Learn the science behind:
Take some flour, water and salt and you’ve got the basis of so many different breads. What about Indian chapati or a whole wheat bread? Add some fat and you can make paratha, add some yogurt for pita and the opportunities just keep going. Once you’ve made a variety of breads you’ll notice the similarities, even though they might look so different initially.
In this post we’ll be exploring a Moroccan/Arabic style flatbread and will see how it has similarities to croissants (really!), pie crust (it’s true) and paratha.
What is msemen/rghaif?
First of all, apologies if any of the names of this flatbread aren’t spelled correctly. As is the case with many of these flatbreads, not everyone will call this flatbread a msemen, some might call it rghaif whereas others again call it something completely different. This is a fascinating natural process that happens to just about every food. Each family, region or otherwise group of people will change a recipe, tweak it, improve it and adjust it. So, if you know this bread by another name, leave a comment at the bottom of the post!
That said, this msemen is a layered, flaky flatbread, made of flour, water, salt and, most importantly: oil. The flatbread is pretty thin, slightly crispy, and pretty east and fast to make (find the recipe at the bottom of this post!). In some cases the flatbread will be filled with vegetables and herbs, to eat as a snack or part of a meal. In other cases, it’s just plain flatbread, eaten with plenty other dishes and dips, as shown on the photo at the top of this post.
Making the dough
Making msemen consists of two main steps. In the first step you make a dough from flour, water and salt (see recipe below). It’s a pretty wet and flexible dough and will form the basis of your flatbread.
Fom a science perspective, you want to optimize two different processes. The first is to develop gluten. By kneading this dough you’re helping to make a gluten network. This will make the dough flexible and will allow to dough to hold onto air better and be kneadable. Proper kneading of the dough will help you make a better gluten network. By resting the dough after kneading you then allow the gluten to relax and reorganize. Letting your dough rest before the next and final step, will make it a lot easier to roll out the dough into thin sheets.
Besides developing gluten, another process occurs: the hydration of starch. Flour contains quite a lot of starch. Starch will absorb water, but this takes some time. If you leave a dough to rest for a while this process will continue and make a smoother, slightly sturdier dough.
In the next step of making msemen you’ll be adding plenty oil. It is very important to not add this oil into the dough at this stage yet. The dough will interfer with making a smooth dough and will prevent the gluten network from forming properly. As a result, it won’t be as stretchy and smooth.
Once you’ve created the smooth, pretty soft dough, it’s time to transform it into a unique flaky flatbread. This is where the oil comes in. A msemen flatbread has a layered structure, a bit like croissants or even a flaky pie crust and you create this structure in a very similar way as well. As you might remember, you create a flaky croissant by folding in layers of butter. In the case of a pie crust, you knead in fats into the dough. In this flatbread, you use oil to create these layers, a bit like paratha. Fats and oils will not interact with a dough like water does. Instead, the fat forms layers in between the dough, keeping these layers separate.
In this step you will roll out the dough very thinly, subsequently you will spread a layer of oil over the dough and fold it up. By folding the dough with the oil in between you get all these layers inside the bread. When making the bread, these layers will stay quite separate! During baking, the starch cooks, the gluten denatures and ‘fixes’ its network permanently. Also, it gets a nice brown layer, thanks to the Maillard reaction.