Ever since my cousins and I had what can only be described as an extremely fun baking disaster day a couple of years ago, I’ve been on the hunt to learn Lebanese flatbread from a pro, the way my Sitto taught me far too long ago. Turns out that’s a tall order, since very few Lebanese women are still doing it. Yet I did finally find someone in Lansing, Naemi, and she agreed to a lesson—but not after telling me that nobody learns this bread anymore, and those who try, fail.
That’s alright, I told her. OK, she said, having gotten the hard truth out of the way. I was ushered to the basement, and there we spent the morning throwing the dough, stretching it on the cauda, and turning it out onto the makeshift saj—a hot metal dome made here from an overturned round metal sled, purchased at Meijer many years ago, set over a miniature gas stovetop.
The whole experience was so reminiscent of my Sitto that I had to keep pinching myself to be sure I was really there and not caught up in a very detailed gift of a dream.
Sitto’s baking mornings always ended in a hearty, delicious lunch, because baking makes a girl tired and hungry. So when Naemi and I wrapped it up downstairs, she led me to the kitchen and called her brother. Time for lunch, she told him. OK, I’ll be heading out now, I said, not wanting to be presumptuous. Of course you’re staying? Naemi said. Of course!, I said, probably too quickly.
She set about her business of making lunch by pulling out jars. Jars of homemade olives, green and black brined with lemon slices. Jars of labne balls preserved in olive oil. Jars of candied pumpkin and fig jam. And a big jar of clarified butter out of which Naemi took a scoop on the end of a whisk to make kishik, a kind of soup of dried yogurt, sautéed garlic and ground lamb (imagine the scent). I ate everything with a ravenous hunger that I knew had as much to do with the food as it did my nostalgia. The procession of jars was astonishing, and so old school beautiful that I felt I should head to church and sing a Te Deum of gratitude for the experience.
The table was set with bowls and some of the jars, all atop a white plastic tablecloth that could be wiped down after lunch with ease. A few loaves of our bread were placed just off to the side. Naemi’s brother and sister arrived and we ate. I hadn’t had the fig jam in a very long time, and I asked if it had onions in it, thinking it was a savory-sweet chutney. They all looked at me as though I must not be Lebanese after all. It’s a sweet, Naemi said. Of course it is, I said, and spread a big forkful on my bread. Then another, and then another. I had to stop myself so that I didn’t put off bad manners. The jam was scented with anise and studded with toasted walnuts, and I remembered my mother, who eats fig jam straight from the jar, no bread necessary.
Then Naemi’s brother told me, teasing but not really, that I will never learn to make the flatbread. It’s too much work and too much skill, he said. Nobody wants to do it anymore.
Perhaps, I said. But I will learn it, cousin, and I don’t care how much work it is, or how long it takes, even if that means I’ve got to put in The Outlier’s 10,000 hours to become a baker like Naemi and Sitto, and to keep a kitchen stocked with at-the-ready jars full of very good things to eat.
Lebanese Fig Jam
Fig jam makes a lovely sweet element on a cheese plate. It is also delicious on toast, or scooped up with flatbread.
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cups coarsely chopped dried figs
2 cups chopped walnuts, toasted
2-3 tablespoons aniseed
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium, and cook until slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes.
Add the figs, reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking until the mixture is very thick, about 10 minutes.
Remove the figs from the heat and stir in the chopped nuts and aniseed. Taste and add more anise if needed.
Cool and store in jars.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.