that it?" It was on the small side, and truth be told, I feared I would end up with a single pita pocket for my efforts. But I returned to the pool and left the dough to rise in the air conditioned kitchen. This was a mistake. Remember what I said about the hazards of baking outside my own microclimate? Apparently, air conditioning can retard dough just as effectively as the fridge. So I moved the dough to a poolside lounge chair, and the yeast came alive in the sweltering summer heat.

Instead of returning to the cold kitchen, we planned to bake the bread over an open fire in the backyard. I have never done anything like it, but our friend Moti learned at camp while growing up in Israel, so I stood back while he stoked the fire.

We rolled out the dough and topped it with olive oil, garlic, salt and za'atar, an aromatic herb blend which Moti's mom brings over from Israel. If you don't have family willing to smuggle some za'atar in their suitcase, I highly recommend a visit to The Spice House, either in Chicago or on the web. Their za'atar is a combination of sumac, sesame seeds, thyme, oregano and hyssop. I had never heard of hyssop, but according to my wise friend Wikipedia, it has a storied past that is both pious and hedonistic. It appears in the bible on several occasions, and is one of the herbs that gives absinthe its dreamy green color.

Open, untamed fire is not my preferred element. I like the predictability that comes with that big, stainless steel box in my kitchen. There is no thermostat on an open flame. So, I wondered, how exactly do you know how hot it is? How do you know how long to cook the bread? It turns out, you do things the old fashioned way. You watch, you feel and you taste.

We slid the flattened dough onto a metal grate balanced above the fire, and watched while it slowly browned. As it cooked I tore off tiny pieces to taste, trying not to burn my fingers too badly.

The flatbread was like no bread I have ever tasted. The herbal bite of the za'atar mingled with the smokiness from the fire and the richness of the garlic to create deep layers of flavor. And the olive oil lent it a little sizzle and some crunch. Paired perfectly with a glass of red wine, native drink of the Napa Valley.

Sure, it burned in some spots. But so what? That's what you get when you play with fire. And I'll take the heat over the fog any day.


Brenda said...

What a beautiful post! I love most anything grilled, and your description of this bread is mouth-watering. With a glass of red wine, I'm sure it was absolutely perfect.

Erika said...

Brenda- Thank you! It was quite an adventure. I hope I'll have the chance to try it again. For now I'm back to baking in my kitchen.