These bread rings are as ubiquitous in the Lebanese food landscape as chips in the American one. They are dry and crisp, perfect for a little pick-me-up on the go. If you belong to the category of people who like to crunchcrunchcrunch when eating, then this is for you! What makes them so appealing to me is the mahlab spice in them, from which spell I am not immune! While they are baking, the fragrance of mahlab wafts through the kitchen and their call is irresistible.
But what exactly is mahlab?
Mahlab is a spice that comes from the kernels inside the pits of black cherries. You can buy it whole (the grains look like coriander seeds, but lighter in color) and grind it at home, or already ground. It keeps its fragrance for a long long time, at least one year and even longer. It is very fragrant and distinct. It is used in small rolls, cookies and pastries. For example, there is a sweet roll offered in Lebanon in churches after the service which is flavored with mahlab. Personally, I find the fragrance of this spice so enticing that I am willing to forego sweetness for it. Any bread with mahlab is a sweet bread in my book!
I have consulted two cookbooks for this; Savory Baking from the mediterranean by Anissa Helou (for the technique) and The Culinary Heritage of Lebanon by Chef Ramzi (for the ingredients)
3 1/3 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of milk
1/2 cup of water
2 teaspoons of yeast
2 teaspoons of sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of mahlab (optional) Note below on substitutes
- Place the flour and salt and mahlab in a mixing bowl. Combine the dry ingredients for a few seconds.
- Proof the yeast with 1/2 cup of warm water and the sugar for a few minutes.
- Add the oil to the flour mixture and combine well until the flour particles are moistened.
- Add the yeast mixture, add the warm milk, mix with the dough hook or by hand until you get a firm ball.
- Let it rest covered for 15 minutes. Knead again 2 minutes then let it rise in a bowl that has been covered with a thin film of oil; cover the dough with a film of oil as well. Set it in a warm place to rise for at least one hour, until doubled in size.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, fold it like an envelope and let it rise again, covering it with a towel.
- When the dough has doubled in volume, form into 20 balls. Cover with a damp towel and let them rise.
- Form each ball into a long rope. Cut into smaller ropes and press the ends to form a ring. Brush some egg on each ring and sprinkle sesame seeds on the rings. Cover with a wet (but squeezed dry) towel and let them rest and rise for 45 minutes.
- Bake in a 375F oven for about 15 minutes till golden. Then reduce the oven to 175F and let them dry out for another 30 minutes or until they sound hollow when tapped with a knife.
You can order mahlab online through a number of purveyors, including penzey’s. www.penzeys.com
Mahlab can be found in Greek stores. You can substitute one of these: ground fennel seeds, ground cardamom, or ground Chinese almonds. OR, grind one 2-inch cinnamon stick with three cloves and one bay leaf . greekfood.about.com/od/herbsspices/p/mahlap.htm
I wanted to make mini-breads; it is available in Lebanon in big bags. If you find them in the US, they are, more often than not, a bit stale. So, I just made one long rope and cut it with kitchen scissors, let the mini bread rest 45 minutes, touch them up a bit with an egg wash and sprinkle some sesame seeds on them. Bake 10 minutes and dry them 30.