— To concern A party in the Middle East 8:00 p.m. Thursdays on SBS Food (see Bread & Pastry August 5 episode), or stream it for free via SBS On Demand. For recipes, articles and more, head to the program page here. —
As anyone who has wondered about a Middle Eastern bakery knows, the aroma of freshly baked gypsy za’atar is magical.
And it’s just as good when you rip one of the thin, golden dough discs covered with a rich and flavorful mix of herbs and seeds. Is it better than the joy of a cheese pie stuffed with haloumi? This is a debate which luckily does not need an answer because you can have both. And even better, you can make both at home, as well as a sweet date pastry, all with the same dough. And then there’s the cheese pie toastie (we’ll get to that in a minute!).
This joy comes to us from Haikal Raji, co-owner of the popular Lebanese A1 Bakery in Melbourne, a family-owned business that has been providing locals with flatbreads and pastries, as well as Middle Eastern groceries, since opening in Brunswick. in 1992.
Raji shares the versatile dough and how to use it to make za’atar breads, cheese pies and date pastry in A Middle Eastern Feast with Shane Delia.
âI wanted it to be simple and versatile,â he says, so those who cook at home don’t have to make two separate doughs to create savory and sweet pastries – and for that to work, the dough has a special ingredient.
âThe nutmeg makes it taste a little sweeter,â he explains when SBS Food talks to him about how to get the most out of this versatile paste.
âTraditionally, you don’t use this kind of dough [the kind used for zaâatar and savoury pies] to make date bread. But I wanted to do something where you can make the za’atar and cheese pies, but with your leftover dough you can put in some date paste and make it something sweet too.
âWe messed around a lot at home with this dough mix. And we also did like a normal traditional pizza, it was great. I’ve tried everything, you know, to make it versatile.
Raji has been learning za’atar bread and cheese pies in the family bakery since he was a child, both from his father and from the bakers who have worked there over the years.
âI used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, with our bakers. Growing up, it was either ‘come help upstairs or go help in the kitchen’.
âI remember I used to wear an apron when I was eight, and stand and pretend to be helpful. I used to have my own little apron, go in there, squeeze the dough and see what happens.
These days he mainly works in front of the house. âWe have a very, very good staff and experienced bakers inside, so I don’t need to be there, we leave it to the professionals, but it’s also good for us to know what’s going on. . If you ever run out of staff, you can step in and help. This is why it has always been important for us to learn everything.
Delia is one of many dedicated A1 customers.
“One Sunday morning you’ll find me out there on Sydney Road in Brunswick, laughing at a spinach and cheese pie teeming with sweet haloumi, sipping coffee and catching up with the locals,” he said in A party in the Middle East, before Raji prepares his za’atar, his date pies and breads.
First of all, the breads. Whether you call it a gypsy za’atar, a herb pizza, or, as Raji does, just a za’atar, these thin discs of dough are sublime. (Za’atar is also the name of the mixture of dried herbs and spices spread over the top before cooking).
âSome people like it soft, others like it crunchy. It just depends on what kind of texture you prefer, âhe says on the show.
So what do you like, we ask him?
âIt depends on how you are feeling. Some days when it’s cold you just want something sweet and nice, especially if you wrap it in veggies. It’s nicer to wrap with a soft, soft wrapâ¦ but some days you just want a little crunch, then you toast it a little more. So, I am very on the fence! Sometimes I like a very sweet, some days I like a very very crisp.
Cheese pie is even more versatile. âThe great thing about cheese pie is that you can stuff it with anything. So some days I could make one with tomatoes and olives and then throw it in the oven and then it will come out like a nice cheese pie toast, âhe says.
And while Delia loves a golden cheese and spinach pie, it looks like the smell of a za’atar might just move the herb flatbreads forward if Raji had to pick a favorite.
âAs a child, it was always cheese for me, but also za’atar, there is no such thing. I love the smell of fresh za’atar that comes out of the oven. I think that’s what attracts everyone when they first enter A1. They’re always like ‘oh what is this?’ It is still the zaatar. So, I should say fresh za’atar that comes out of the oven.
Most of us can’t make our way to A1 – but thanks to Raji’s versatile dough, you can fill your kitchen with the unbeatable smell and tastes of Middle Eastern baked goods. Try the dough with or without nutmeg. Change the toppings on a flatbread. Fill a cheesecake with âa handful of halloumi cheese goodness,â as Raji says in the show, or try something completely different.
As Delia says in a Middle East Day (where he also shares his own recipe for chicken shawarma with puffed pita), âFor me nothing says Middle Eastern hospitality like freshly baked pastries and I think we have shown today that making bread and pastries at home doesn’t nothing to fear. Keep it simple, give your dough time to prove it, make sure your oven is properly raised and as Hake says, “Once you’ve nailed a good dough, the rest is easy.”