Last Thanksgiving was my first one away from my family. That may sound wacky to some given that I’m not exactly a kid, but for the Lebanese among us it probably sounds about right. Our families tend to stay close, tight knit, which has its rewards (and, of course, its challenges). My plan to stay in San Francisco rather than trek across the country for Thanksgiving weekend was declared early on. Yet when the week arrived, I was uneasy. Anxious. Wondering what kind of crazy had been in my head when this decision was made. I started making calls. My mother and my sister. All of the brothers. My sister-in-law. My god-daughter. My Aunt Hilda. Not that they could do anything about it or that I was polling for what to do; I just felt the need to be…connected. “Are you concerned they will forget you?” someone asked. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but maybe so.
Then there was Jim. My cousin made the trip up to San Francisco from Arizona, where he too would have been a holiday orphan. Now there aren’t too many people who have as much fun doing just about anything than Jim. A trip to Best Buy with Jim is a good time. That’s because he appreciates the small things, especially the humor, in life. And—he can bake like a pro. He and his mother for years arrived on doorsteps of family throughout the city of Lansing with gorgeous baskets of bread, Lebanese-style talami warm from the oven with a towel draped over the top. O happy day. This talami exceeded our Sitto’s talami because it rose so high and had such tenderness.
But even cousin would agree that the talami of all talami in our town was made not by him, not by Sitto, and certainly not by me. It was made by another Lebanese family, the Farhats, whose kitchen is revered, famed, and whose secrets have remained just that for most of us. When my brother Chris’s wife Ruth passed away two years ago at Christmas, the Farhats arrived immediately with loaf after loaf of warm talami. We stood around the kitchen island cutting slices off, loading the edges of the airy, soft bread with butter and salt, and eating with true abandon. We shook our heads in disbelief when we saw the bottom of the bread, crisp and golden. With each bite there were moans of relief, as the talami entered the body like an antidote to our pain.
How do they do it, was the question that lingered in our minds long after the last crumb was consumed.My sister Peg and I had a bake-off shortly after that in Chicago with cousins Celine and Sarah: 30 pounds of flour… and not a single good loaf was produced. We swore on Aunt Hilda’s cookbook that we’d never tell a soul, so please keep our failure to yourselves.
Then, there was last Thanksgiving. Jim arrived in San Francisco with the most precious gift of all time: the Farhat talami secret. How? How did you get it? I asked with truly bated breath. I asked them for it when I was in town, he said matter of factly, and they came over and showed me and my mom and my siblings (Jim’s one of ten) how to do it.
Funny how that works. You just ask for it. And you get it. That’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart ever since on everything from bread to chocolate, freely asking people to show me what they know so that I can know too. Not to mention other aspects of life, like love, that require one to take courage and ask for what is needed. And also not to mention faith, which requires us to take courage and ask God for what is needed, even if what we get is perhaps not we think we need.
So on Black Friday, after running around San Francisco to the Ferry Market and Chinatown while our dough rose (with Sitto’s signature cross in it as an insurance policy), we baked talami. We made a video of ourselves, capturing my disbelief when I discovered how wet the dough was. Wetter than pizza dough, dryer than batter. This isn’t dough that can be kneaded, it can only be, and must be, thoroughly incorporated. I was also shocked to learn that this talami had no oil in it, only on its surface when it rose and again when it baked.
When I landed my post-culinary school internship at Boulette’s Larder in the Ferry building, part of our agreement was that I would bake and share my Lebanese breads. Never mind that I had only made the talami Farhat-style once, many months ago, with Jim. I went after it at Boulette’s with feverish determination, and delighted in hearing the front counter staff describe the “talami” to customers, and delighted in seeing the bread on the menu with chef’s exquisite Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. I baked the loaves like crazy and savored having a moment in which my lowly intern status was elevated to “she can actually do something” status, even if briefly.
Since returning to the family fold in the last several months, the cousins and I have been talking bread-baking again. I’ve bragged with abandon about having learned the secret Farhat bread, and even let my hubris fly at Aunt Hilda’s funeral back in April, when I walked out of the wake gathering at Uncle Dick’s carrying a prized loaf of Farhat talami (again they knew what to do in the face of death: bake and give bread to the grieving). Another baking session was in order, and finally the cousins from around mid-Michigan decided to get together and get after the talami and other delicious yeasted dough delights.
Cousins Abood and our mamas (plus my Lebanese friend Geralyn who I’ve known since I was five, and her mama) arrived last Sunday armed for baking—there were rolling pins and sheet pans galore, more than we could possibly need but good to have, just in case. There were probably ten of us, equipped with snacks to get us through the day and a big pot of chili to offset our hunger until the bread would be pulled from the oven. Don’t forget the wine, which came out good and early. Last time when we baked in Chicago we went straight for the hard stuff, Lebanese arak liquor. I can’t recall if the arak caused our bad baking ju-ju or if our bad baking ju-ju caused us to break out the arak….
Our line-up this time included the stuffed Lebanese pies called fatayar, Lebenase flat bread Sitto-style, trays of baklawi in our orange blossom water syrup (you’ll get that one in December), and of course, the talami. Cousin Jim couldn’t be there but we spoke the day before, and he gave me the gems of his latest discoveries on the path to perfecting the talami. My kitchen notebook from my baking session with Jim last Thanksgiving reads “Talami, the Farhat Way,” but I’m prepared now to go the distance and call it “Talami, the Abood Way,” given all of our permutations. Is that wrong?
One of the funny things about the talami is that you’re never quite sure it’s going to come out as hoped. Last Sunday, we were baking so many different things, I worried it might be a doomsday. My sister Peg called from Chicago to ask how we could possibly have our gathering without Aunt Hilda. But then the table was covered with the last of the items from Aunt Hilda’s home that were brought by a cousin to give to anyone who wanted them, teacups and champagne glasses and a statue of the blessed Mother. Hilda is in heaven, but she was with us.
As the breads and baklawi came out of the oven, we wasted no time getting them into our mouths. Half the pleasure of this manna is eating it warm (the other half is getting your hands in the dough and making it). There were moans, there were gasps. I’ll say it in the style of Aunt Hilda whenever people enjoyed her food: “Honey, they RAVED about it!” When we turned the loaves of talami over and saw the crust perfection, cousin Cathy said in her soft voice of truth, “Now THIS is the body of Christ!” And she is right. We eat it as we do our communion, and it does what it should: it makes us better. It’s a holy bread that brings cousins together despite our many years of familial vicissitudes, a holy bread that conjures the souls of our faithful departed and heals the grieving, a holy bread that encourages us to ask, and allows us to receive.
Your talami will be more successful if you read through the whole recipe before you begin. This bread is made with a wet dough, which creates a large, soft crumb and tender crust. There are a few items and steps that assist in making the bread excellent: let the dough rise its second time on well-oiled, makeshift sheet pans made from non-stick Reynolds Wrap. My cousin Jim discovered that this works like a charm. I agree. This allows the dough to go from its second rise directly into the oven undisturbed. It also provides a thin enough baking surface beneath the bread to allow the right amount of heat, from a pizza stone in the oven, to crisp the bottom of the bread. If you have no pizza stone, try an overturned sheet pan instead (let it heat up as you would a pizza stone). A spray bottle is also helpful to mist water on the dough to adhere the sesame seeds. This recipe yields 4 loaves; you can make fewer or more depending on the size you’d like.
1/3 cup sugar
2 packets or 1 tablespoons dry active yeast
7 cups (2 lbs. 3 oz.) unbleached AP flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 ½ cups canola oil
4 ½ cups warm water (80 degrees)
Sesame seeds, toasted or not (optional)
Proof the yeast with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and 1/3 cup of the warm water.
With a whisk, combine flour with remaining sugar and salt in a large bowl (one that will accommodate double the amount of dough). Make a well in the center and add the yeast. Slowly begin to combine the flour with the yeast. Use your hands. It feels good.
Slowly add the water, 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Hold back on the last cup, adding it in small additions to avoid getting the dough too wet. The dough will be wet and almost batter-like, but still forms its own mass. The dough is not runny.
To keep the dough from sticking to the bowl as it rises, coat the bowl with canola oil by lifting the dough and pouring the oil underneath it and rubbing it on the bowl under the dough. Rub the bowl and the top of the dough generously with olive oil.
Cover the bowl thoroughly with plastic wrap to avoid formation of a skin. Cover the bowl with a towel and place in a warm, draft-free environment. An oven that has been barely heated and turned off (don’t forget to turn it off!) is an ideal spot.
Allow dough to rise until doubled, about 2 hours. Prepare 4 makeshift sheet pans for baking by folding up four sides on sheets of Reynolds wrap. Pour about 1 tablespoon of canola oil on each sheet and spread around the center of the sheet where the dough will go. Gently pull pieces of dough off in four loaves and lay them on the prepared pans. The dough will be quite soft and droopy, but take care not to disturb the rise in the dough (the air pockets). Gently rub each loaf generously with more canola oil to coat. Let rise another 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a pizza stone or overturned heavy sheet pan in the lower third of the oven on convection bake to 400 degrees (for non-convection, 425 degrees). If desired, top the loaves with sesame seeds. Use a spray bottle of water to spray the surface of the dough before sprinkling the seeds on; this helps the seeds to adhere.
Transfer the Reynolds sheet to the oven using a pizza peel, a rimless cookie sheet, or the backside of a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the talami for 15- 20 minutes (convection bakes faster than regular baking). If further browning is needed, place under the broiler briefly.
Remove from the oven using the peel or sheet pan, and please honey, eat it now with some butter.
Print this recipe here. Any questions as you go? Let me know.