Each April, one Jewish holiday in particular strikes fear through my carbohydrate-sustained heart: Passover. Passover, or Pesach, is the celebration of the Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt. The story of Passover in the Book of Exodus describes the Israelites’ escape under Moses, which was so rushed that they were unable to let their bread rise. It baked to a crisp in the desert sun. In keeping with the story, Jews abstain from eating Chametz, or leavened bread for the eight days of Passover, only consuming Matzoh, a large, (frankly) disgusting cracker which is completely devoid of flavor. Most observant Jews take this even further, by avoiding any foods made with wheat, including pasta- even though pasta is not leavened. You can imagine how difficult it is to avoid bread for eight days when you run a bread blog. To avoid thinking about my week of carb-deprivation, I decided to do a little experiment: I recreated matzoh as it would have been made, accidentally, by the ancient Israelites. Here is my process.
I was skeptical about the accuracy of the bible’s “recipe” from the beginning. For starters, the average daytime high temperature in most parts of Egypt in April are about 95 degrees: this happens to be the ideal temperature for proofing bread. In fact, I heat my oven, with a baking stone inside, to 200 degrees, turn it off, and place my dough inside to rise at a temperature warmer than that of the Egyptian desert. My ancestor’s bread would certainly not have baked in those temperatures. But then I realized, perhaps the bible was written by non-bakers? Maybe the Israelites baked the bread in ovens before it had finished rising. I decided to continue with my research.
In order to bake unleavened ancient Egyptian bread, I first had to learn about ancient Egyptian bread. The ancient Egyptians knew about cultivating yeast to use in bread: their bread was leavened. In fact, historians are unsure which came first to Egypt: bread or beer. There is evidence that the Egyptians used yeast from the brewing process to use in bread, and also that they used the yeast from bread starter to make beer. No matter what, the ancient Egyptians would have used a wild yeast starter in their bread. Perfect! My personal bread specialty is artisan sourdough, which can be seen in this blog’s profile picture. I have a two-year-old sourdough starter fed twice-daily with whole grain flour. Her name is Bianca. Next came the question of flour.
The ancient Egyptians harvested a varietal of wheat called “emmer”. It is very rarely cultivated in the modern age, and I was unable to find any on the market. Fortunately, emmer is nearly identical to “einkorn”, another type of wheat. This can be found in high-end and specialty markets; I bought a brand called Jovial. I have used einkorn in the past to create sourdough bread. It is a very pale yellow color, and has a wonderful floral scent. According to Jovial, einkorn has all the benefits of a whole-wheat flour, but the texture and flavor of refined white flour. I find it to be an exotic flour to use for sourdough.
Now that I had the essential elements of Egyptian bread, I needed to learn how to bake the bread. After getting a simple recipe here: http://www.ahmedhamdyeissa.com/recbread.htm , I researched ancient baking methods. The ancient Egyptians baked their “leavened bread”, really more like pita, in a pear-shaped clay oven nearly identical to the Indian Tandoor. Like Indian naan, Egyptian bread was slapped onto the burning hot walls of the oven for a few moments and removed before falling into the coals. I replicated this baking environment with a 550 degree oven and a baking stone.
I mixed the dough, and let it sit for exactly 18 minutes: this is the maximum amount of time a dough can sit and still be kosher for Passover. I immediately formed the dough into thin rounds, pierced them with a fork (replicating the docking of commercial matzot), and baked them in a blazing hot oven. Here’s what the matzot looked like:
They puffed up like pita and remained somewhat soft, meaning that the dry cracker eaten on Passover is an Ashkenazic Jewish replication of authentic matzoh. Modern day matzot are made with just flour and water: the natural yeast in my version causes a small amount of oven spring. This is all good- I created a delicious and quick bread from the “bread of affliction”. Perhaps my Passover will be bearable after all.