Feeling kneady

‘As I wrote Exit West, I found the language changing as the chapters progressed. The sentences grew longer, became more incantatory, like a magic spell. Like a prayer. Which seemed fitting to me. We write what we most need.’ Mohsin Hamid.

These words are compelling, but I wonder about their simplicity, in the doubtless uber-mediated world of modern-day publishing. Mix in the worlds of ‘blogging’ and then ‘food blogging’ and things get trickier. Since I am the sole mediator of this platform, I can write anything. Do I write what I need? Or what you need? Or what I think you need to know? Are you here because you like me? Or are you high-tailing it to the recipe at the end?

Still, Hamid captures something of the mystical element of creating: the creator bringing its object into being, the object taking on a life of its own in response to the creator’s yearning, a yearning that resides both within and beyond the person of the creator, who struggles with and then concedes to the mystery.


I tap into this mystery when I am making bread. I knead, bearing my body weight down on the dough; it fights back, growing stronger and more agile in response. It demands solitude, hibernating in darkness and warmth; and comes back doubly alive. I knead more; it seems pliant, then springs and bounces under my palm. It rests, and returns a more robust entity: both elastic enough to take shape, and integrated enough to hold itself together. It goes through the fiery furnace and comes out hot, shiny and golden…

Ah, perhaps I am getting carried away. Seriously though, the bad press bread has gotten of late saddens me. Once upon a time we were all happily eating panini; now we are spitting on sandwiches unless they are sourdough. But bread is a fundamental element of most cuisines, the cornerstone of a meal shared in community.

At a friend’s wedding two weeks ago, the vicar gave a lovely eulogy about real love, citing the passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about tree roots becoming entwined, and talking about the idea of companionship. Companion, he reminded us as we greedily guzzled prosecco, comes from the words ‘con pane’, or with bread. Someone we share bread with, that is. We set our prosecco glasses to one side for a moment to break off a bit of the fresh bread he passed around, celebrating our participation in our friends’ vows of enduring companionship.


I was happy on hearing his words that I had opted for a slightly unusual present for this friend’s wedding: a special matrimony edition of a ‘Jerusalem sesame bagel’ (or kaak). Jerusalem bagels are so-called, according to Reem Kassis, author of the newly published and wonderful cookbook The Palestinian Table, because they taste better in Jerusalem than anywhere else. They are not bagels as you might know them, those round, chewy, dense numbers. These ones are oval and covered in sesame seeds, ideally baked in wood-fire ovens until they are golden and crisp to the bite, but light and fluffy inside. In this article Reem Kassis talks about how they have been dubbed Israeli abroad, despite them being a historic and quintessential  element of  the Palestinian (and Levantine) culinary tradition. Even if unintentional, it still demonstrates the pernicious side-effects of ongoing Palestinian ‘statelessness’.


My newly married friend and I were both ‘accompaniers’ in Hebron, Palestine, at different times last year, walking alongside and sharing bread with people living under occupation. I don’t know if my friend, like me and my team, often stopped by the breadsellers at the market in the morning, after accompanying children to school. There we hungrily bought fresh bagels, often offered with boiled eggs, za’atar and sumac. A simple but royal breakfast.

I hope, in any case, that my friend and her new husband enjoyed their wedding breakfast bagels, a yeasted homage to enduring love.


Jerusalem Sesame Bagels 

This is Reem Kassis’ recipe for Jerusalem sesame bagels. Some of the other recipes I’ve seen use sugar rather than grape molasses, so maybe the latter is the secret Jerusalem ingredient.

For the pastry

500 grams of all purpose flour

2 tbsp sugar

2 tsp salt

350 ml whole milk, warm

1 tbsp dry, fast-action yeast

1 tsp baking powder

Olive oil

For the sesame coating

150g hulled sesame seeds

1-2 tbsp grape molasses


Put all the dough ingredients except the olive oil in a bowl and knead until smooth and pliable. If the mixture appears stiff, add more milk. Rub with oil, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel or clingfilm and put in a dark, warm area until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

To prepare the sesame coating combine the sesame seeds and grape molasses with 1 tbsp of water in a wide, shallow dish or bowl. Add more water as necessary until you have a wet mixture that is neither too sticky and thick that it clumps up, nor too thin. Basically you want to something that will stick when you coat the uncooked dough.

Once the dough has risen, gently punch down to release the air bubbles. Divide into 6 equal-sized portions and place on a lightly floured work surface. Roll and stretch each piece into a log about 20-30cm long, then attach the ends together to form a circle. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C/Gas mark 8. Take each dough ring, dip into the sesame mixture until coated all over in sesame seeds, and gently roll and stretch the ring until you have a long oval shape like a stretchy ‘O’. Set aside on a baking sheet to rest a final time, about 10 minutes.

Place the baking sheet(s) into the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a deep golden colour and cooked through. Set on a wire rack to cool.

Most delicious eaten warm with za’atar, labneh, or just about anything you fancy.

Your author, she writes what she kneads.



6 thoughts on “Feeling kneady

  1. What can I say. You are really getting better at this. Seriously, excellent piece of writing. You should keep this up.


    On 17 November 2017 at 23:50, The Tabbouleh Diaries wrote:

    > alexiaH posted: “‘As I wrote Exit West, I found the language changing as > the chapters progressed. The sentences grew longer, became more > incantatory, like a magic spell. Like a prayer. Which seemed fitting to me. > We write what we most need.’ Mohsin Hamid. These words are” >


  2. you write beautifully and crisply.I I liked reading “We write what we most need.’ Mohsin Hamid.. When I finish writing a meditation talk I realise that, more than anyone else, it’s me that needs to hear what I’ve written. Keep writing…and kneading


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s