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Lahmajun + Yogurt Drink (Ayran)

I am a huge fan of Turkish food. Have been even since I tried my first doner kabab in Baku, sometime back in the early 90s (boy, was I excited!), when the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and countless donerci shops began to spring up rapidly soon after. Also, ever since I have been blessed with a mother-in-law (she is a recipe addict just like I am) who has ever so kindly handed down to me at  least 8 thick Turkish recipe notebooks she compiled over many years.

Our typical family table features food from both sides. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which comes from where, as some dishes are commonly prepared both in Turkey in Azerbaijan. Albeit many similarities between the cuisines of the two neighboring countries, there are differences as well.

Take, for example, lahmacun, a delectable Turkish flatbread topped with spicy lamb filling (think thin crust pizza), originating in the south-east of Turkey but popular across the country. We don’t make it in Azerbaijan. But thanks to local Turkish restaurants that feature this delicacy on their menu, it is a favorite among the Azerbaijanis, too, including myself. Here, in California, both hubby and I have occasional nostalgic cravings for lahmacun. At times like that,  I often set out to make it myself. Making lahmacun from scratch is not as difficult as it may seem, although I’ll admit, it’s a bit time consuming. But I assure you, the end result is well worth the effort. Although I lack tandir (clay oven where lahmacun is meant to bake) for that authentic taste, my good old oven yields pretty good results too. I serve lahmacun with ayran, a refreshing yogurt drink popular both in Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Here’s the recipe. As they say in Turkey – Afiyet Olsun (bon appetit)!

LAHMAJUN (Lahmacun)
Turkish flatbread topped with spicy lamb

Adapted from The Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook, by Ozcan Ozan.

For the Dough:
1 tablespoon active dry yeast or moist fresh yeast (crumbled)
1 teaspoon sugar
1  3/4 cup warm water
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
2 teaspoons salt

For the Topping:

1/2 pound (225 g) medium-lean lamb, ground twice
1 small onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely diced (1 cup)
3/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 garlic gloves, minced
1 tablespoon Turkish red pepper or ground red pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
salt
about 4 tablespoons cold water

cornmeal, for dusting
butter, to brush

To Serve:
sprigs of parsley
lemon wedges
ayran (recipe follows)

Method:

Prepare the dough. First, make the starter. In a small bowl, mix together the yeast, sugar, and 1/2 cup of the warm water. Stir and dissolve the yeast well. Let the mixture stand in a warm place for about 10 minutes, until it’s frothy. Sift 1 cup of the flour into a large bowl. Add the yeast mixture and stir well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for 30 minutes, until the mixture has the texture of a sponge. Now, finish the dough – Sift the remaining flour onto this mixture. Add the salt and remaining  1 1/4 cups warm water, and stir well.

Turn the dough onto a cool, lightly floured work surface (preferrably marble), and sprinkle it with flour. Dust your fingers with flour so they won’t stick to the dough, and knead the dough for 10 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic and not sticky. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a damp cloth. Let it rest for 1 hour, or until it is doubled in size.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping. Place all the topping ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 450F (230C). If you are using a pizza stone or a quarry tile, put them on the middle rack of the oven. I use a regular rimless baking sheet, turned over. In this case, do not preheat it in the oven.

Dust your fingers with flour. On a cool, lightly floured work surface, turn out the dough once it has risen. Gently punch out the air, roll out the dough into a cylinder and cut it into 8 equal pieces with a sharp knife. Shape each piece into a ball, then press each ball with the heel of your palm to flatten it. Loosely cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let them ret in a warm place for about 20 minutes.

To assemble, flatten each piece of dough with the heel of your palm once again. Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece of dough into a thin 10-inch (25 cm) circle. Sprinkle the back of a baking sheet with some cornmeal and carefully transfer the rolled out circle to it. Or, sprinkle cornmeal over the pizza stone or on your baker’s peel.

Divide the lamb mixture among the rounds of dough, spreading it thinly and leaving a 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) border around the edges. Bake lahmacuns, one by one (or in batches if you have enough room in your oven) until the meat is browned, about 7 minutes each. Remove from the oven and brush the edges with some butter (stick or melted). Garnish with parsley sprigs and lemon wedges. Serve with ayran (recipe follows). To eat, squeeze the lemon onto the lahmacun, fold it over or wrap around parsley springs.

And here’s my recipe for ayran.

AYRAN
4 cups thick plain yogurt
4 cups cold water
salt, to taste

Combine the ingredients and beat well in a blender or with a balloon whisk in a bowl, until the mixture is smooth and the top is frothy. The consistency of ayran should be that of heavy cream, so adjust the amount of yogurt and water accordingly, depending on how thick your yogurt is. Pour ayran into tall glasses and serve immediate. You can also serve it over ice cubes if you want it icy cold.