Sesame Bread Rings
On Saturday mornings I head out to shop and do chores like millions of other parents all over the world. My 9-year-old son is usually in tow and at some point around mid-morning his insatiable youthful hunger kicks in. I stave it off with the simplest and most innocuous street food in the repertoire of snacks sold from carts in Athens: an ancient sesame-studded bread ring that Greeks call koulouri Salonikis, after the country’s northern capital and second largest city, Thessaloniki. Most of the rest of the eastern Mediterranean know it as simit or simiti. In Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, the simit is also a popular street food.
I never thought much of it until I led a group of chefs from a large American bread and casual dining chain on an R&D trip through bakeries in Greece. I realized that the koulouri had come into its own. No longer shaped just into rings, it is twisted, stuffed with cheese, braided with a strand of whole wheat dough and transformed into a kind of Greek bagel, sliced across the middle and stuffed with cold cuts, cheese, tomato and lettuce. The chefs enthusiasm made me see this most pedestrian of snacks in a totally new light.
Not too long afterward, the editor of my Greek newspaper column asked me to “profile” the koulouri as part of a series we were doing on Thessaloniki. As it turns out, the koulouri has had a long, sometimes illustrious, and definitely multiethnic history. To a Greek, it is the breakfast-on-the-run for harried schoolchildren, hawked on street corners from carts. Usually sold only in the mornings. Greek kids have learned to consume it with a wedge of cheese, traditionally the very Greek kasseri, mild, sweet, soft and made from sheep’s milk. Sometime in the last few decades, kasseri disappeared from koulouri carts, replaced by, of all things, La Vache Qui Rit.
The koulouri-simit is a very old bread. The Greeks associate it with Thessaloniki because it arrived here in its current shape and form with the Greek refugees from Turkey during political upheavals in 1922. Some Greek historians, however, point to antiquity and the use of sesame in baking as the beginnings of the koulouri. The word is indisputably Greek, after the kollyra of the ancients, the round bread of slaves. It was part of the breakfast and snack scene on the bustling streets of Byzantine Constantinople, sating the early morning appetites of legions of workers, soldiers, shopkeepers, passersby and other city dwellers.
Koulouri could possibly have morphed linguistically into simit when some unwitting fan transliterated the Greek word for semolina, simigdali, into semit or samit, both Arabic words. The term simit may also have been born of the Arabic simsim, which means sesame. Cookbook author and food writer Clifford A. Wright, whom I consulted regarding the bread’s origins, notes that according to Turkish food historian Artan Tulay, it was a loaf of the Ottoman elite as early as the middle of the 16th century. This tidbit of information appears in a mouthful of a book, “Aspects of the Ottoman Elite’s Food Consumption: Looking for ‘Staples,’ ‘Luxuries,’ and Delicacies’ in a Changing Century” (Albany: State University of New York, 2000. pp. 107-200.)
In Greece you can still find koulouri hawked from carts on street corners, or offered from trays balanced precariously on the heads and shoulders of itinerant vendors who open shop at stop lights and toll booths. It is best enjoyed fresh as it tends to turn hard and brittle within a few hours exposure to air, so you may be better off making your own. Who knows, it might just become the next bagel with a laugh cow’s cheese as schmear.
For 8 to 12 bread rings
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 packet active dry yeast
⅔ cup warm water
1 egg white
2 tablespoons water
1½ cups untoasted sesame seeds
- In a large bowl, mix together 1 cup of flour, the sugar, salt, yeast and warm water. Stir with a fork or wooden spoon until a thick, sticky mass forms. Add a half cup of flour and work the mixture by hand until a dough forms. It will still be sticky. Spread remaining half cup of flour on a clean work surface and knead the dough mass until it has absorbed all the flour on the work surface and become silky and smooth. This will take about 7 to 10 minutes. Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and let it rest for five minutes.
- Using a fork or whisk, mix together the egg white and two tablespoons of water in a small mixing bowl.
- Divide the dough into four equal pieces and roll out each piece by hand to a rope about as thin as a pencil and about 20 inches long. Cut each rope either in half or in thirds and shape each smaller piece into rings about 8 inches in diameter.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Sprinkle several shallow baking pans with corn meal. Place the rings in the pans and let rest, covered, for about 20–25 minutes, until they rise. Brush each ring with the egg white mixture and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Bake for about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven when lightly browned, and remove immediately from the pans. Cool on wire racks.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Koulouri Thessalonikis with kasseri triangles. Credit: