A new chapter

It’s a new year and I am back in London after my sabbatical walkabout, but still with both the Middle East, and food, on my mind. After Lebanon I went on to Palestine and Israel as an Ecumenical Accompanier, and spent three months providing protection by presence to communities living under occupation in Hebron. The experience moved me to revive this blog with more of a focus: first, a focus on food; second, a focus on Palestine. For the next year I am going to try to make 50 Palestinian recipes to highlight the 50 years that that Palestine has been under Israeli occupation. 50 years is also significant because it is the year of Jubilee, a year when according the Christian and Jewish scriptures, we are called to forgive debts and free the oppressed. With this in mind, I decided on the perhaps slightly corny tag of #50feaststofreedom.


A poppy in Hebron: the poppy is said to be the unofficial flower of Palestine

My first recipe experiment of Za’atar pastry rolls comes from the Guardian Cook supplement, where Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla has a three-week residency. I was excited to try this bake because I love Za’atar and I love kneading, and I somehow thought it would be a miracle if I could make such beautiful-looking spiraled rolls. Za’atar is a popular and delicious Middle Eastern spice; I was first introduced to it (like I was to many more exotic ingredients) through one of my favourite cookbooks: Jerusalem, by Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli chefs Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It is a mix of a type of dried wild thyme or oregano (the actual za’atar), sesame seeds, salt, and sometimes sumac, another Middle Eastern spice that will get its due respect on another blog.


Cucumbers and cabbages on sale in Hebron

During my time as an Ecumenical Accompanier, we would walk every day through the market in the Palestinian part of Hebron in order to reach the old city, which is still under Israeli military occupation. The market is, in my opinion, one of the best food markets in the West Bank. It was hard to stay on course to our ‘checkpoint duties’ – ensuring children were able to get to school safely and people were able to get to the mosque without more than the usual hassles -, without being distracted by the beautiful fruit, vegetables and spices on display.

The shop I probably visited the most was one with dozens of spices and nuts – two of my absolute favourite things – in tubs outside, and a sales boy whose smile would warm the cockles of any discouraged heart. After several visits, he would ask ‘lawz?’ (almonds) or ‘za’atar?’ before I could open my mouth. The shop sold at least three types of za’atar; you could catch the divine scent of za’atar ‘baladieh’ (homemade or, literally, from the village) for miles around.




Anyway, to the recipe.

Uncharacteristically, I approached this recipe in a very methodical way. Usually one to pummel my way through cupboards with pastry-covered hands searching for a baking dish, this time I began by calmly laying out all my ingredients and equipment on the table. I even got a measuring tape out to ensure my Za’atar rolls were really 2cm deep. This made for a pleasantly painless cooking experience, and one I would like to repeat. The only hitch was realizing we had committed the kitchen sin of running out of olive oil, but luckily I had 25 minutes of pastry rising time in which to redeem this.



The perfect 2cm bun

The recipe was easy to follow and went well. I was grateful that Joudie had advised that it would need from 800 to 1kg of flour, depending on the weather, as sometimes I panic when I need to veer away from the instructed quantities. The only fault I could find was that one 33×22 cm baking tray was definitely not enough; the recipe made more than 20 rolls and these still only just squeezed into two trays of that size.



Za’atar rolls fresh from the oven

Although not as beautiful as Joudie’s own, my rolls still looked very pretty. I served them to some old friends with a brunch of cheese, yoghurt, cucumber and pomegranate seeds, trying to recall a Palestinian or Lebanese breakfast. They tasted delicious, although a little dry, and I wonder whether the za’atar mix needed more olive oil. They are also definitely best served warm, straight out of the oven, so if you have a small crowd, you could reduce the quantity by half. But just for the joy of making such pretty rolls I would do it all over again.

Joudie Kalla’s Za’atar buns 

Makes about 20

For the dough

800g plain flour

25g caster sugar

2 tsp salt

21g (3 sachets) easy bake yeast or 45g fresh yeast

100g butter

400ml milk, warmed

2 eggs

To fill and finish

150ml olive oil

175g za’atar

1 egg, beaten

50g sesame seeds


1 Line the bottom and sides of a roasting tin or large brownie tin, preferably around 33cm x 22cm in size, with baking parchment (make that 2!). Then preheat the oven to 210C/410F/gas mark 6½.

2 Combine the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Melt the butter and whisk it into the milk and eggs, then stir this into the flour mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the dough either by hand or using the dough hook of a food mixer until it’s smooth and springy. If you feel it is too wet, simply add a little more flour: sometimes it ranges up to 1kg flour, dependent on the weather.

3 Form the dough into a ball, put in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave it to rise for about 25 minutes.

4 Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface, aiming to get a rectangle of roughly 50 x 25cm.

5 Mix the oil and za’atar in a small bowl, then spread this evenly over the dough.

6 Roll it up from one of the longer sides until you have a giant sausage. Cut the roll into 2cm slices – this should make about 20 rounds. Sit the rounds in lines in the tin, making sure the swirly cut-side is up. Don’t worry if they don’t fit snugly together as they will swell and become fluffy when they prove and bake.

7 Brush the rolls with egg, sprinkle the sesame seeds all over and let them rise again for another 15 minutes to really get that volume in them.

8 Bake for 20-25 minutes, by which time the buns will have risen and turned golden brown. Don’t worry if they catch in places. Remove them from the tin and leave them to cool slightly. Serve with tomatoes, labneh and feta cheese.

4 thoughts on “A new chapter

  1. Being one of the ‘old friends’ (old as in long time, right?!), I can testify that these were delicious. And actually I didn’t think them too dry AND they were just as delicious that afternoon. Thank you Tabbouleh D. I’ll be looking for some za’atar in Sainos xx


  2. Olá Alexia linda, Ainda bem que voltaste à escrita! 🙂 Recomeço as andanças já dia 15. Talvez nos posssamos ver antes? Se não, depois volto lá para finais de Março. Votos de dias bons, um abraço, R 🙂 xx

    Sent from my iPhone


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