” …WHOPPING 90% HYDRATION…
SPRUNG LIBERATED OUT OF THE FOUNTAIN OF SECRET DOUGHS “
ALTHOUGH extremely rare, there are recipes that seem theoretically impossible at first, but somehow just come smooth-sailing under the first trial. They make recipe-developers feel invincible even just temporarily, like the lighthouse of success glowing just over the foreseeable shore. Handshakes with Batali and cold beers with Tony Bourdain, book-signing with fan-blown hair and the next dinner party, Ina Garten is bringing her cake. These occasions embolden even the blindest of self-confidence. But then, then there’s the opposite of such.
I call them, the kitchen nemesis… or for times, my baby kitchen unicorns. It’s a tormented, twisted love-and-hate relationship, with an adored food-item that hides a secret so beyond your grasps that failures of making it has been haunting you for years… even decades. The recipe of which you have ventured high and low for – with or without the luck of finding any at all – that in the very end, all greatly disappointed, again, and again. A lover, who’s not completely yours.
For the past 2 decades, my nemesis… my baby unicorn… has been but one thing.
A bread with the ultimate combination of chewy, and layers. More specifically, as in the stretchiest, stringy-est, almost translucently tissued unleavened bread with oily separated textures of crispiness and chewiness. Some call it this, some call it that. You’re all just talking about my unicorn.
If this sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because I broadcasted the slay of my kitchen nemesis a few months back… well, that wasn’t true. Don’t get me wrong, the layered scallion flat breads were wonderful. Soft, crispy and flaky with beautiful layers throughout. But see the thing is, layering on its own, if at all, is just the horse-part of the unicorn. The real bitch, as we all know, is the fucking horn.
And when it comes to unleavened breads, that horn my friend, is chewy.
Right, anybody could tell me that it’s about the dough. Of course, as a given, that it’s about the dough. Like any mystical creature experts could describe everything about their subjects, down to its diet and paw sizes, everything except for its actual whereabouts – the recipe of “the dough” has remained ever-so-elusively, as a myth.
Until a few months ago, at the turn of a page inside a local Beijing market, I found its trails.
There are stalls inside the market making fresh Chinese breads, buns and noodles (where I got these from), among which are giant round sheets of common lao-bing (Chinese unleavened bread) piled high behind the shop window. In one innocent and accidental purchase, I was stunned at how closely it resembles the perfect, unleavened bread of my dream. Soft, slightly oily, stretchy and irresistibly chewy with almost translucent tissues that are intricately layered. For the past 6 months… 6 months!, I’ve been stalking… loitering… subtly probing… flat-out harassing the ma’am behind the window, hoping for the formula of my unicorn-dough, with no prevail. Only helpful, but inconclusive clues like “bread flour”… “dough without oil”… and a final, alerted silence.
So finally, I tried a different approach. Last week, I bought myself a hunk of completely raw dough.
I studied the shit out of that dough. I studied it like my college admission depended on it. I studied it from all possible perspectives just to make sure that I didn’t miss any part of the truth, say which can only be revealed if being stared fiercely at a 180º angle within 2″ proximity for over 30 seconds… And those effort did not go wasted. Discoveries were made. For one, the dough was wet. Very, very wet. It was more “lava” than a “dough”, almost formless, and it had an incredibly mesmerising, glossy shine. Like silk. Silky lava. It resembles nothing that any recipes I’ve ever found would ever get me. So un-dough-like that I thought to myself, this has got to be wrong. This glassy glob is somehow going to hold itself together and translate into bread? But I did see, with my own two eyes, that it was yanked straight out of the mother-tub… so be it.
I replicated the dough, eye to eye, by adjusting the moisture level as I went. I knew the dough has to be soft – indicates the use of warm water, but extremely elastic and stretchy – meaning a prolonged and stern kneading. And under a cloud of flickering dust of flour, the final truth – a whopping 90+% ratio of water to flour by weight – sprung liberated out of the fountain of secret doughs! Almost identical, hers and mine, glossy silky and smooth. I could see it moving promisingly through the mist, but does it have goddamn horn? Armed with prediction for failure, I pressed on. I used just enough flour needed to work with this dough, rolled it and brushed it with clarified butter, then curled it up and rolled it out again. With the last blessing of clarified butter on the surface, I sent it into my blazing oven with all my skepticism.
The next following moment I believe, in kitchen history, is called BOOYA!
I don’t have to describe it to you again, because I already did. It was exactly that: stringy, oily, chewy and layered un-yeasted bread, well with the bonus of crispy flakes. 20 years of searching, kitchen unicorn and I, touched. And if you must name my unicorn, I’m calling it “roti” today, purely because of the dip that goes with it. Oh, the dip. The dip that is seriously ass-kicking, a smooth puree of curried cannellini beans swirling in a red sea of cayenne and cumin olive oil. It’s unjust to cast it under the bright lights of my glorious dough-day. After all, what’s a roti without its dip?
Makes: Three 8″ round roti
The ratio between flour and water in this dough, is 1 part flour : 0.9 part water by weight. So that’s a “90% hydration”, sometimes up to 95%, which means 100 grams of flour will need 90 grams ~ 95 grams of water. Very, very wet. The roti-dough absorbs all this water in 2 stages, which somehow increases the amount of water the flour can absorb, and the smoothness/shine of the overall texture. I’ve tried my best to provide the measurement in volume, but it’s highly recommended that you measure by weight. Because of the super-wetness, I’m not sure if this can be done by hand. Perhaps mixing the dough vigorously with the back of a wooden spoon would work.
- Chewy layered roti:
- 300 grams (appox 2 1/3 cup + 1 tsp) of unbleached bread flour
- 4 grams (3/4 tsp) of salt + more for sprinkling later
- 240 grams (1 cup + 1/2 tsp) of warm/hot water, 130ºF/55ºC
- Another 30 grams (2 tbsp) of water
- 113 grams (1 stick/8 tbsp) of clarified butter (here’s how to), warmed
- Semolina or all-purpose flour for dusting
- Curried cannellini bean dip:
- 1 small red onion, finely sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 3 tbsp of tomato paste
- 1 1/2 tsp of curry powder
- 1 tsp of ground cumin
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 can (400 grams) of cannellini beans
- 1/4 cup of plain yogurt
- 1 ~ 2 tsp of potato starch, or cornstarch
- Cayenne spice oil:
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 1 tsp of ground cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp of ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
To make the chewy layered roti: Combine bread flour and salt in a stand-mixer with a dough-hook. Microwave the water (a little bit more than you’ll need just to be safe) on high for 1 min. The water shouldn’t burn your finger, but should be too warm to leave your fingers in comfortably for more than a few sec, around 130ºF/55ºC. Measure 240 grams of this water into the stand-mixer and mix on low first for a couple min. The dough would look “dry” in the very beginning, then extremely wet and sticky once the flour/water are completely blended. Increase to high-speed and beat the dough for another 6 ~ 7 min, scraping down the sides once in between. At the end of which, the dough should be able to pull away from the bowl when machine’s running, but sticks right back once the machine stops.
Now we add the remaining 30 grams/2 tbsp of water. One tbsp first and knead on high for 1 ~ 2 min until the dough pulls away cleanly from the bowl again, then add the next tbsp and repeat. Check the texture of the dough, which should be extremely shiny, smooth and elastic, like lava-silk with small pockets of air within. The dough should run to the side when the bowl’s tilted. Suspend it high in the air, and it should droop down and stretch slowly without breaking. If it breaks/tears easily or seems grainy in texture, it’s too dry. Add another tbsp of water. If it doesn’t pull away cleanly from the mixer-bowl, it’s too wet. Add a couple tbsp of flour. Cover the bowl with plastic-wrap. Let sit for 1 ~ 2 hours (meanwhile make the dip).
Preheat the oven on 450ºF/230ºC, with a pizza-stone or a flat cast-iron skillet on middle-upper rack.
Lightly flour the working surface, then with well-oiled hands, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Lightly flour 1 portion, form into a ball, then gently and slowly roll it out into 1/4″ ~ 1/8″ thick circle (keep the bottom floured or it’ll stick). Brush the top evenly with clarified butter and sprinkle with a bit of salt, then roll it into a log and curl it up like a snail. With the seam/curl-side facing sideway (smooth side up), shape it back into a ball by gently tucking the dough underneath itself with your hands (see pic). Lightly flour the dough again, then gently/slowly roll it out into 1/4″ thick disk (thicker roti will be stringy and chewy, whereas thinner roti will be crispy and flaky). Brush a sheet of parchment with clarified butter and transfer the dough on top. Brush the dough again with clarified butter.
Switch the oven on top-broiler, and move the parchment with the roti on top of the pizza-stone or cast-iron skillet. Bake until golden browned and puffed, approx 5 ~ 6 min. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
To make the curried cannellini dip: Cook sliced red onion, chopped garlic, olive oil, tomato paste, curry powder, ground cumin, salt and black pepper in a pot over medium heat. Once the onion is very soft, drain the canned cannellin very well and add to the mixture. Cook for a couple min more, then transfer the mixture to a blender. Add 1/4 cup of plain yogurt and 1 tsp of potato starch (or cornstarch), then blend until smoothly pureed. Add 1 more tsp of potato starch if the mixture needs to be thickened further. Transfer to a large bowl.
Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil with ground cayenne pepper, ground cumin and black pepper, and let it sizzle for 15 seconds. Swirl the spiced oil into the cannellini puree, and serve with layered roti.