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

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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!
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."

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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").

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.

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.

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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Uri Scheft's Yemeni Kubaneh

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Makes 16 rolls
  • 290 grams (1 1/4 cups) cool room-temperature water
  • 20 grams (2 1/2 tablespoons) fresh yeast or 8 grams (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 500 grams (4 cups) all-purpose flour, sifted, plus extra for shaping
  • 60 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
  • 20 grams (1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon) fine salt
  • 150 grams (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
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