Flatbreads with Spiced Minced Lamb
Sometimes the most delicious snacks are borne from failure. I was planning to make lahm bi ajin, a delicious Armenian flat bread which is as thin as a crepe and topped with a flavorful and savory thin film of tomato and minced lamb. What I ended up making was closer to lahmacun, a very similar Turkish flatbread with herbed minced lamb. The differences between the two are fairly minute if you ask me, but I don’t suggest trying that argument out with either an Armenian or a Turk if you expect to leave the conversation with your ego unscathed.
Heaven only knows how I developed such a strong affiliation with these flatbreads, considering that my Lebanese father would scoff and sniff if I managed to pilfer a bag into our shopping cart at the Middle Eastern grocery store that we used to visit in Scarborough. However, because I was a darling little Daddy’s girl (until I turned 11 and became a raging hellion of pre-pubescent angst and despair), he would usually turn a blind eye and purchase these delectable thins anyway. The next day over breakfast I could look forward to hearing him loudly extol the virtues of mah’noushe, a thicker and more Lebanese flatbread with a hearty sprinkling of za’atar on top, but I had a mouth full of savory lamb and that was really all that I cared about.
Some things never change.
These flatbreads can be served hot and crispy as soon as they come out of the oven, or you can let them cool until they’re soft and pliable, easy to roll up or wrap around crunchy sweet field cucumber and ripe tomato wedges. You can sprinkle them with cheese like a salty akhawi or halloumi, creamy fresh jibneh, or even a stringy and melted mozzarella. They can be folded into quarters and eaten torn straight out of the bag, or cut into wedges and served on the side of a fabulous Middle Eastern mezze with vine leaf rolls drizzled with olive oil, hummus, and the ubiquitous tabouli salad. A cross between savory brunch food and a supremely portable snack, these thin wafers are packed with flavor and perfect for just about any time of day. Post bar, obviously, is VERY included.
Flatbreads with Spiced Minced Lamb
Makes 12 thin flatbreads
- 2.25 tsp active yeast
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2.5 tsp kosher salt
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 1 lb (450 g) ground lamb
- 1 large yellow onion (1.5 cups finely minced)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp salted butter
- 1 large, ripe hot-house tomatoes
- 1 large juicy lemon
- small bunch fresh parsley (1 cup finely minced)
- small handful fresh mind (1/3 cup finely minced)
- 1 tbsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp red chili pepper flakes
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt or to taste
- 1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper or to taste
In a medium to large sized bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and warm water. Let this sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast starts to bloom/froth. Add the olive oil and salt.
Stir the flour into the wetskys until it forms a scrappy dough. You may want to start with 2.75 cups of flour and work in the reserved 1/4 cup if the dough feels at all sticky.
Turn the roughly hewn dough out onto your work surface and knead it for 5-7 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, pliable and springy. The dough itself should be stiff and dense with relatively low moisture.
Lightly oil your bowl and turn the dough ball around until it has a nice greasy sheen.
Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave it in a warm and draft free place to rise for at least 1.5 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
In the mean time, finely mince the garlic and onion. Melt two tablespoons of butter over moderately low heat and sweat out the onions for 10-15 minutes, or until they are sweet and pale gold. Take the pan off the heat to cool slightly.
Put the lamb in a fairly large mixing bowl and grate in the flesh and juices of both tomatoes. Discard the tough peel.
Mince the parsley and mint as fine as you possibly can. Be quite diligent about this, because you want the herbs to be fine, subtle, and evenly dispersed through the meat.
Add the onions to the tomato and meat mixture along with the herbs, spices, salt and pepper. Squeeze in the juice of one whole lemon.
When you stir the mixture together it will be quite sticky and a little bit loose. Be sure to really squeeze and knead the meat well, because otherwise the wet and acidic tomato and lemon will not incorporate and be repelled by all the gamey fat. Silly acids. Don’t they know that gamey fats are delicious?
Here we have the first inherent difference between the Turkish and Armenian versions of this bread. The Armenian version is rust colored and enriched with tomato paste (or stewed tomatoes that have been reduced) and often pomegranate molasses. The lamb is so finely ground that the wet meat mixture can literally be brushed onto the rounds. The Turkish version of this dish is more robust. The bread is often slightly thicker, and the topping more likely to have a thick slather of meat like a large and elongated sphiha. My United Nations approach to this dish falls somewhere in between.
Leave the mince mixture at room temperature while you get back to your dough.
Preheat your oven to 425ºF with the racks set in the lower third.
Punch down the dough and divide it into 12 even pieces. Roll each one into a roughly roundish shape.
Roll 4 of the rounds out at a time until they are roughly 6″ in diameter. Cover these half-flats with a tea towel and let them rest for at least 5-10 minutes so that the gluten can relax and slump back down on the couch with a bottle of beer and the remote. When the gluten has mellowed down easy and forgotten why it splayed out like that in the first place, mount your attack and roll the dough out as thinly as possible into a 9″ round.
Please don’t mind the little meat scraps that I rolled directly into my dough by accident. Hey, it’s all going to the same place eventually.
Lay the dough flat on an ungreased baking sheet (each sheet should fit two). Divide the meat mixture into 12 equal portions, each one the exact size and shape of an organic summer peach (ha! I can’t help doing that to you sometimes. The Evil just comes natural) and spread it onto the dough. The meat will be quite thin, but try to ensure even coverage across the base and spread it right out to almost the very edge of the pastry. When the meat cooks it will shrink back and separate a little bit, drawing away from the edges so you really want to be generous and smooth it out as far as you can.
Cook the flatbreads for 8-12 minutes or until the edges and meat are both suitably browned.
These flatbreads are a great light but fulfilling snack on their own with naught but a squeeze of lemon and a smile. However, they’re equally delicious served as breakfast or a light lunch with fresh wet wedges of cucumber and tomato, a handful of fresh parsley and maybe a pickle or two.
When the flatbreads are first baked, they’re thin and addictive little crisps, redolent with the flavor of spiced lamb. As they cool and sit, however, the breads soften up until the thin texture is almost reminiscent of a crepe and they can be rolled and packed away for a quick snack.
Roll it, fold it, crunch it or wedge it. The important thing, as always, is just that you try it. I’ll save you a good seat at the fan club if you do.