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Ramadan breads with dates

June 6, 2018

Ramadan date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

The air is warm and slightly sweet. Beside a very grand mosque, an organic shop and a barber, is a bakery. At its centre is a deep tandoor, like a giant urn with its mouth open wide to swallow the flat rounds of dough which is slapped on its walls. The baker reaches in with a metal rod and flicks the warm bread, corrugated with air bubbles trapped by the searing heat. KP, freshly shorn, hands over 1 dirham in exchange for a thin, plastic bag which is already cloudy with condensation from the steaming contents. Two minutes later he is home and we tear off soft hunks and stuff them into our mouths. Nothing else is needed.

Bread, like in many cuisines and cultures, is an important part of life in the Middle East. Anissa documents in her book (see below) that wheat was first domesticated in Mesopotamia (part of the fertile crescent which stretches from the Syrian desert to the Mediterranean sea, and Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Agriculture encouraged permanent settlements to be formed – the start of civilisation. Over the centuries, as towns and cities were established, each neighbourhood would have had, and often still has, a local baker as there weren’t ovens (or electricity) in houses. You can imagine the daily ritual of collecting it warm from the oven, not once every couple of weeks like KP and I. It was a place to swap news, a place of affordable nourishment, a daily simple, sustaining pleasure.

Annia Ciezadlo describes in Day of Honey how people in Beirut, when the threatened with tanks or a siege during the civil war, would rush first to stock up with bread and often the baker was the only shop to open.

That trip to the baker would have heightened anticipation during Ramadan after a day of fasting, where celebration breads, often stuffed with dates, would be served for that Holy month.

There were no ovens in the desert so bread was cooked in griddles over the fire by the Bedouin tribes. Khameer is a traditional Emirati sweet bread, scented with cardamon and often stuffed with dates.

A variety of date breads and a plate of dates

The dark breads are a test of a variation from Iraq – more about this soon

I turned to Anissa Helou’s ‘Savory Baking from the Mediterranean‘ when researching date bread recipes. It’s a book inscribed to me by Anissa when she spoke at the Emirates Festival of Literature in 2013. While her early career was as an art consultant to the rich and famous, I sat in the front row of her session, along with other food-obsessed friends, drawn by her meticulous research, her in-depth exploration of Middle East food, and vibrant recipes. She took up the baton from Claudia Roden to introduce the Western World to the breadth and variety of Arab and Mediterranean food through her cookbooks, excellent blog, cookery classes, TV and radio appearances.  She looks majestic with her elegant bearing and distinctive hairstyle, but was warm and charming to us all.

Anissa’s instructions are incredibly thorough, from explaining how to take the seeds out of a pomegranate to the step by step guide for Ramadan breads with dates.  My breads emerged puffed up and golden from the oven, the texture fluffy and half way between a brioche and soft roll encasing a melting layer of date purée. As there was no photograph of the finished breads in the book, I was keen to know if they looked as they should so I dropped a quick photo and question to Anissa who replied immediately with an encouraging “nice!”. She advised that they were supposed to be flatter to be authentic “but they look great all the same”.

In the recipe head notes, Anissa says that you’ll find these breads in many different shapes and sizes all over the souks of Tripoli, Damascus and Aleppo.  It’s tragic how these cities have changed since she wrote that. I hope that some date breads are being enjoyed somewhere in that part of the world this Ramadan.

Anissa generously gave me her blessing to reproduce her recipe here. My adaptations have been to convert the ingredients into metric measurements and have added a few of my own words.

They are rewarding to make, with a nice balance of sweetness from the dates, the fluffy soft bread and crunchy sesame seeds. Best eaten with the warmth of the oven still lingering.

Ramadan breads with dates

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Khobz Ramadan are celebratory breads which are fluffy, light and brioche-like with a soft, date filling and crunchy sesame seed topping. They freeze well so can be eaten throughout the year.

Credit: Anissa Helou (with permission), Savory Baking from the Mediterranean

Ingredients

  • 3/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast (instant active yeast)
  • 420g plain flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried milk powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50g caster sugar
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 10g unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 230g pitted dates, preferably Medjool (about 10 Medjool)
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 60g white sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Directions

  1. Dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm water and stir until creamy.
  2. Combine the flour, milk powder, baking powder, caster sugar and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add 10g softened butter and the oil into the well and, with your fingertips, rub them into the flour until well incorporated. Add the yeast and gradually add 240 ml warm water (blood temperature), bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough. You could also do this stage in a food mixer like a Kitchenaid with a paddle.
  3. Remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead for 3 minutes. Place your large bowl upside down over the dough and leave it to rest for 15 minutes. Knead again for 2-3 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Rinse out the bowl, dry it and dust lightly with flour. Shape the dough into a ball, put in the bowl and cover (I use waxed cloth instead of cling film these days or you could cover with a plate). Let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour.  Flatten into a circle, brush any excess flour from the dough and fold the edges in on each side to make a rectangle. Cover and let it rise for 1 hour more. The dough should have doubled in volume.
  4. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the dates in a food processor. Add the 60g butter and process to a fine paste (this is easier with soft dates like Medjool). Shape the paste into a thick cylinder, wrap, and put into the fridge.
  5. Return the dough to the work surface. Divide it into 6 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Cover with a slightly damp tea towel and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  6. Divide the date paste into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. On a lightly floured surface roll out 1 ball of dough, with a rolling pin, to a circle of about 15 cm in diameter. Flatten a ball of date paste, with your fingers, to a thin, slightly smaller, flat circle – about 11 cm in diameter. Place the date circle in the middle of the dough. Fold the edges of the dough over in little pleats so it covers the filling completely. Pinch the edges to seal them, and flatten the bread firmly with your hand to make as even a circle as you can.
  7. Line two baking sheets with baking paper and scatter half the sesame seeds over them (you could also use a non-stick baking sheet or line with a silicone mat). Put the breads, seam side down, onto the sheet, leaving at least a few centimetres space around each. Keep them covered with a slightly damp tea towel while you make the rest. Let them rise, covered, for 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210C 190C fan.*
  8. Brush the breads with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle the remaining sesame seeds over the tops. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown all over. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

*Anissa specifies an oven temperature of 450 F which is about 230 C. My oven is very hot and having tested a similar bread recipe earlier that day which resulted in very dark (almost burnt) bread after 20 minutes, I lowered the temperature and the results were good. Watch the bread as it cooks as ovens do vary. Bread generally needs a hot oven to start with.

A variety of date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

Pin for later

Do you have memories of date bread for Ramadan? I’d love to hear your stories. Are there any breads you associate with special occasions?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2018 9:40 am

    Looks absolutely lovely. For some reason I shy away from making my own bread, but you make this sound easy.

  2. June 7, 2018 7:06 am

    Wow they look awesome!!! Beautiful pictures too (:

    • June 7, 2018 7:13 am

      Thank you so much. Hard to photograph brown food!

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