Manouche Impossible

“And so it had taken me all of sixty years to understand that water is the finest drink, and bread the most delicious food, and that art is worthless unless it plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.”

– from “Twigs” by Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali

I spent my birthday weekend this past March visiting the town Cosoleacaque in Veracruz, Mexico.  Friends of mine were living in a house there along with several musicians.  The town is known for being the birthplace of Son Jarocho music, a folkloric music played on mandolin-size guitars called Jaranas.  The players of the Jarana are called Jaraneros and my friends, along with their housemates, were all Jaraneros.

Within the first 12 hours of my arrival I had to redefine my idea of “bare necessities”.  There was no running water and I had to fill a bucket from the well outside the house, and that bucket had to suffice.  When I finished taking my birdbath I asked for a towel and I was handed a pretty, bright turquoise bandana. When I asked for coffee, that same bandana was pulled off the clothesline and used as a coffee filter.  Then it was washed again and used as (drum roll) a bandana!  So you get the idea what we are working with here.

On the second day we decided to go to the beach.  We were going to get up early the next day (my birthday) and drive to a remote beach, stopping at some majestic waterfalls that were on the way. Along the way we would pick up another Jaranero, one that makes his own guitars, and proceed to the falls.  My friend Ximena suggested that it would be delightful to have home-made manouche to eat at our stop at the waterfalls.  Manouche is a type of Lebanese pizza that I had mentioned in a previous post in The Big Ceci.  It is basically a pizza with the zaatar spice and whatever else you want to add to it.

Now this is tricky business as it is hard enough to get it together to make the manouche at home, let alone in an unequipped kitchen with so many unknowns.  I always tell people that I am a chemist and not a cook and that is particularly true when it comes to baked goods.  The oven in the house was not working so that meant that we would have to make the dough and fixings the night before and then stop at one of the Jaraneros’ houses on the way out.  So we set to working on the dough and one of the musicians asked me to teach him how to make the dough as he had aspirations to become a baker.  So I did a batch and taught him how to do one.  Since there were no measuring utensils, it was all a wild guess and I had no idea what the batches will look like when they rise (if they rise at all).  You usually have to let the dough rise for an hour and half but in this case we had to let them sit overnight.

The next morning I saw that the dough did rise properly (and optimally).  We set out to our first stop, to cook the manouche.  The kitchen there was tiny with barely any utensils. The oven was small and narrow, looking more like something belonging to a playhouse.  We quartered the batches of dough, letting them rise and then washed a bottle of wine and set about rolling out the dough into pizzas.  In the meantime, my friend Anna made desert for the picnic, lemon bars in a Pyrex dish.

Guitar maker that we picked up on the way to the waterfall.

We put the Pyrex dish on the bottom rack of the oven, and the first batch of pizzas on the top rack.  We checked 10 minutes later and saw that nothing was heating up much.  So our host turned up the oven full blast.  Ten minutes later there was a constant flow of white smoke seeping from the back of the oven.  Our host inspected it, waved her hand at the smoke and let things be, the room was well ventilated.  We finished baking our first batch batch of Manouche and put in the second.  A few minutes later the Pyrex dish that contained our dessert, turned out not to be “Pyrex” (thought labeled so) and it exploded.  The oven was opened; the lump of lemon bar and fractured glass was removed from the oven and set on the oven door to salvage some of the dessert from the wreckage.  The manouche was unharmed by the explosion and I continued to place batch after batch, some with zaatar and cheese and some with cheese.  After removing the manouche we added fresh mint and tomatoes and stacked the manouches on top of each other and wrapped them up in tin foil.

When we got to the waterfall there was no one else there.  There were three different falls pouring into a simmering lagoon.  We sat around on the rocks and the jaraneros pulled out their Jaranas and began to strum while we set about preparing the food.  When Anna reached into the bag to pull out the wrapped maouches she looked up and beamed at me.  “They’re still hot!”

Still life with Jarana Player and Manouche

The basic dough recipe that I used is one from which makes for good grilling pizza.  This is great for barbeques, especially when you have a vegetable garden and are able to pick fresh spearmint and tomatoes and plop them on the pizza.  Just make sure that you mix the tomatoes with salt and let them drain so you don’t get a soggy pizza.

Here is the dough recipe:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup water (8 ounces), room temperature

2 cups bread flour (11 ounces), plus more for work surface

1 tablespoon whole wheat flour (optional)

2 teaspoons sugar

1 ¼ teaspoons table salt

1 teaspoon instant yeast

Wild Thyme

On the Food Channel an American chef dabs a cube of raw tuna in a “middle eastern spice” before searing it lightly in a pan.  He tells the audience that the spice is a recent discovery of his and that he is finding many uses for it.  I recognize this “spice” as it is my everyday breakfast, zaatar.  I eat it every morning with olive oil and lebne (yogurt strained through cheesecloth).  It is part of the daily diet of the Lebanese.  We get it, in Man’ouche form, from the corner bakery, and eat it as we walk to work or school or just stand there in a group chatting and munching on the street corner or in front of the bakery. The man’ouche is basically a zaatar pizza and it was something that we devoured in great quantities during exam because we were told that it stimulates the memory.

When I think of zaatar I always picture Dad preparing batches of it on the kitchen table in our home in the village of Deir Keifa in south Lebanon. There would be mounds of ground up wild thyme that he had dried in the Mediterranean sun, that he had picked from the land around us.  It is easy to find as you can smell it as you approach it.  Its scent is unmistakable and always conjures home for us. There was the burgundy colored sumac powder that gives zaatar its tang.  There were the sesame seeds that Dad would heat until it starts emitting its nutty aroma.  He would blend these ingredients and then add the salt. This mix of hearty sesame, lemony sumac, aromatic thyme and salt was put in bags, one for each son, and labeled. If you were lucky he would set you up with some Lebanese olive oil from our grove.  The olive oil is what sets off this potent combination.  Then dab the mix with fresh pita bread and you are done for, you are addicted.  Some American friends refer to zaatar as Lebanese crack upon first taste.  Not the most gastromically transformative description but I understand where they are coming from.  I would describe it more as a wedding in your mouth.

There is no exact science to making zaatar but the basic formula is 7 parts zaatar, 1 part sesame seed, 3 parts ground sumac and ½ part salt.  There is a cookbook that was inspired by zaatar, and by the man’oushe to be exact.  It is titled Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery by Barbara Abdeni Massaad.  It is a gorgeous book that departs from the zaatar to a journey of discovery of the foods of the Lebanese corner bakery.

If you ever stop by DC, stop by my place on Sunday afternoons where I serve Turkish tea and zaatar and you will understand what all the fuss is about.