Sfeha flatbreads are traditional Lebanese soft flatbread topped with highly seasoned meat. Sfeha are also commonly made into small open-faced square hand pies.
As with so many inventions, necessity is its mother.
My obsession with sfeha (SFEE-huh) began on my trip to Lebanon in 2012. I had not even sought out the world of Ba’albek sfeha. No, those little beauties found their way to my plate by way of the table of our hired driver’s sister, where he took us to taste “real” kibbeh nayeh. Consult my cookbook for a detailed account of that event.
Not one, not two, but multiple sfeha were all lined up in a row along the side of the plate. What mesmerized me was the perfection of their shape: little squares of dough pinched together at four corners, with spiced meat peeking out the top.
I set myself to replication. I included the Ba’albek sfeha in my cookbook, but you can instructing and describe all day—it does not mean I’ve succeeded in created box sfeha that holds its shape the way those did in Lebanon, or the way they do from bakeries I’ve frequented in these parts here.
Enter flat sfeha, which I did not invent, but I did shift to the flat mode in a fit of unrequited perfectionism on the squares. Flat sfea still have their own quirks to contend with, their own secrets to know, but the techniques are simple enough with requited love in the resulting look and of course, taste.
My sfeha are soft, chewy mini- or medium-sized flatbreads topped with a meat so incredibly flavorful with spices and seasonings. The flavor and beauty game doesn’t end there, though: finish with yet another layer of garnishes that are equally delicious and beautiful.
My basic fatayer dough works for these sfeha, but the stickiness that is essential to the shape of fatayer is not a friend to the flat sfeha. The meat topping is heavy, too heavy for that dough. My sfeha dough is similar in that it is still sticky but a bit firmer, requires just one rise, and contains yogurt for even more tenderness in a slightly thicker roll out. The rolled dough is cut into 3-inch rounds or simply halved and rolled into two larger flatbreads.
The meat that will top the dough is far to heavy and pushed in far too deeply to transfer the topped dough from countertop to sheet pan. Instead, transfer the dough to the sheet pan right after the dough is rolled and cut (if cutting out circles). Top the dough with the meat after the dough is moved to the sheet pan.
To keep the baked flatbreads soft and prevent hardening, cover with a clean kitchen towel while still warm from the oven on the sheet pan while the sfeha cool before serving or storing.
The Meat Topping.
Sfeha are always topped with highly seasoned ground meat, beef or lamb. If vegetarian is your goal, that’s fine and delicious, but you aren’t making sfeha.
Use 85-15 or 90-10 lean-fat ratios, as a little fat is good here to keep the meat moist and to further season the bread beneath.
The problem with spreading meat on raw dough is the meat contracts when baked, so there is a ring left around meat on the top of the dough that is not going to win any beauty contests.
My solution? Spread the meat as far out to the edge of the dough as possible, pushing into the meat and dough with fingertips. At the same time, clear some areas of meat so you can see the dough through the meat. The meat will still contract, but it won’t form a thin burger-like look and the perimeter ring is just minor.
The meat-topped flatbread that is sfeha is so mouthwatering and delectable that the rather colorless look of it is easily forgiven. Yet…. We always want our food to look beautiful, especially for newcomers to this or that dish. Thankfully, garnishes on sfeha are tradition: toasted pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, finely chopped parsley or mint or a combination of the two. Color! Flavor! Joy!
For the dough:
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water (105° F), divided
- 3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to coat the bowl
- 2 tablespoons laban, or plain whole milk yogurt
For the topping:
For the Garnishes:
- 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
- Handful flatleaf parsley or mint leaves, or a combination, finely chopped
- To make the dough, in a small bowl stir the yeast with 1/4 cup of the warm water until dissolved. Set aside until creamy and frothy/bubbly, about 10 minutes.
- Mix the dough in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, or by hand. In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour and salt. On low speed or by hand, slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup water, olive oil, yogurt, and proofed yeast mixture. Beat until a ball of dough forms, then increase speed to medium and knead for about 3 minutes, or 5 minutes by hand on the counter.
- Coat another medium bowl lightly with olive oil. Place the dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap (not touching the dough). Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside to rise in a warm spot for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, make the topping. In a medium bowl with clean hands, blend together the meat with the diced onion, pomegranate molasses, yogurt, tahini, tomato paste, garlic powder, salt, and cinnamon or 7 Spice.
- Once the dough has risen, place one oven rack in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third adn heat the oven to 450° F. Line two sheet pans with parchment, silpats, or foil.
- Divide the dough in half. Roll out one half at a time to 1/4-inch thickness. If cutting into 3-inch circles, cut out the circles, form a ball with the remainder and repeat with remaining dough.
- Carefully transfer the larger or smaller dough circles to a lined sheet pan. Place tablespoons of the meat mixture around the top of the larger dough piece or just under a tablespoon per 3-inch circle.
- Flatten, spread, and push the meat into the surface of the dough with your fingertips, reaching all the way to the very edge of the dough. Leave some spacess thin or somewhat free of the meat across the top.
- Bake on the lower rack for about 7 minutes, then move to the top rack and broil on low for about 2 minutes, or until the dough is golden.
- Remove from the oven to a cooling rack. Cover the top of the sheet pan with hot sfeha with a clean kitchen towel, to keep the sfeha soft.
- To serve immediately, garnish with toasted pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and chopped parsley. Cut the larger sfeha into square or pie pieces. To freeze, store in freezer bags, reheat wrapped in foil in a 300° F oven, and do not garnish until just before serving.
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