It’s a long story, one that I hope will appear on the podcast in the fullness of time, but suddenly we have a supply of superb hummus and other like-minded goodies here in Rome. Not so the pita. I mean, it’s OK, as a shovel or wrapping, but not for its own sake. Nothing for it, I thought, I’ll just have to bake my own.

In this I was encouraged by friends who seem to do it all the time, posting photos of the exquisite results. Off, then, to Claudia Roden’s A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and her recipe for Khubz (Eish Shami), which, she delightfully tells me, “is more commonly known in the West as Pitta bread”. I hope she won’t mind me sharing my interpretation here.

The dough is simple:

  • 500g strong flour
  • 300g tepid water (60%)
  • 4g salt (8%)

No time to do it with a leaven, so I went the direct route and added one teaspoon of dried yeast. (It should probably be more, but I did have time to allow for a longer rise.)

The joy, if you’ve been messing around with highly-hydrated doughs, is in the 15 minutes of kneading. I tend to go by counts to 100, with a little rest after each burst to see how things are going, and it is wonderful to watch and feel as the dough becomes alive and elastic beneath your hands. A wet dough, as it becomes stronger and more structured through a set of stretch-and-folds, is also a delight, but it doesn’t offer quite the same satisfaction as a proper knead.

With a lovely, lively ball of dough in your hands, dribble a short thread of olive oil into a bowl and wipe it about with the dough to just lightly coat the surface of the dough. Cover with a damp tea-towel and leave in a warm place to double, about two hours.

As you gently persuade the dough out of the bowl, pause again to marvel how extensible it has become. Resist the temptation to “punch” the dough down; a little gentle kneading is all that is required. I divided the dough into 8 pieces of 100g (Claudia advises “the size of a large potato or smaller”) and roll each one out on a lightly floured surface to a disk of around 0.5cm thick. Place these on a well-floured couche, cover with plastic film and the damp cloth, and leave again for a second rise of about another two hours.

Preheat the oven to maximum (in my case around 240°C) and place a lightly oiled (or non-stick) baking tray in to heat up. Also, prepare to steam. When you’re ready, add the water to your steam container. Then, working quickly, gently lift the rounds from the couche and onto the tray. Gentleness is crucial here; any rough handling and they won’t puff up in the oven. Spray gently with cold water “to prevent them from browning,” slip them into the oven and shut the door.

[B]ake for 6 to 10 minutes, by which time the strong yeasty aroma escaping from the oven will be replaced by the rich earthy aroma characteristic of baking bread – a sign that it is nearly done.

Do not open the oven door during this time.

I gave them eight minutes. Eight long, fraught, anxious minutes. I needn’t have worried.

As I said on Instagram: “OMG. It worked. Thanks Claudia.”

Cool the little flatbreads briefly on a wire rack and if you have any left over, pop them into a plastic bag. Anathema for most breads, but these need to stay nice and soft.

I can also attest that they reheat beautifully in a hot cast-iron frying pan.

Panis quadratus, carbonised at Pompeii

When first I came across the ancient Roman festival of Fornacalia, back in 2010, it seemed to me an ideal opportunity for newly inspired bakers at home and in bakeries to celebrate their art. Two years later, I even left a desperate little plea to that effect in a forum I frequented. It died a death, as it has most years subsequently, a notable exception being Dan Etherington’s post Fornacalia, Fornax and burnt spelt. Like my leaven, though, which refuses to die, I’m going to give it another go.

I’m emboldened to do so by Chris Aldrich, who took it upon himself to anoint me curio maximus. As such, it is my duty to proclaim Friday 16 February, an auspicious day for me, the day to celebrate Fornacalia, using the hashtag #fornacalia.

I’ve been doing a little research of my own, torn between the Scylla of tried-and-tested and the Charybdis of new-and-appropriate, and I think I have come to a decision.

Stay tuned. And spread the word.

50 percent long soak 1

Jonathan Bethony, who runs Seylou Bakery in Washington DC, mills his own wheat and uses 100% of the grain. Talking to him for Eat This Podcast I learned about the difference in bran between softer European wheats and harder North American wheats. My wholemeal, from softer wheats, has larger flecks of bran that cut through the gluten network so the bread doesn’t rise as much. Having learned more of the details, I decided to give my brown flour a really long soak before making the dough.

This soaking period, without any leavening, is usually called an autolyse. Before, I’ve generally done a 30 minute autolyse, maybe an hour. Then lately I upped it to overnight, although that was for all the flour. For an experiment, I decided yesterday to soak only the wholemeal. I hoped that a long soak with more available water (not absorbed by the white flour) would soften the larger flecks of bran even more, so the dough structure would survive better. Also, hearing that Jonathan pushes hydration to 100 and even 110 percent, I thought that I could usefully push mine to 80% (from about 70% most of the time).

So, at the same time as I started the second build of the wholemeal leaven, I put the rest of the wholemeal to soak in all of the water, 300g of flour in 600g of water (200% hydration). A soupy mess. Eight hours later I added the leaven (350g at 75%), the strong white flour (500g) and the salt (17g). After mixing by hand to incorporate and distribute everything I did a set of folds at roughly 30, 60 and 120 minutes. After three hours of bulk fermentation I pre-shaped the loaves as gently as I could, gave them a bench rest of 30 minutes and then put the shaped loaves into the fridge for an overnight rise.

Slashed and baked from cold in a Dutch oven at 235°C for 26 minutes, before removing the lid and giving another 26 minutes at a slightly lower temperature.

50 percent long soak 2

The rise was great, with good oven spring. The texture was fabulous, with a crisp crust and a soft, light crumb. The structure was open, without any giant holes, and that’s the way I like it, uh huh.

Tasted pretty good too. I could be mistaken but I think the nuttiness of the grain is more pronounced and perhaps the long fermentation also brings out more of the natural sweetness. Next time I might even try pushing the hydration to 85%

I’ve just finished listening to the Modernist BreadCrumbs Podcast. Some of the guests often had interesting things to say.

Flour power: why every revolution begins with a piece of bread in Prospect magazine also occupied me for a couple of minutes. I suppose it is a marker of the new grooviness of bread that the piece even exists, but does it have to peddle quite so many alternative facts?

  • No need to quote a pundit’s opinions when experts have actually studied food prices and social unrest.
  • What does “A bowl of gruel for one becomes dinner for six out of thin air.” actually mean?
  • The Big Mac index is not about “basic economic theory”; it is about the relative value of currencies, as The Economist helpfully tells us.
  • "[S]omething abysmal-sounding about mixing yesterday’s stale crusts with today’s fresh ’wheaten dow’” would not, I fancy, seem at all abysmal to the many bakers (mostly German in origin) who regularly add stale bread (altes) to their dough and make perfectly fine loaves that actually depend on the stale bread for their flavour.
  • It is not “a historical fact that Victorian millers’ habits of adding alum to the flour gave children rickets.”1 It is a historical fact that the great proto-epidemiologist John Snow hypothesised that this might be the case, but he offered nothing like convincing evidence, which yet might be obtained from the Victorian bones.

As an antidote to all my naysaying, treat yourself to Paul Levy’s Let them eat bread in the Times Literary Supplement, a lovely review of several books, including Modernist Bread, my point of departure for this little rant.


  1. Was it even the millers, rather than the bakers? 

Earlier this week something about Stanley Ginsberg’s version of a rye from the Lithuanian resort of Palanga seemed to call to me. Maybe it was his summary description:

This is an exceedingly versatile bread that will go with pretty much anything savory: my own preference is for what I call “Baltic sushi” – a slab of lightly buttered rye, topped with herring and sliced red onion.

Or maybe it was because although the process looked complicated, I could see that it would result in a relatively easy-to-handle dough, which would make a nice change. Either way, it seemed worth a shot. My only misgiving was that my rye flour is wholemeal, rather than the light rye that the official recipe wants.1

Anyway, I decided to give it a go,2 starting on Wednesday night, feeding my 100% hydration wheat leaven with rye to create the rye sour that the recipe needs to begin.3 The main lesson here was a vivid demonstration of how much livelier a rye leaven is than a wheat leaven. The rye roughly tripled, while the wheat barely doubled.

As a result, I was ready to begin the recipe proper, on Thursday morning, with the natural rye sponge. Five grams of starter seems far too little, but it did its job, and of course one of the fine side-effects of too much starter is a pancake for lunch.

In the afternoon of the first day, you make the scald. Mixing rye flour with hot, even boiling, water, is a standard technique for releasing some of the sugars. (See Black Pepper Rye.) In Ginsberg’s recipe, the water is at 65°C rather than boiling, and one is supposed to keep the scald at that temperature for three hours. I quickly discovered that even on the lowest setting, my oven was hotter than that, but making use of the thermal capacity of the baking stone and checking every half hour or so I was able to be a human thermostat and keep things at around that level. One more misgiving; only 2 gm of caraway seeds?

As forecast, the scald became quite liquid during that time, and developed a delicious, somewhat sweet, somewhat earthy aroma. After cooling the scald for an hour, I dumped the now well-risen sour onto it and mixed with my strongest spoon. Ginsberg says this is called an opara. Next morning, having been covered and left overnight, it had bulked up quite a bit and now smelled beery (malty?) rather than earthy.

Early on Friday, while the morning cuppa was brewing, I threw together the final component, a yeasted rye sponge, so that it would be ready at about the same time as the opara.

Came the moment to mix the final dough, which now gained 100 gm of bread flour, a fraction over 10% of the total flour. It all came together beautifully and despite being tacky in the way that rye doughs always are was not difficult to knead. In the end I stirred for about three minutes to get the wheat flour in, another three to get the rye in and a final three minutes kneading the whole.

In a clean bowl, it had risen to double within an hour. I pre-heated the oven and shaped a boule, leaving it to rise again on the peel. After a bit more than an hour, I judged it had expanded enough to go into the oven, and discovered that my water sprayer was clogged. Rome water is so hard. I quickly flicked water over the suface as best as I could and slid the loaf onto the stone.

When I opened the oven door half an hour later the most wonderful deep rye aroma filled the kitchen, all sense of beeriness gone, just that nutty, slightly bitter, very grainy smell. Half an hour after that, I pulled out the loaf and brushed the surface with boiling water. This is new to me, though like the scald common with proper rye loaves, and it was fun to see clouds of steam arising from the loaf, which turned a darker, shinier brown. Not quite a horse chestnut, but getting there.

Palanga rye bread, the morning after baking.

Fine-looking slices, ready for their filling.

Next morning we had a trip planned to the thermal baths, and a sandwich lunch was definitely in order. The loaf sliced quite easily and the crumb was even, soft and moist. All we did for the sandwiches was pile on some mortadella, and the general consensus was that this was most definitely a bread to reckon with. It is chewy, but not tough, and even the tiny amount of caraway comes through, suffusing the taste. The sweetness makes itself apparent later and is a good contrast as it mingles with the earlier flavours of the rye. A definite keeper, this.

I thank the steam from the baths for the dreamy look, which perfectly suited the occasion.


  1. The flour is Italian and stone-ground, from Viva, and I love it. It has a Falling Number of 220 sec, according to the website, which is pretty good. 

  2. As usual, when I am strictly following someone else’s recipe I don’t give details here. Better you go to the original and grant the author the traffic. 

  3. Not sure how sour it is. Not very. I think it’s just a matter of terminology.