Before I got married I gave my husband plenty of warnings about my inexperience in the kitchen. I even amused him with a story or two about my catastrophic cooking attempts in college. He wasn't deterred. Somehow, he believed that I would rise to the occasion and cook away. And just to make sure, he happily bought me my first cookbook: Aromas of Aleppo, a collection of Jewish Syrian recipes. Coincidentally, those are the foods he grew up with. He hoped the book would bring me to producing weekly platters of kibbeh and laham bajine, instead I clung to the more approachable recipes like Green Beans in Garlic and Tomato, or Chicken and Potatoes. Kibbeh is an art I left to Syrian women busying themselves in their Brooklyn kitchen.
As for laham bajine, the round mini meat-filled pizzas, I tried making them once for my father-in-law, the first time we had him over for a meal. He took a bite and the unintentional look he had on his face reassured me that it was my first and final attempt. I decided that my husband will just have to enjoy this dish when he visits his aunt Esther in Israel.
This famed aunt Esther is the star cook in my husband's Turkish-Syrian family. She makes the traditional foods just like her mother used to make, and lovingly toils over every laborious step, keeping things authentic. A far cry from my cooking style of simple and convenient. Naturally, I was intimidated and never bothered asking for her recipe.
And then, this past summer, we made our way into her home and my husband re-experienced the aromatic scent of her cooking. It captivated his nostrils and he looked at me with sincerity and asked me to get the recipe for laham bajine. He was ready to beg, I could sense by the droop of his eyebrows. I couldn't not agree, that would have been an obvious marital faux pas. And like a devoted wife, I asked dear aunt Esther how she made her signature dish. With great alacrity and real Israeli informality, she told me how she makes these little meat pizzas. And all I could say afterwards is: that is so easy! What I was so fearful of turned out to be something I could easily do.
Back in my LA kitchen, I surprised my husband with these for Shabbat. When he took the first bite and I held my breath in anticipation to his reaction, he smiled big. They got a passing grade.
I will note that this recipe is not the traditional Syrian way of making laham bajine, however this is the way my husband's family loves it. This recipe features meat mixed with tomato paste, luscious caramelized onions, a touch of lemon juice for an unexpected tanginess, and a mix of spices that brings it all together. The crust is a simple flour, yeast, and water mixture; the perfect canvas to let the flavors of the meat shine.
This is a wonderful appetizer or light main dish. It keeps well in the fridge and stores well in the freezer.
1lb of ground beef (I use ground turkey, instead)
1 5oz. can of tomato paste
2 onions, diced
juice from half a lemon
1 heaping tablespoon of Pereg's Schwarma Spice (or make your own by mixing some paprika, cumin, salt, garlic, allspice, turmeric, and coriander)
1 tablespoon of salt
1/2 a tablespoon of black pepper
1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon
4 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of yeast
1/4 cup of warm water plus 1 cup of water
2 tablespoons of oil (I used grapeseed oil)
Parsley (for garnish)
1. Dissolve the yeast in the water and let sit until bubbles form. Combine the flour and salt, and mix in the dissolved yeast. Gradually add the 1 cup of warm water and knead until a soft dough is formed. Cover and let rise until it doubles in form, about 1 hour.
2. In a saute pan, heat one tablespoon of oil and add 1 diced onion, letting it caramelize. Set aside to cool.
3. For the meat filling: combine the meat, tomato paste, onions, lemon juice, spices, black pepper, cinnamon. Mix well.
4. Preheat oven to 350F. Once the dough is ready, punch it down and knead it slightly. Divide it into 4 pieces and carefully roll it out on a floured surface until it is as thin as possible. Using a round cookie cutter, cut dough into small rounds and transfer onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.
5. Top with a generous amount of the meat mixture and bake uncovered for 15-20 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. If you like the crust crunchier, bake at 375 until deeply golden.
6. Remove from the over and let it cool. Garnish with parsley and serve.
*Talking about cookbooks, I've gotten quite a few in the mail. Expect the next few posts to highlight my favorite treats from the latest cookbooks.