The Mixing Bowl: Lebanese flatbread pizza with za’atar

(Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

The French have herbes de Provence, Indians have garam masala and curry, Chinese have Five Spice Powder and hippies have Spike. All are herb and spice mixtures that define a cuisine. Za’atar is both an herb mixture and the name of a family of herbs, genera Origanum, but I’m referring here to the mixture that is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern, North African and Arab cuisines. The core ingredients are usually thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt, but each family or region often has their own secret additions. Its use goes back at least 1,500 years. A simple, delicious and common way to eat it is to take fresh pita bread, dip it olive oil and then in za’atar.

Flatbreads are usually made with only flour, water and salt. Pizza is a kind of flatbread but the crust is made with yeast and is usually associated with Italy, so this recipe is a flatbread pizza, I suppose. It is inspired by David Tanis of the New York Times, who ate this Lebanese treat on the streets of Paris. This crust is not thin or thick but full of airy spaces that cushion the topping providing a nice chewy base to the blanket of herbs and spices, crunchy meat, creamy feta cheese and pine nuts.

You can buy za’atar, pomegranate molasses, pine nuts and “00” flour at Staff of Life, located at 1266 Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz. A branch is due to open in Watsonville late this summer at 906 East Lake. The “00” flour is finer than all-purpose flour, and is often used to make pizza crusts. They also carry an exceptional smooth French feta that is creamy and not salty. It’s is a good substitute for goat cheese.

Because the components of za’atar are common herbs that you may already have in your spice cabinet here, you can make your own. I made six small pizzas and served them with chopped cucumbers mixed with yogurt and hummus. 

Dough:

2 teaspoons active yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup lukewarm water

3 cups “00” flour or all purpose

2 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Topping:

Olive oil

Salt

1 large onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

¾ to 1 pound ground lamb

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon allspice powder

¼ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon coriander

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon sumac powder

1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

5 tablespoon za’atar mixed with 5 tablespoons of olive oil

8 ounces feta

¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

Parsley, mint and cilantro leaves for garnish

Make the dough by mixing lukewarm water, sugar and yeast in a large bowl or stand mixer. Stir well to dissolve sugar and let sit until mixture is bubbly and foamy. Stir in 1 cup of flour and beat well. Let sit for around 20 minutes.

Add remaining flour, oil and salt. Knead for about 5 minutes. Dough should be soft and a bit sticky. Add more flour if dough is too sticky. Oil a ceramic bowl with olive oil. Put dough out onto a floured board and shape into a ball. Put the ball in the oiled bowl, rub a little oil over the ball and cover with a cloth or plastic wrap. Let sit for one hour or refrigerate overnight.

Make the topping by putting 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until onions are soft and browned, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more.

Add the ground lamb breaking it into the onions with a spoon until it crumbles. Add salt, pepper, cloves, allspice, cayenne, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, sumac and pomegranate molasses. Lower heat and cook for about 5 minutes until meat is cooked.

Heat oven to 450 degrees and prepare a pizza stone or cookie tin. If you are using a pizza stone, put it into the oven to heat. Punch down the dough and divide into four, six or right pieces depending on how many you want to make and how large you want them to be. Cover pieces with a damp cloth and let rest another 20-30 minutes.

In a small bowl mix za’atar and olive oil

When oven is hot, roll or stretch dough into small of large rounds from six inches in diameter to 12. If baking on a cookie tin, put the dough on the tin, brush with olive oil/za’atar mix. Cover with meat mixture and top with dabs of feta and pine nuts. If you are using pizza stones, you will make the pizzas on a floured board and then carefully put them on the pizza stone. I folded my pizza up and then unfolded on to the stone and reshaped it there. Try and keep the oven hot. Bake for 5-8 minutes. Serve with roughly chopped parsley, mint and/or cilantro. 

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