I have gone spice-crazy at my local Waitrose. Noticing that they stock the whole Bart spice range, I decided to spend some of my John Lewis (which you can also spend at Waitrose - who knew?) Christmas vouchers on the whole gamut of exotic delights adorning the racks of dried herbs, spices, rubs, marinades, potions, tinctures and unctions.
Ras-el-hanout (four-bloody-quid-thankyoumuchly) is some kind of translation for 'best spices in the house', and is a heady mixture of the pungent and fragrant. The mix can vary from place to place, but mine contained cinnamon and clove, together with coriander and cumin - and rose petals, among other things. What a weird idea, but very very effective. A sprinkle on to a salmon fillet and a quick roast in the oven, and you have a feast, rather than a meal.
Sumac. Ahhh, sumac. It seems that every Londoner I have spoken to recently has told me about eating some houmous sprinkled with an amazing mystical sour-tasting orange-coloured spice, in a Lebanese restaurant, which justified the menu price of £6 for a starter portion. After their enquiry of the reluctant waiter, it became apparent that the secret is sumac. And what a find! £2 for a big jar means that my shop-bought houmous will magically taste six times more expensive. And guess what? It does.
Za'atar (yup, another four quid). A blend of dried wild thyme, sesame seeds and some of that spicy cocaine (err, sumac again) is the only thing to adorn freshly made bread. Mrs Ribeye and I live above a Middle Eastern grocer, who along with the dodgy baked beans ('Multipack. Not to be sold separately') and questionable brand toilet paper, does do a nice line in pitta bread with a fabulous thick dark herby coating. Until now, I had no idea this was za'atar.
So, with my bag of spicy delights in my eager-with-anticipation sweaty palm, I hotfoot it home to start cooking for my Saturday night dinner party. The only problem: Which spices do I use in tonight's menu? The answer: All of them. Problem solved.
I cooked ras-el-hanout salmon with a sumac and garlic yoghurt sauce, together with rice and salad. And these breads on the side. Bingo. All three purchases in one fell swoop. Did they go together well? Yes! The salmon was rubbed with the 'ras' a full day earlier to allow the flavours to fully intermingle and penetrate. The yoghurt sauce was subtle enough not to overpower the fish, but was still redolent enough with sumac to let my buddies know that there was something special going on, and the bread was - well the bread was incredible actually. In fairness, not incredible enough to entirely stop me popping downstairs to Mazur's shop to buy his pittas, but incredible enough to think twice.
Bread-making may be more time-consuming than a quick trot down the rickety staircase, but it is so much more rewarding to be able to tell your mates that you made the stuff yourself. Being a good bread buyer is not quite as cool than being a good baker. Even in central London.
Price-wise, home-made bread is a HUGE win. I made eight breads (1 each for my greedy guts friends, plus leftovers for lunch today) for the princely sum of £1.50. Even if za'atar is pricey for a whole tin, I only used a scant half-teaspoon per bread, which means that this recipe comes in at a less-than-fancy 20 pence per serving. Certainly cheaper than that Lebanese restaurant (but then, they probably put sumac on their bread too).
500g strong white bread flour
1 level tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
7g dried yeast
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 beaten egg
150ml milk, warm
2 tablespoons sunflower oil, plus a little extra for the baking sheets and for glazing the breads before cooking
3-4 tablespoons of za'atar
1 tablespoon of rock salt, for sprinkling
In a large pot, mix all of the ingredients - not the za'atar or rock salt - together (much as I do for my Regular Bread Recipe) and prove it, then form into hamburger-shaped breads. Transfer to oiled baking sheets, smear the tops with more sunflower oil, then liberally with the za'atar and rock salt, and allow to prove for a second time. Preheat oven to the maximum setting (230-240c) and place the breads onto the highest shelf. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the breads are golden, crispy and risen. Remove from the oven and serve still warm.