From a herby za'atar bread to golden haloumi-filled cheese pies and much more, discover the versatile dough that will fill your kitchen with the smells of a Middle Eastern bakery.
By
Kylie Walker

5 Aug 2021 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2021 - 11:58 AM

--- Watch A Middle East Feast 8.00pm Thursdays on SBS Food (see the bread and pastry episode on August 5), or stream it free via SBS On Demand. For recipes, articles and more head to the program page here. ---

 

As anyone who has wondered past a Middle Eastern bakery knows, the aroma of freshly baked za’atar manouche is magical.

And it’s just as good when you rip into one of the thin, golden discs of dough covered in rich, savoury herb and seed mix. Is it better than the joy of a haloumi-filled cheese pie? That’s a debate that, happily, doesn’t need an answer, because you can have both. And even better, you can make both at home, plus a sweet date pastry too, all with the same dough. And then there’s the cheese pie toastie (we’ll get back to that in a minute!).

This joy comes to us from Haikal Raji, co-owner of Melbourne’s much-loved A1 Lebanese bakery, a family-run business that’s been supplying locals with flatbreads and pastries, along with Middle Eastern groceries, since it opened in Brunswick in 1992.

A1 Bakery is the Lebanese heart of Melbourne's Brunswick
There are few places in Melbourne as beloved as this family-run bakery dishing za'atar pizza, shanklish pies and falafel.

Raji shares the versatile dough, and how to use it to make za’atar breads, cheese pies and a sweet date pastry in A Middle East Feast with Shane Delia.

 

“I wanted it to be simple and versatile,” he says, so that those cooking at home didn’t have to make two separate doughs to create savoury and sweet pastries – and to make that work, the dough has a special ingredient.

“Nutmeg gives it a little bit of a sweeter taste,” he explains when SBS Food talks to him about how to make the most of this versatile dough.

“Traditionally you don't use that sort of dough [the kind used for za’atar and savoury pies] to make the date bread. But I wanted to do something where you can make the za’atar and cheese pies, but with your leftover dough, you can put in a bit of date paste and make something sweet out of it as well.

“We were messing around a lot at home with that dough mix. And we made like a normal traditional pizza as well, it was great. I tried everything, you know, so that it’s versatile.”

Raji has been learning how to make za’atar bread and cheese pies in the family bakery since he was a child, from both his father and from the bakers who’ve worked there over the years.

“I used to start spend a lot of time in the kitchen, with our bakers. Growing up, it was either ‘come help on the floor or go help in the kitchen’.

“I remember I used to dress up in an apron at like, eight, and stand around and pretend to be helpful. I used to have my own little apron, and go in there, and press dough, and just see what's going on.”

These days, he mainly works front of house. “We've got really, really good staff, and experienced bakers inside, so I don't need to be in there, we leave it to the professionals, but it's also good for us to know what's going on. If you’re ever short-staffed you can jump in there and help out. So that's why it was always important for us to learn everything.”

Delia is one of the many devoted A1 customers.

“On a Sunday morning, you'll find me down there on Sydney Road in Brunswick, scoffing down a spinach and cheese pie bursting with soft haloumi, sipping a coffee and catching up with the locals,” he says in A Middle East Feast, before Raji cooks up his za’atar, pies and date breads.

First up are the breads. Whether you call it a za’atar manouche, a herb pizza or, as Raji does, simply a za’atar, these thin discs of dough are sublime. (Za’atar is also the name of the blend of dried herbs and spices spread over the top before baking).

“Some people like it nice and soft, some people like it crispy. It just depends on the kind of texture that you prefer,” he says in the show.

So, which do you like, we ask him?

“It depends how you're feeling. Some days when it's cold, you just want something nice and soft, especially if you're wrapping it with vegetables. It's nicer to wrap with a soft nice soft wrap … but then some days you just want a little bit of crispiness, so you toast it a bit more. So, I'm very on the fence! Sometimes I like a really soft one, some days I like a really really crispy.”

The cheese pie is even more versatile. “The good thing with the cheese pie is you can pretty much stuff it with anything. So, some days I might make one with some tomatoes and some olives, and then chuck it into the oven and then it comes out like a nice cheese pie toastie,” he says.

Customise away
A1 Bakery's cheese pie

Homemade hand pies filled with shredded haloumi cheese, baked and served warm for a delicious snack or party canape.

A1 Bakery's za'atar manouche

These flatbreads really bring together the best of Middle Eastern cooking, with a hint of sweetness from the honey and an aromatic array of spices like sumac, oregano and nutmeg.

And while Delia loves a golden cheese and spinach pie, it sounds like the smell of a za’atar might just edge the herby flatbreads ahead if Raji had to pick a favourite.

“As a kid, it was always cheese for me, but also za'atar, there's nothing like it. I just love the smell of fresh za’atar coming out of the oven. I think that's what gets everyone when they first come into A1. They're always like 'oh what's that?' It's always the zaatar. So, I'd have to say fresh za’atar coming out of the oven.”

Most of us can’t head to A1 – but thanks to Raji’s versatile dough, you can fill your kitchen with the unbeatable smell and tastes of Middle Eastern pastries. Try the dough with or without nutmeg. Change up the toppings on a flatbread. Fill a cheese pie with “a handful of halloumi cheese goodness,” as Raji puts it in the show, or try something completely different.

Sweeten the deal
Date bread

Pretty rings of homemade pastry filled with juicy dates, honey and orange blossom water, brushed with a tangy sugar syrup.

As Delia says in a Middle East Feast (where he also shares his own recipe for chicken shawarma with puffed pita), “For me, nothing says Middle Eastern hospitality like freshly baked pastries and I think we've shown today that making breads and pastries at home is nothing to be scared of. Keep it simple, give your dough time to prove, make sure your oven is nice and high and like Hake says, "Once you've nailed a good dough, the rest is easy."

More to enjoy
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Chicken shawarma with puffed pita and pickled onion salad

Fit for a feast, pull together these juicy chicken kebabs, homemade pita breads and fresh salad with a pomegranate molasses dressing and gather the clan.

A1 Bakery's cheese pie

Homemade hand pies filled with shredded haloumi cheese, baked and served warm for a delicious snack or party canape.

Date bread

Pretty rings of homemade pastry filled with juicy dates, honey and orange blossom water, brushed with a tangy sugar syrup.

A1 Bakery's za'atar manouche

These flatbreads really bring together the best of Middle Eastern cooking, with a hint of sweetness from the honey and an aromatic array of spices like sumac, oregano and nutmeg.

Episode guide | A Middle East Feast with Shane Delia
Award-winning chef Shane Delia hosts A Middle East Feast, drawing upon a multitude of cultural influences to recreate Middle Eastern food traditions.