Middle Eastern

If You Only Bake One Thing This Year, Let It Be This

December 30, 2016

Despite how many recipes I love and adore, there are surprisingly few instances of a food so exciting—in technique, ingredients, taste, texture, and/or gosh-darn appearance—that I won't shut up about it, despite the requests of everyone around me.

Imagine receiving this loaf as a present from a neighbor. Just imagine! Photo by James Ransom

Such was the case with kubaneh, which meets all marks from technique to appearance. (I mean, just look at the thing.) Traditionally baked overnight so that Jews would not have to bake on Shabbat, kubaneh is a Yemeni bread that Adeena Sussman aptly described as the "three-way love child of brioche, monkey bread and a Pillsbury crescent roll."

I tried it at the Israeli restaurant Timna in the East Village last winter (it comes to the table ballooning out of a flower pot), but it wasn't until the publication of Breaking Breads, the cookbook from Uri Scheft, baker and co-owner of Breads Bakery in New York and Lehamim Bakery in Israel, that I dared to make it myself (and then, to talk about it like a broken record).

Kubaneh is sometimes shaped like monkey bread (and I suspect that's how they do it at Timna), but, for more fun, the dough can also be contorted into a loaf of bread that looks like a seat cushion in a Dr. Seuss book (or a woman's hair-do in "The Simpsons").

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You'll shape the dough twice: First, to divide the mass into eight balls; then, to turn each of those eight balls into two of the sixteen total whirly-swirly rolls.

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Top Comment:
“There is no better word to describe the process, now having lubed the dough with me own hands and a whole lotta buttah. Holy cow. Try this! It is time consuming, and time well-spent! But it is not hard or frustrating!”
— Louise T.
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To do that takes a bit of actual massaging. You smear a work surface with a tablespoon of very soft butter, then plop another tablespoon atop one ball of the dough. Then, you use your fingers to gently flatten, spread, and push that ball until it becomes a sheer 12- to 13-inch square.

The three-way love child of brioche, monkey bread and a Pillsbury crescent roll.
Adeena Sussman

How can one tiny knob of dough grow into a sheet so large, so thin? This question comes from the same place as: How can pantyhose stretch to cover legs? And, in reverse, how can so much spinach cook down to an amount fit for a mouse?

In this case, the answer is butter. The softened butter serves to lubricate (I fought for a better verb here, but that's just exactly what it does) the dough, creating a slick sheen that allows clumsy fingers to slide across its surface, nearly frictionless, without creating tears.

It's at this point that, if you're crazy enough, you might think of all the ways you could use the butter-fold-roll step to take the kubaneh in a slightly different direction:

  • You could use compound butter (herby or cheesy) in place of the standard unsalted butter...
  • Or sprinkle over spices (paprika, salt, freshly ground black pepper), spice mixes (like za'atar or dukkah), or sugar (flavored—cinnamon, lavender, lemon, vanilla—or plain).

Once you've coaxed the ball into the square, you fold it into thirds (left side over, right side over), then roll that rectangle into a tight little jelly roll. You slice the roll in half, revealing the curlicue insides, then place the two halves, cut side up, in the pan. Since you're essentially laminating each ball, encasing a layer of butter as you fold and roll, the result is a collection of twelve flakey and fluffy rolls, each of which has a crisp top edge.

@sarahjampel made these possible yesterday. #hero

A photo posted by James Ransom (@jamesransom_nyc) on

After repeating this process seven more times (yes, that's a lot of butter), you let the shaped kubaneh proof for another 40 minutes or so before baking it. You can go the quick route—bake it in a hot oven for a little less than an hour—or you can steady yourself for an overnight wait, baking the bread in a covered pot for for 4 1/2 hours at 225° F.

You can invert the kubaneh onto the serving platter for a slightly less alien-looking centerpiece (see above), but I sort of like its wrinkles—the Shar Pei of bread, no?

You might just find that you're rushing to proof another loaf before you finish the first.

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8 Comments

notoriousBiC May 4, 2017
Where can I find fresh yeast? (Strings of giggles and jokes ensue...)
 
Linda P. April 23, 2017
Love to know if you can adapt this for gluten-free.
 
Juliebell March 19, 2017
This is gorgeous! Louise thanks for your encouraging comment. I can't wait to try this.
 
Louise T. January 5, 2017
First of all...I waited to make this amazing looking loaf until a time I thought I would have the lowest possible frustration-index. Because, after all, something this beautiful was going to be frustrating. It was NOT. Second, I winced when you said "lubricate"..I was wrong. There is no better word to describe the process, now having lubed the dough with me own hands and a whole lotta buttah. Holy cow. Try this! It is time consuming, and time well-spent! But it is not hard or frustrating!
 
sydney January 3, 2017
I'm tempted to try it because it's so incredibly gorgeous. I've seen a lot of stunning food in photos, but this takes the cake :-) in terms of architectural design and fun.
 
Blanka V. December 30, 2016
I love the article as much as the idea and pics. Thanks for delighting me. Is there any hope of a video demo for visual learners (me!) ? :)
 
Blanka V. December 30, 2016
Actually, just re-read it and it's very clear. Trying tomorrow...
 
Alexandra S. December 30, 2016
Unbelievably stunning!! Love this, Sarah.