“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”
In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.
“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Paula Marcoux
Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014
That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.
I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.
“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”
I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.
“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”
Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.
For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.
“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”
After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.
Gas not like using live fire
“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”
As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.
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“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.
The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.
“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
- ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
- 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
- 1¼ cups boiling water
- Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
- 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped
- Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
- With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
- Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
- Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
- Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
- When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.
Recipe excerpted from “Cooking With Fire” by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch