Week Nine: Flatbreads
I have been on the biggest Indian food kick ever since my cousin married a most charming girl of Indian heritage. Their wedding was literally spiced with the seductive flavors of that country; it came in the form of lacy cookies and spicy crackery strips in the goodie bag given to us at the hotel, and went all the way to the “morning after brunch”, an eye-popping spread of things I simply could not identify, but that tasted so amazingly good that I gorged myself to the point that I was hardly hungry for days afterwards. So naturally, when I decided on a week of flatbreads, it was a no-brainer to add some Indian bread to the mix.
The hard part was limiting myself to just one Indian flatbread, however. Flatbreads are almost exclusively made in India, as opposed to a more Western-style risen loaf. Various types include chapatti, phulka, roti, parantha, puri, bhakri, and on and on. Simple in composition, they generally involve one type of milled grain, water, and perhaps (but not necessarily) salt and/or fat. They are often used in lieu of utensils, for scooping up things like curries and dals. Like most flatbreads, they are cooked at very high heat, notably in a tandoor oven.
I decided finally on naan, as it’s a little different from many other Indian breads in that it is traditionally yeast-leavened. The main characteristic of naan is that it’s cooked on the ultra-hot wall of the tandoor oven, alongside your tandoori chicken or lamb. It’s also one of the most recognized Indian breads in the USA, because of its popularity on restaurant menus. Naan can also be filled with any number of things, such as in keema naan, stuffed with minced lamb or mutton, or like Peshawari or Kashmiri naan, filled with nuts and raisins. Occasionally, naan might be topped with meat, vegetables, or cheese, and served at a street food. Whether it’s served filled or plain, though, naan is nearly always brushed with ghee, or clarified butter, before serving.
Naan often has milk or yogurt added to it, which lends flavor and softeness to the dough, but generally results in a thicker bread. I have seen naan rolled to a thickness almost like pita bread, or as thin as a cracker. Which one is better is purely a matter of personal preference, but both will puff up like crazy in the high heat. But no matter the thickness, naan should be flexible and chewy, maybe crispy only in spots here and there. You should be able to pick up a bite of kofta or fragrant basmati rice with a torn-off piece, and eat it in one heavenly bite.
To me, naan is one of those foods that is supremely craveable. It’s simple, rustic, tasty, and has the most amazing texture when done right. Don’t be afraid to roll it out very thin, as that will help the gluten develop, giving it that perfect chewy structure that calls to me in the night sometimes. Oh, but you don’t want to make naan unless you have some Indian food to eat it with? Don’t be so quick to order in! Try this simple recipe. It’s quick to throw together with items that can sit in your pantry for a rainy day, and will be done in the time it takes to whip up some naan. Soaking up an easy and nutritious bowl of chickpeas and coconut milk with some naan hot from your own oven, buttery and soft, I can hardly picture anything better.
Red Pepper Naan
Adapted from Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
8 ounces unbleached bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper, or cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 tablespoons lukewarm milk
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter, for brushing
1. Cream the yeast in the milk. Set aside for 15 minutes, or until foamy.
2. Sift the flour, salt, and pepper together in a large bowl. Add the yeast mixture, oil, yogurt, and egg, and mix to form a soft dough.
3. Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.
4. Preheat the oven to its highest setting, or at least 450º F. If you have a baking stone, heat it up in the oven. If not, place a couple of heavy baking sheets in the oven to heat.
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch down. Divide into four pieces and shape into balls.
6. Cover three of the balls, and roll the fourth out into a teardrop shape about 10 inches long and five inches across.
7. Turn the broiler on to its highest setting, in the preheated oven. If you have a grill, you can absolutely use that instead. Place the naan on the hot baking stone, or the preheated baking sheets and bake for 3 to 4 minutes, or until puffed up.
8. Remove the naan from the oven and place under the broiler or on the grill for a few seconds, or until the tops brown slightly. Wrap the cooked naan in a kitchen towel to keep warm while rolling out and cooking the remaining dough. Brush with melted butter and serve warm.
1. If you like your naan thicker and more bready, by all means leave it a little thicker when rolling out. Personally, I like mine thinner; I think it has a better texture. I didn’t roll mine out quite as thinly as I prefer, but it was still very good!
2. For whole wheat naan, substitute about half the flour for whole wheat flour. Any more than that, though, and the bread will be too dense.
3. The pepper you use here will obviously be a stand-out flavor, so use the best you have! You can of course omit it for a plain naan. To make naan with seeds, you can either mix them into the dough, or roll them onto the tops of the unbaked dough.
4. For the best results, make sure your oven and baking stone or pans are hot for at least 10 minutes before cooking the naan.
5. I used olive oil to brush instead of using butter. I just couldn’t be bothered to melt any.