Last week, I made lawasha (also known as lawash or lavash) with my great aunt, Almasy, or Masy (pronounced MAH-see) for short. In Assyrian, as well as many other languages, Almas means diamond, and her name is kismet, because Masy is one of the most beautiful people I know, but also one of the toughest. She's in her seventies and can probably beat you in a planking contest. But if you're not convinced—and she definitely doesn't care whether you're convinced—let me tell you that she can definitely beat you in a lawash contest. What would a lawash contest consist of? I'm not entirely sure, but I'd venture to guess it would include a lot of sensational dough twirling, impeccable ingredient divining, and plucking sheets of crispy bread from 500° ovens with your bare hands.
Masy has been practicing this skill for so long, she makes all this look completely effortless. She is the oldest daughter in her family, so when she was a teenager growing up in rural Syria, she and her mother would hire a woman to help them make a huge batch of lawasha, which would last their family for months. Lawasha is a traditional means of preserving bread, since the very flat loaves are baked into thin, crispy crackers, and then (optionally) rehydrated later when you're ready to eat them.
Masy's family would load a big tannoura (or tannour, similar to an Indian tandoor) full of coals, and they would stick the thin discs of dough to the inside walls to cook them to a crisp. Masy said that she remembers the smell of her arm hair burning off whenever she would reach into the tannoura. Since neither of us has a tannoura, we just used a hot oven. Masy has come up with a brilliant method for making lawasha in an oven, and—no—it doesn't involve a pizza stone. More on that later.
Just as Masy adapted her recipe to work with a standard indoor gas or electric oven, whenever I record someone else's cooking, I always struggle with how much I can change it to fit the genre of the recorded, standardized recipe. While it sometimes feels really cold and scientific, this genre is important because it's an effective way of translating one person's food (a tangible, sensory, experiential thing) into words, and then actions, and then into someone else's experience. But everyone has their own quirky way of doing things, and sometimes these small flourishes don't make it into the final recipe, but they are too beautiful not to note.
There are some things about Masy's lawasha technique that didn't make it into this recipe, but which I'll share in this more narrative form. When she makes the dough, she wets her hands during the kneading to add a little more water when it's looking a little dry. In this recipe, I don't specify the particular way to add water to the dough, since pouring a little at a time will work just fine, but I love this more interactive way of determining how much water to add.
When Masy rolls out the dough, she doesn't just roll the rolling pin back and forth, alternating 90 degrees with each roll; instead, she gradually rotates the rolling pin as she taps one side to the counter, and then the other. It makes a skillful and bright clicking sound as she quickly moves the pin back and forth.
And while you don't need to be able to throw lawasha to stretch it out (a rolling pin will work just fine), this technique makes Masy's lawasha really special. She claims that you just need confidence to be able to pull this off, but she's just being modest, because you really need a combination of confidence and skill. You can see the impeccable technique that Masy has developed since she first started baking lawasha in the photos and video below. Feel free to try this at home if you're interested; it takes a little practice to get the hang of it, but once you do, it makes everything go much quicker. Although, your whole kitchen will be covered in a thin film of flour afterwards (my lens was covered in dust by the end of this photoshoot), but that's part of the fun and spectacle. Now for some gratuitous photos and a video of dough flinging:
Once the dough is stretched out and ready for baking, you then further stretch it out over the back of a lightly greased sheet pan. Masy's idea to use the back of a sheet pan is ingenious because it keeps the dough taut, and so keeps it from forming those really big bubbles.
While it seems like trying to replicate the intense heat of the tannoura would be the best course of action for making lawaha, it's actually a little more complicated than that. I've tried this recipe without using the back of a sheet pan, just placing the rolled out dough directly on a pizza stone in the really hot oven, and it just ends up turning into a giant pocketed pita. I'm not totally sure of the reason for this, but I have a theory: the bread is so thin and cooks so quickly in the tannoura, it most likely starts to set almost immediately, before there is a chance for the little bubbles to join together into one big bubble. But a 500° oven is a far cry from a tannoura, and so a quick burst of heat isn't necessarily the best thing. With the fast, direct heat of the pizza stone, the bread bubbles up before it has a chance to set and crisp. The setting and crisping then happens once it's already bubbled up and you end up with a really monstrous orb that shatters into a million clumsy pieces. But with the sheet pan, the bread has a chance to cook just a little more slowly, allowing it to set before it has a chance to puff.
In this recipe, I added the extra step of docking the dough, or pricking little holes in it with a fork. If you perfectly execute everything else, you don't need to do this step, but for us mere mortals, it's not a bad idea to take the extra precaution.
lawash | lawasha
Yield: 10 big flatbreads
Total time: 3 1/2 hours
Active time: 1 1/2 hours
For the khmira / flourless starter:
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
1/2 cup 118° warm water
1 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons vegetable oil
- Combine the yeast, water, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
- Cover it and let this sit for 30 minutes, until it becomes very foamy.
For the dough:
27 ounces all purpose or bread flour (about 5 cups) , plus more for dusting
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
The khmira (the above yeast and water mixture)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup warm milk, heated to 118° F
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup 118° water (divided in half)
Make the dough:
- While the khmira is proofing, sift together the flour, salt, and sugar into a big mixing bowl.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the bubbly khmira, melted butter, milk, oil, and 1/4 cup of the water. Mix everything together with your hands until it starts to form a sticky ball. If the ball looks a little dry as it's coming together, add 1 tablespoon of the remaining water at a time until it's the right consistency. It should be sticky and soft, but it should form a ball as you knead it in the bowl (don't make it so soft that it starts to turn into a batter instead of a dough).
- Knead the dough in the bowl, wetting your hands with additional water every minute or so if it looks a little dry. Knead by pulling the dough from the sides into the center of the ball and repeating. As you knead dough will start to become more elastic and will form a more cohesive ball. Continue to knead until it smooths out and becomes much less shaggy (about 10 minutes).
- Cover the bowl and then wrap it up in a blanket. Leave the dough to proof for 1 hour in a warm or room temperature place. The dough will more than double in size.
Shape the dough:
- Once it has finished rising, divide into 10 equal chunks on a lightly floured surface. Knead and form each chunk into a smooth ball by folding it in half on itself a few times, and then smoothing the surface while gathering it in at one end until everything smooths out.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough balls rise for another 45 minutes.
- Once the dough balls have finished rising, preheat the oven to 500° F.
- Place the first dough ball on a lightly floured surface and sprinkle a little flour on top. Use a rolling pin to roll it out into a disc with a thickness of about 1/4 inch. At this point, you can either toss the disc back and forth between your forearms, opening it up as you go (see video). Or you could continue to roll it out with the rolling pin. Either way, the dough needs to become very thin (thinner than 1/8 inch). You should be able to see light through it when you hold it up.
Bake the dough:
- Very lightly grease the back of a rimmed baking sheet and place the stretched out dough on top, pulling the corners over the edges to make sure it stays stretched out.
- Dock the dough by poking a few holes in the surface with a fork. This prevents really big air bubbles from developing.
- Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven and close the door. Let it cook for between 2 to 5 minutes (keep a close eye on it), just until the dough starts to slightly brown. It will be crispy, but very slightly pliant straight from the oven, and it will become completely crisp once it cools.
- Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a towel for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Repeat with the remaining dough balls.
- You can break the lawash into shards and serve them crisp, like crackers. This goes great with dips and spreads, like hummus, muhammara, labneh, jajik, banadurah harrah and baba ganoush.
- Alternatively, you can rehydrate it to serve it soft. To rehydrate, evenly sprinkle a sheet of lawasha with a little water (about 1/2 teaspoon per sheet), and cover with a towel for about 10 minutes. Don't use too much water or the lawasha will get soggy, instead of flexible. Soft lawasha can be used for wraps and sandwiches, but it also works great for the above dips and spreads.