Exploring my roots
Both my grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews, that came over to Australia from central and eastern Europe. Food is a big part of Jewish culture, it’s a way Jewish communities around the world can connect to their cultural identity. My grandmother on my mum’s side loved to cook and my grandfather, he loved to eat even more. So dinners were a very ceremonial occasion in that house, an important and happy time.
“Food is a big part of Jewish culture, it’s a way Jewish communities around the world can connect to their cultural identity.“
As a curious child I would ask a lot of questions, and take in the amazing smells of the kitchen. Seeing my grandmother cook was probably the beginning of my journey into cooking. But it was only in the past six years that I’ve really begun to explore my heritage.
I rummaged through my grandmother’s recipe books, taking inspiration from her old handwritten recipes. Her instructions were never specific, very much a handful of this and a pinch of that, but they allowed me to really engage in the traditional dishes she bought with her from Austria. It included delicious breads and pastries, like Challah, a braided enriched bread made from chicken fat instead of butter, and unique savoury dishes like Meat and Zaft. Zaft is Yiddish for juice and the recipe involves slow cooking veal on the bone with a combination of smoked paprika, onions and pickles.
Jewish cooking is really fascinating because as a group we share religious events, with food being an important part, but there are Jewish communities from different parts of the world, all with different foods and interpretations of dishes. During passover each year as well as seeing our grandparents we’d visit my Aunt and Uncle. My aunt married a Yemenite Jew and the food we’d eat there would be very different.
So where I was use to eating heavier breads and dishes that originated from Poland, Hungry and Germany, in my uncle’s house we’d eat food from the Middle East; salads, spiced dishes, wood fired breads. This exposure to his culture, combined with my travels to Israel and Turkey, where they live and breathe food, got me very interested in exploring the breads from this region.
Perfecting my sourdough
Whilst the doughs of traditional breads I’ve explored are quite different, I’ve always gravitated towards sourdough as the base of bakes I’ve developed. I began making sourdough 15 years ago and it’s taken that much time to perfect my dough. It’s one of the most interesting and complex things to make in a kitchen because there’s almost an infinite amount of variables that affect the end product. One combination of flours and recipe might work in a kitchen in Europe, but if you take that same recipe into the heat and humidity of Queensland you will have a very different bake.
As the base of nearly all my breads, it was important to keep improving my processes and attempt to perfect the base principles of my dough. Over time I discovered three.
The first was finding the right grain combination. It took me six or seven years to find a combination I was happy with. When I began making sourdough I would play around with combinations of two grains; a bread flour and either a rye or spelt. But over time I experimented with different grains.
I use specific flours; a stone ground heritage wheat, an Iranian Khorasan wheat, and a premium stone grain baker’s flour. All organic, that have been produced with care and love.
I tried rye, spelt, and other grains, but over time you develop your ideal combination. Each flour will offer something different. The Iranian grain has a distinct rich hazelnut flavor but also helps with the texture, giving you a very crisp bread, whilst the heritage grain offers a wholemeal, nutty taste and, as a sprouted wheat, is very active, helping give you a better volume.
That activity is really important, not just in the finished dough but the starter itself. In Australia, it’s difficult to consistently control the temperature of your proofing and working, it’s hotter and more humid than most places, so getting the sculpture right is challenging. When I first started making sourdough I was feeding it just the white wheat flour, but once I started feeding it the heritage grain I was seeing a big improvement in the activity.
The second principle was autolysation. Autolysation is the process of mixing the flours and water together, then leaving them to familiarise themselves for a couple of hours before adding the sourdough and salt, to start fermentation. Autolysation helps the ingredients come together and creates a harmony to the flours when they activate, making them become one as an ingredient. When you make a dough straight away it becomes firm but when you give it that time, it will relax. The autolysation ensures your dough is relaxed, helps give the liveliness when the starter is added and ultimately gives your bread a much more consistent form.
The third principle of dough making I developed was the use of fermented vegetables, something that was very much born out of thriftiness. During the unpredictable months of lockdown we were seeing a lot of ingredients go unused so I began experimenting with putting vegetables in my doughs. On the first occasion I had a load of carrots from the day before, so I pureed, then fermented them and used them for the following week’s bread.
The fermenting of the vegetables was instinctual. I wanted to ensure that vegetables’ flavor and texture became integrated into the dough, so it became part of the bread, rather than an ingredient running through it. But what I quickly discovered was that by adding the fermented vegetable, I was not only getting a more interesting, integrated flavor but also better activation, resulting in a more spongy dough.
Developing my bakes
Breads native to Europe were my starting point. There was a particular Hungarian bread I ate in Budapest’s Jewish quarter – a street snack called Langos. It’s like a pizza dough that’s stretched out to a large rectangle, thrown in hot oil and deep fried. When it’s taken out of the oil, it’s smothered with sour cream and cheese, and eaten as a snack to go with a drink.
I took that idea, using 100% sourdough that’s been balled, rested and flattened, making it a lot lighter than the Langos you get in the Hungarian markets. It doesn’t have that yeasty flavor you get from dried yeast or heavy sugars used in the dough. I wanted to refine it, get it super crisp but also get a better depth of flavor. The traditional versions are also generally quite flat so I wanted a beautifully fluffy inside, with big air pockets, like a soft pita bread. I achieve this by continuously basting the top of the bread for the first minute of cooking, flipping it and doing the same to the other side. Once both sides of the bread are set, I submerge the bread in the oil, allowing it to puff up like a pita without soaking up any excess moisture.
It’s a delicious, soft, crispy, versatile bread that can be eaten in many ways, but I like to keep it close to its roots dusting it with smoked paprika, and serving it with a smoked sour cream dip and what we describe as a Hungarian dukkah. That dukkah is packed with the flavors of Hungary; linseed, poppy seed, caraway and hazelnut.
This is a bread I began developing when I was experimenting with fermented vegetables. With the original carrot sourdough I was really pleased with how a woodfire bagel came out, so I started using other vegetables including pumpkin and potatoes. It was these starchier vegetables that began to give me better results. I found that the flavor was more diverse and the finished dough had a more interesting texture.
To prepare that dough I make a potato puree using Sebago potatoes, or a variety with a smooth, buttery texture. I cook the potato in the oven, scoop out the flesh, add 3% salt, then leave to ferment for around 3-4 days, until it develops a nice sourness. From there I add the sourdough starter into the fermented starter, making a secondary starter.
Once that secondary starter is ready, you autolyse the dough and combine. To strengthen the dough and develop the gluten in the dough we coil fold during the bulk fermentation stage. This helps to ensure we keep as much air in the dough as possible. Those folds are done three times over two hours before we refrigerate the dough. The timings are all very much dependent on the environment but we keep the final rest and proof stage relatively short to ensure we keep the beautifully rounded bagel shape.
When ready, the bagel is cooked in a woodfire until it begins to blister. Our woodfire ovens get to around 400c and takes a few minutes, but in a home oven you’d be looking at 8-10 minutes on a cast iron pan at your highest temperature.
Being baked rather than boiled, the bagel is technically more akin to what you would find in Turkey and around that region, rather than the more commonly known boiled New York-style bagel. A New York bagel is a delicious bread, and the chewiness makes it great for sandwiches, but baking this dough helps accentuate the natural sourness and allows you to be more minimal with how it’s served. In the restaurant we simply brush it with garlic oil and sea salt, with an accompaniment of a ricotta or a goat’s cheese dip.
Malawach is a traditional Yemenite Jewish flatbread that was introduced to me by my uncle. It resembles a thick pancake but consists of thin layers of puff pastry brushed with oil or fat.
To make our Malawach we roll our sourdough into a ball, then begin stretching the dough out until it’s paper thin, and smother on the softened butter. Traditionally the fat used would be chicken fat, but I like the way the butter performs in the dough and allows us to reach more customers with the dish.
The butter itself should be soft and not melted to get the right lamination. I describe it as a lazy croissant dough. Once the butter has been spread across the surface the dough is rolled into a snail and then proofed.
Once proofed I get two aluminium trays and press the dough into a 2cm package thickness. You then get a really hot cast iron pan and add in a decent amount of vegetable oil. You carefully put that dough in the cast iron and get it into the oven, cooking it as you would a croissant.
We’ve done a few versions of Malawach, but it’s always a very dense and rich bread. Traditionally it is eaten within Jewish communities as a breakfast, served with honey, grated tomato or a Yemini sauce called zhug. But because of the richness we treat it as a bread course at the restaurant. We get delicious tomatoes in, cooking them over the fire and brushing them continuously with a harissa paste, so the tomato slowly dehydrates and cooks at the same time. Then we serve the bread with the charred and peeled harissa tomatoes and it tastes like heaven.