Dan and I just celebrated our 6-month wedding anniversary, and I’ve made what can only be described as a most stunning discovery: seems I’ve married under false pretenses.
Now before you go thinking something like this is going to happen, let me explain.
Most everyone who spends even a short amount of time in my kitchen, especially when I bake bread, knows that I’ve been searching, hunting, refining, and driving myself to the brink of crazy for the perfect Lebanese talami bread recipe.
I’ve forced myself on any member of the local Lebanese Farhat family I come into contact with, scrapping for another detail about about how they achieve their ethereal, truly heavenly talami. To say I’ve begged would not be an exaggeration—sometimes with success, sometimes no.
Last summer when I went to Philadelphia for the photo shoot for my upcoming Lebanese cookbook, I visited with one of the Farhats there, Abouna Vincent, who showed me around his Maronite church and took me out for a spectacular Lebanese dinner (they do Lebanese so well in Philly).
Little did he know that I was going to corner him, quite literally, with stiff glasses of arak, to capture his every word on video and paper about how he, a direct descendent from his famous cook-mother, makes the bread. How could he refuse? He’s a priest after all….
At home, I’ve made talami after talami after talami. It is, I will say, very good. So I’m not complaining, or insinuating that it’s anything but delicious. The recipe in my cookbook is even further refined from the recipe on my blog, based on what I’ve learned.
Every time I bake the talami, my Lebanese husband says how great it is in its own right, that I don’t need anyone’s recipe for it. He takes photos whenever I bake and sends them out to make everyone jealous that he’s eating warm talami from the oven.
But still. I couldn’t let go of the search, wanting more air in the bread, more tenderness, more moisture. Perhaps the search for perfection had become as meaningful for me as finding perfection itself. Perhaps I didn’t really want or need to find the answer; perhaps I just wanted to keep the hunt alive.
That, I believe, must be what Dan has been thinking all this time … keeping his own talami recipe quiet. Under wraps. A secret. A false pretense.
Either he didn’t want to burst my search bubble . . . or his hallmark modesty kept him from nudging me away from the oven for a few hours . . . or (benefit of the doubt be damned): he enjoyed watching me squirm, watching my talami torment, knowing that in his talented hands he carried the formula for some of the finest talami any one of us has ever tasted.
The jig was up for the mister when our friend Kris recently told me he’d been talking with a Farhat who said he just might be willing to share some more secrets with me. Dan overheard and commented, loudly, that my talami is great and I don’t need more secrets. Kris overheard that and said everyone knows that Dan Shaheen makes a mean bread himself.
Dan looked like someone caught in the act. Who are you? I whispered. And what is this bread?
A few weeks later, on a cold Sunday made for a bread-bake, Dan asked after some talami. Ohhhhhhnoyoudon’t, I said as I started lining up the ingredients for him. It’s all you. No more talami secrets, my friend.
As I watched and took photos, I found myself suggesting he change from his clothes, or put on an apron, or knead the dough like so. He wouldn’t have any of it, and he was right on: This was his talami to bake.
We ate the resulting Lebanese bread like wide-eyed wolves. Even Dan seemed to have surprised himself with it. The texture was tender and moist with big billowy air pockets and the perfect, chewy crumb. A heaven.
I nearly slapped Dan’s face, Loretta-style from Moonstruck. But then, you know how that story goes. It ends pretty well.
Now I can’t wait to see what other Lebanese recipes Dan’s keeping up his sleeve. Who knows, maybe he’ll even write a cookbook someday.
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 packet (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water (about 110° F), plus another ¼ cup or so
- ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Optional toppings such as chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, za’atar mixed with olive oil (1:1), or sesame seeds
- In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar and yeast in 2 cups of the warm water. Let it rest for about 5 minutes, until the yeast is creamy and slightly bubbly. Stir in the oil, salt, and egg. Mix in the flour, a cup at a time, until there are no lumps and a wet, sticky dough has formed. Add about ¼ cup more water as you go as well.
- Rub the dough and the sides of the bowl with a tablespoon of the oil, reach under the droopy dough to rub oil underneath it as well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (without letting it touch the dough) and drape a kitchen towel over the top. Let the dough rest in a warm spot for about 45 minutes.
- Heat the oven to 450° F. Rub a tablespoon or so of oil on two rimmed sheet pans. Divide the dough in quarters and form each one into a round, 2 on each pan. Rub more oil over the tops of the dough and let them rest for another 15 minutes.
- If you’re using toppings, push them into the top of each loaf, making dimples with the tips of your fingers. Make the dimples even if you're not using toppings.
- Bake the bread, one pan at a time, for about 10 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cut or tear off pieces and eat warm; the bread is best right now. To store the bread, wrap room temperature bread in plastic and aluminum foil for a day or so.