Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lahm b-'Ajeen

Arabian Counterpart of Italian Pizza

لحم بعجين

It is what it literally means—‘meat with dough’. Well-loved carryout food in the Levant and Iraq, simple, practical and delicious. Equally ubiquitous in Turkey, where it is called lahmacun, which no doubt is a direct borrowing of the Arabic, etymologically and culinarily. 

Lahm b-'ajeen apparently had a long history in the Arab regions, and it seems to have first originated in the Levant. The earliest recipe I could lay my hands on occurs in 13th-century Aleppan cookbook Al-Wusla ila ‘l-Habeeb (الوصلة الى الحبيب في وصف الطيبات والطيب) written by the well-known Syrian historian Ibn Al-'Adeem (d. 1262). The recipe is just one line long, but it certainly points to our dish, "Meat is cut, spread on flattened discs of dough, and then put in the brick oven furn.” (p. 2:556)  

However, in Iraq this food seems to have been kept on the back burner for a long while. When I was still a kid in Baghdad, not many people knew of it. We used to get it by order from the neighborhood bakery owned by an Armenian, but his version was very basic. The topping consisted of just meat, onions, salt, and black pepper. By the seventies, though, popularity of this delicious bread picked up and many small bakeries specialized in making it were opened in the major cities of Iraq to meet the increasing demand. It comes out of their brick ovens sizzling hot, lusciously moist and tender, and dripping with the melted fat of meat. Delicious surely, but unfortunately too greasy.  

This food is too good to pass, and why should we. We can make it  ourselves, equally delicious but much healthier. It is indeed fun to make but definitely not a dish to whip in 30 minutes. But I assure you it would be time well invested.

Recipe for making lahm b-'ajeen:   

First we need to prepare the dough (the 'ajeen part):

2 tablespoons dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup warm water
9 cups (2¼ pounds) bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup oil
3 cups warm water

1. Dissolve yeast and sugar in ½ cup warm water, set aside for 5 minutes.

2. Put flour and salt in a big bowl. Make a well in the middle, and pour yeast mixture along with oil and water. With a wooden spoon, incorporate liquids into flour in a circular movement. With slightly oiled hands, knead dough for about 5 minutes. The final dough should be of medium consistency. Oil dough on both sides and set it aside, covered, in a warm draft-free place for 45 minutes or until well risen. 

Now to the meat part (lahm):
While waiting for the dough to rise, prepare the topping:

3 medium onions (about 2 cups), finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste (one 6-ounce can)
1½ - 2 pounds ground lean meat (beef or lamb, or a mix of both)
¾ cup chopped parsley
2 medium tomatoes (about 1½ cups), finely chopped
1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup (may use lemon juice instead)
2 teaspoons baharat (spice mix, follow link for recipe)
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon chili pepper, or to taste

Sauté onion in oil, about 5 minutes (just enough to soften it), and then stir in tomato paste until it emits a nice aroma, about a minute. Set aside until it cools down to room temperature. Then mix in the rest of the topping ingredients.     

Now, it's shape and bake time: 

1. Position one of the oven shelves at the lowest level if oven is electric, and put on it a pizza stone or an inverted baking sheet. If oven is gas, remove the lowest shelf, and place the pizza stone right on the oven floor. Position the second shelf at the highest level, and preheat oven 420°F.  

2. As soon as dough rises, punch it down and divide it into 20 pieces, which you shape into neat balls by tucking in the sides with slightly oiled hands. Place portions on a lightly-oiled surface..

3. Since the dough does not need to rise again, you can start shaping and baking right away. Lightly cover work surface and rolling pin with olive oil, and roll out a dough portion into a disc about 7 inches in diameter (or rectangle), about ⅛ inch thick. Place the flattened dough on a piece of parchment paper, a little bigger than the dough disc. Spread about ¼ cup  of the meat mix on it. It should cover the surface in a thin layer, leaving a slight border uncovered. Lightly brush uncovered border with olive oil. (If parchment paper is not available, use greased baking sheets).

4. Immediately, and with the help of a small bread peel (or a solid piece of cardboard or wood or anything similar). Slide the disc into the hot stone or the inverted baking sheet. Dough is not supposed to puff like pita bread, and it will take about 8 minutes to bake. You can bake 2 or 3 at a time depending on oven or pizza stone size. While this batch is baking, start working on the other batches. You might transfer half-baked ones to the upper shelf, and put some new ones on lower shelf to expedite the procedure.  


6. As soon as you take the baked ones out of the oven, stack them with the parchment paper, in a big paper bag, lined with a kitchen towel or paper napkins, and partially close the bag. Or use a large container (see photo to your right). The parchment paper will prevent the topping from sticking to the bottom of the piece above it.

Best when eaten hot right from the oven, but also good at room temperature. Any leftovers may be refrigerated or frozen, and warmed up in the oven. 

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