Wherever you are, some will want to ask questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude! Muslim, Jew or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men’s minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart. Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.
-Amin Maalouf, Leo Africanus
Leo Africanus (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) was an author and diplomat who was born in Islamic Spain, raised in Fez, and worked everywhere from the Papal Court in Rome to Cairo to Constantinople to Timbuktu. Amin Maalouf wrote a fictionalized version of his life that’s one of my favorite books – breathtaking in scope and adroit in style. It paints a picture of a kind of proto-“multicultural” Mediterranean universe that’s hard to imagine in today’s world, which is so full of dichotomies.
But I digress…the point of this entry is that Leo Africanus was the inspiration for a bread dough that could work as an Italian pizza crust or focaccia as well as a Moroccan flatbread or pita. I’ve been working on it a while now and this is what I’ve come up with…
Leo Africanus Dough
Yields two rounds of focaccia, two large pizzas, or a dozen pieces of pita bread
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup corn flour
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
Proof the yeast by mixing it with the sugar and water (which should be hot enough to stick a finger in for 10 seconds – no more, no less) and let it foam for about 10 minutes.
In a mixing bowl, add all the other ingredients and create a crater in the center. Pour the yeast mixture in the middle and stir to combine, from the inside out, at first with a wooden spoon and then with your hands. Knead for several minutes.
Cover the dough with olive oil and let it rise in a draft-free place for 1 hour.
After an hour, punch the dough down and let it rise another hour.
Shape the dough as you wish and bake it at 400˚F – baking time will vary based on what you’re making. If you’re making pita bread, you can just bake it in a nonstick pan. It also works well as a pizza dough (especially if you’re a fan of thin and crispy pizza).
To make a focaccia-type bread, divide the risen dough in two and place each half in an aluminum pie tin, flattening it out evenly with your fingers till it takes up the entire thing. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, sea salt, and fresh herbs (like thyme and rosemary), pressing the toppings into the dough with your fingers. Bake for 20 minutes and drizzle with olive oil before serving.
Any version of bread made with this dough is best eaten the day it’s baked!