I’m a big fan of flatbreads. Naan, rotis, pitta (or pied) or pizza, they are all so versatile, so easy to make and so filling. Rather than just serving them alongside a curry or as part of Middle Eastern mezze, they can be torn into strips and served under chilli instead of rice, torn into chunks as part of a salad, dipped into soups, used as a kind of spoon to gather up dal or sauce, split open to form a pocket for whatever filling takes your fancy, they can even be used as a plate. The next time you’re bored with the usual rice or potatoes, turn your thoughts to flatbreads.
These can be made with all kinds of spices: chilli flakes, coriander seeds, mustard seeds or cardamom. Cumin is my favourite though; it’s a heady, masculine spice with the aroma of hot desert about it, and bread is it’s perfect partner.
RECIPE makes 8, but can easily be halved
1 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
250ml lukewarm water
400g plain flour
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for cooking
Combine the yeast, sugar and water in a small bowl. Make sure your water is just lukewarm – too hot and it will kill the yeast, then you’ll end up with thin, flat rotis rather than airy, puffed-up bread. Set the bowl aside in a warm place for about 15 minutes until it starts to foam slightly, that’s the yeast feeding on the sugar.
In a dry pan, warm the cumin seeds over a medium heat for a minute or so until aromatic, then tip onto a cold plate to stop them from cooking.
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and cumin seeds, and mix well with your hand. Add the oil to the yeast mixture, then make a well in the middle of the flour and pour the yeast mixture into it. Forming your fingers into a kind of claw, drag the liquid through the flour, mixing and picking up dry areas as you go. Within a minute or so it will have formed a cohesive dough that will still be quite sticky. Work the dough in the bowl for a few minutes more and you will find that it starts to become less sticky and will start to form into a ball, pulling dry and sticky bits from the side of the bowl as it comes together.
Now turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and start to knead the dough. The idea is to fully hydrate the flour and develop the gluten that gives the finished bread its structure and strength. You will have to knead the dough for about ten minutes, until it is smooth, elastic and not sticky (or at least not too sticky). I’m not going to deliver a masterclass on how to knead a ball of dough, if you do need some guidance YouTube is full of great video tutorials.
Roll the dough into a tight ball and place in a lightly-oiled bowl, covered, in a warm place for an hour or two until doubled in size.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, knock it back and divide into 8 balls.
Heat a ridged griddle pan until it is scorching hot, and roll the dough balls out into rough circles 3 or 4 mm thick. Turn the griddle pan down to a high but not furious heat, brush one side of the rolled-out dough lightly with olive oil, then place oiled-side down in the griddle pan. Cook for about 1 minute per side, until you see bubbles of air forming on the top side and the bottom surface is golden and darkly-lined from the griddle. Brush the uncooked side lightly with oil, then flip over and cook the other side. Place in a large piece of cooking foil, big enough to fold over and around all of your cooked flatbreads to keep them warm.
Repeat with the other balls of dough, storing them as you go in the foil packet that you have made. This is a job that is much easier when two of you are doing it, you can get a production line going. If you are doing it by yourself, hard-won experience tells me it is better to concentrate solely on cooking them so get all your rolling-out done before you heat the griddle pan, then cook them one after the other keeping a close eye on them – they go from raw, to charred, to burned in remarkably short order.
I generally heat my oven to 100C then turn it off, storing my foil packet of cooked flatbreads in the warm oven until the rest of my cooking is complete and ready to serve.