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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Naan, Homemade and Wonderful






Part of my extended family loves rice, with just about anything and everything; part of my family does not. Some of the latter are great lovers of bread. Pita bread, whole wheat bread, bread. So when I was thinking of making a lentil and sweet potato curry, I began to think about naan along with the usual rice accompaniment.

As usual, an online search uncovered hundreds (thousands?) of links for "naan recipe" but I soon discovered these boiled down to two basic mixtures, one leavened with yeast and the other with baking powder and/or soda. Though a few of the spongier versions I have had in Indian restaurants may have been made without yeast, the kind I was thinking of definitely needed yeast as the leavening.

The yeast-raised recipes themselves were not very different, generally pretty basic dough and almost always completely or mostly bread flour. It quickly became clear that what makes naan naan is the baking method. Many of the recipes mentioned that authentic naan really needs the very high heat of a tandoori oven, but there were lots of ways suggested to work around the fact that few of us have that specialty appliance in our home kitchens.

After sifting through the many suggestions, I was ready to give this bread a go, and I am really glad I did. The recipe is really quite easy and doesn't take a lot of actual work time. It would be a good Saturday or Sunday project, because you can start the dough sometime after lunch, set it aside to raise while you do other weekend chores and then come back to it just in time for dinner.

Naan

1 pkg yeast (or 2 1/2 t, if using bulk yeast)
1 c warm water
2 t salt
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c yogurt
4 1/2 c bread flour

1.  Combine the yeast, water, yogurt, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in 2 cups of the flour. Allow to stand 10 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to get frothy and bubbly. Beat in the remaining flour, about a half cup at a time, until the dough forms a firm ball. Cover lightly with a towel and allow to raise until double, about half an hour to an hour, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

2.  Punch the dough down and then pull off balls of dough about the size of a golf ball. Place on a waxed paper-lined breadboard or cookie sheet (without raised edges on at least two sides). Cover again with a towel and allow to raise until double, another 30 minutes or so.

3.  Place a tiny amount of oil in a cast iron skillet or griddle and spread evenly over the bottom. Begin heating the pan on medium high to high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on your stove.

4.  Meanwhile, begin to shape the naans. Take a ball of dough and roll it with a rolling pin into an oblong shape, right on the waxed paper-covered board. Then lift it and use your hands and fingers to pull it until it is quite thin. Try to keep the naan as even in thickness as possible. Flour your fingers as needed to keep the dough from sticking, but avoid getting more flour than necessary on the dough itself.



5.  Place the naan in the pre-heated skillet--it should immediately sizzle to let you know the pan is hot enough. A standard 10 to 12 inch skillet will probably accommodate only two naans at a time. Cover the pan, allow the naan to cook for perhaps a minute or so, and then turn. You should see the characteristic bubbled sections that are a very dark brown, almost charred. The remaining parts of the surface will be only slightly browned.

6.  Return the cover to the pan and cook another minute or two. Remove from the pan and place on a plate.

7.  While the first naans are frying, shape the next two. Repeat step 5 as often as needed to finish cooking all the dough balls. If the pan seems to get too dry, add a tiny amount of oil, spread over the pan, and allow to heat for 30 seconds or so before proceeding.

8.  May be served immediately (nothing is so wonderful as warm from the pan bread!). If storing for later, allow to cool and then keep in a plastic bag for up to several days--although I can't vouch for just how long, since these rarely remain uneaten for more than the first day or two.

Makes about 16 to 18 naans, depending on your definition of golf ball sized dough balls.

Variations:  Many of the sites I looked at suggested adding cumin, minced garlic, or other seasonings to the liquid mixture in step 1.  Any of these could be good additions, but I haven't tried them yet.

After turning the naans in step 5, many of the recipes suggest brushing each with melted butter (or ghee). Most of these recipes then suggest brushing the other side with butter after you remove the naans to the plate to cool. However, the naans that I have had most often are clearly not oiled in any way, so I did not include that step. If you like the idea of having a buttered surface, by all means go ahead and butter away.

A few hints from experience:

This is a place where I think bread flour is almost a necessity. Without it, you may not be able to get the same "springiness" in the final product that you may be accustomed to. As an alternative, you could add up to a quarter of a cup of gluten as a substitute for the same amount of all purpose flour. I have never seen naan in a whole wheat version and am not sure if the same results could be obtained with whole wheat flour. That may be part of my next experiment with these.

Note the instructions for kneading, as this can help with all kinds of yeast breads. Start with the largest bowl you have for mixing the dough. Then you can actually knead the dough right in the bowl, without having to dirty up a countertop or table. This can cut down the perceived "labor" of making homemade bread by an incredible amount. (It's even worth going to a thrift store or scouring garage sales to look for a big plastic or stainless steel bowl just for this purpose!)

I also saved clean up by putting the balls of dough on my largest flat breadboard (a large baking pan without raised edges would also do). I lined the board with waxed paper to keep the naans from sticking, but you could probably just flour the board or baking pan instead. Then, when the dough balls had raised, I could just proceed with the rolling process on the board, set alongside the griddle.

Use a cast iron skillet or uncoated aluminum or steel griddle. Do NOT use any pan with a nonstick coating, as it should be heated to high heat before putting the naans in, and this is exactly how not to use pans with nonstick finishes. (For more on the problem of using nonstick coatings in this kind of recipe, see http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-reviews/cooking-tools/cookware-reviews/nonstick-cookware-safety-facts-3 )


I am blessed to have a gas stove, and the greater responsiveness with this kind of heat probably makes it easier to get these right than on an electric range. The key is to get the pan really hot but then keep the temperature "just right" as you continue to cook the individual naans, something much more easily adjusted with gas.

As noted in the recipe, use only a tiny amount of oil in the pan. I started out with enough to coat the skillet well, but the first ones ended up giving me the impression of yeast-raised pancakes:



While they were good, they weren't naan in the traditional sense. As I continued to make more, and the oil almost completely disappeared, the naan took on the traditional exterior. 








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