Aish baladi is the Egyptian wholemeal version of the bread more generally known in the Middle East as “khubz arabi” (Arab bread) or in the West as “pita bread”. It’s a small, flat bread baked at high temperature which forms a pocket into which you will be stuffing your hummus, ful medames or other goodies.
Traditionally, aish baladi is baked in a very hot, wood-fired, open topped clay or brick oven (the Arab version is called a tabun, the Indian one a tandoor): the bread against the hot sides and left there for a very short time. That’s always going to make it difficult to replicate in a standard Western kitchen, the key requirement being to take your circle of dough from room temperature to high heat as fast as you possibly can. It’s the suddenness of this process that causes the water in the middle of the bread to vaporise quickly; the pressure from the resulting steam causes the two sides of the dough to separate and form the pocket.
The Saveur recipe I started from suggests that you use a pizza stone: I don’t have one, but I do have non-stick frying pans that can go into a very hot oven: these work just fine if I wind my oven up the its maximum temperature. If I start with the bread on a standard baking tin at room temperature and put the whole thing into the oven, the result is perfectly edible bread, but without the puffed up pocket, which kind of loses the point.
The dough is a pretty straightforward yeasted wholemeal dough. I’ve broadly followed Saveur’s method (although I reduced the water content considerably – the dough from their recipe is really wet), but I suspect I could have used my standard method of “start the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and some warm water” without a problem. Wholemeal wheat flour should be fine; if you want to be historically authentic, use emmer wheat; I used spelt. Do not use wholemeal rye flour, which doesn’t form enough gluten: my first attempt at aish baladi went comically wrong when I opened a packet of dark rye flour by mistake and couldn’t understand why interminable amounts of kneading appeared to be having no effect whatsoever.
- 7g dried yeast
- 240ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
- 300g wholemeal flour, plus more for rolling
- 6g oil
- 5g salt
- Mix the yeast, the water and half the flour in a bowl and leave for 30 minutes: it should go nicely frothy.
- Add in the oil, the salt and the rest of the flour and blend to a smooth dough. Knead for 7 minutes with the dough hook in a stand mixer, or around 10 minutes by hand.
- Leave to rise for around 90 minutes
- Put your pizza stone (or frying or baking pan) into the oven and preheat the oven to its hottest setting (mine is 250℃ fan)
- Flour a surface for rolling with more wholemeal flour. Use a generous amount.
- Cut the dough into 8 or 9 pieces, then roll each piece into a thin circle, perhaps 15cm in diameter. You may find it easier to go for an oval than a circle: make sure you know exactly how many pieces of dough are going to fit onto your stone or pan.
- Optionally, sprinkle the top of each circle with some bran (if you have it) or some of the excess flour from rolling.
- Leave to rise for a further 20-30 minutes.
- Prepare somewhere to keep the bread warm: I used a basket lined with a tea towel
- Now work quickly: open the oven, take the stone or pan out, and put one or more circles of dough onto it, put it back in and close the oven. The faster you can do this, the more likely you are to get the approved puffiness.
- Bake for around 6-8 minutes. Take the pan out, transfer the bread to your basket (or whatever you’re using) and repeat until you’ve done all the batches you want.
Be careful: bread straight out of the oven will be really, really hot: you want to give it a minute or two before allowing anyone to risk biting in or they’ll burn their mouths! But the bread is at its best in the next 10 minutes after that.