31 Jul 2013
When we were in Istanbul, Eric and I became simit-dependent. Simits are toothsome bagel-shaped breads, usually topped with sesame seeds. Our favorite variety, a sweet and yeasty take on the original, is called açma. These hearty breads are sold all over the city for 1 Turkish lira, and boy howdy, will they fill you up. It’s a whole meal for 50 cents. I had despaired of ever having them again (Except! It appears that there is a Greek variant called koulouri! Katy, can you confirm or deny?), but then Eric found a few recipes here and there online, and I became determined to try!
So much of our experience in Istanbul is tied up in this bread. On our first morning, we woke up at 5am in a jet-lagged delirium and ate a quick breakfast at home. We didn’t venture out into the city until 10am or so, at which point we were getting really hungry (and getting really lost). The Golden Horn sparkled in the sun, a mirage at the end of a winding cobbled street, and, glory of glories, a simit stand was right in front of it. We got one of both kinds, and I exclaimed with wonder as I bit into my açma, “It tastes like curry!”
The secret seemed to lie in those mysterious black seeds–I had never seen them before. After a lot of googling (“Hey, what are those black seeds on Turkish breads?”), I discovered the answer. These precious gems go by a number of names: nigella seeds, black caraway seeds, and black cumin seeds. They pack the most delicious punch: a deeply savory curry flavor laced with a hint of lemon. They are completely amazing, and I was thrilled to find them at our trusty Armenian market here in town. Now I had the proper tools to recreate all our perfect breakfasts and afternoon snacks (we actually took several of them on the plane home with us, so loath were we to part with them).
Now, about how to make these beauties. I used to be really intimidated by yeasted breads until about a month ago. It’s crazy how something can seem so beyond reach until you just decide that you are going to do it. The dough for the açma is really similar to the dough for the pide I made recently. The only remotely complex part is that you have to let the yeast sit in warm water for five minutes before you mix the flour in. Otherwise, mix and let sit. Nothing too hard. It feels like a whole new world has been opened up to me (challah, I am coming for you!), and I feel like such a champ when I think of all the things that used to sound totally impossible to me, but that now I make all the time (to be fair: this list includes everything except grilled cheese and spinach lasagna).
This dough is also very forgiving, as I can report with full authority. I set it out to rise before we went to Griffith Observatory on Saturday, and then I completely forgot about it until 10pm or so. No harm done! Just a little zealous dough ready to be rolled out.
The wonderful thing about shaping these breads is that you just dip your hands in a bit of oil beforehand, and then the whole process is smooth and easy.
When all your little pretties are shaped, you coat them in egg yolk and sprinkle nigella seeds like precious black rain over them (I am obsessed. I admit it. This is one life-changing spice right here).
They bake up beautifully and make your whole house smell like yeasty goodness. I think I lightly overbaked this batch, but that’s okay because I am sure another batch will soon be on its heels.
It’s wonderful to be able to recreate a little bit of our trip here at home. Every bite takes me back to cobbled streets and tiny glasses of perfect tea.
Açma: Turkish Bagels
Recipe adapted from I Love Turkish Cooking
Makes about 15
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 1/2 tbsp dry baking yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil, plus more for shaping dough (I used canola oil)
1 egg (separate yolk from the white)
1 tsp salt
5 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp black cumin seeds (or as many as your little fingers can sprinkle!)
-Pour warm water into a large bowl (the bowl of your stand mixer, if you are using one). Add the sugar and yeast and stir it with a wooden spoon for just 5-6 seconds. Wait for about 5-6 minutes. During this time the yeast will grow.
-Add the milk, egg white, 2/3 cup of oil and salt, and mix them in.
-Add in the flour slowly, one cup at a time, and mix with your stand mixer or hand-held mixer until the flour is completely incorporated.
-Cover the bowl and let rise until the dough rises and doubles in volume (several hours).
-Heat the oven to 400F and grease your pans, or line with parchment paper.
-Pour several tablespoons of oil onto a large plate and dip your hands into it before working with the dough. Take one handful of dough at a time, about the size of your fist, and stretch it into a long cylinder. Then twist this cylindrical dough and wrap it around your hand until the two sides are joined together. Place the rounds on the pan.
-Mix the egg yolk with 1 tbsp oil and brush the breads with this mixture. Be generous! Sprinkle black cumin seeds on top and bake them for 10-20 minutes. Start checking them for doneness after 10 minutes; they may be finished by 12-15 minutes. When the tops become brownish take them out of the oven and let them cool.