I lived in Italy for a year during my early 20s. There was nothing like a true Neopolitan style pizza, with a chewy texture and a bubbling crust. Toppings were always light–basil here and there, a few slices of mozzarella, tomato sauce delicately spread, which preserves the integrity of the dough. Palestinian mana’eesh is essentially the same, and predates the pizza by at least a couple millenia. These flat breads are native to the Eastern Meditteranean and come with a variety of toppings like za’atar, cheese, or tomato and pepper sauce. Getting the right texture is, like all breads, the key to success. Make your laden with glistening olive oil and heavy with za’atar, because this is not Italian pizza and personally, I have never done anything in moderation. We’ve tried several recipes with varying results for getting an authentic looking and tasting mana’eesh. This recipe is based on the one from Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery, but modified in several important ways, including the exclusive use of bread flour.
3 1/2 cups good quality bread flour, such as King Arthur
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
For the topping:
1/2 cup za’atar
1/4 cup olive oil
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Whisk together.
Proof the yeast in a small bowl. Mix the yeast and sugar together, then add 1/4 cup of warm water, and stir to combine. The yeast mixture should froth and bubble after about 10 minutes.
Add the yeast mixture and the tablespoon of oil to the flour mixture. You can mix the dough by hand, which is my preference, or use a counter top electric mixer. Pour in the remaining cup of warm water, and mix ingredients until combined by kneading together. The dough should integrate nicely, and become smooth and slightly sticky, forming into a ball as you knead.
Lightly oil a bowl and place the dough inside. Cover the bowl either with a damp kitchen towel or with plastic wrap to lock in moisture, then place in warm area to let it rise. It should double in size in approx 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch down the dough and remove it from the bowl, separating it into 4-6 evenly sized balls of dough. Place balls on a tray and again cover with damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Allow them to rise for another 20-30 minutes.
While the dough is rising a second time, preheat the oven to 400F. For the best results, preheat with either a pizza stone or an overturned baking tray in the bottom of the oven. You will place the mana’eesh on either the stone or the tray when you bake.
In a small bowl, combine the za’atar and the oil, stirring well. Set aside.
Roll out the balls of dough onto a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin (also flour the rolling pin and the pizza peel, if using one). Roll out each dough ball, rotating it as you roll. This will give you a circle shape. When the dough is 1/4 inch thick, press your fingers into the dough to indent it, stopping 1/2 inch before the crust, which you want to bubble and therefore should not press it down.
Evenly spread 3 teaspoons of the za’atar mixture on the dough using the back of the spoon or your fingertips. Leave a ½ -inch rim around the edge. Slide the pizza peel under the dough. Then using both hands slide the dough onto the floured peel. Slide the dough off the peel and then onto the baking stone or overturned pan. Bake for 7-10 minutes. It’s great fun to turn on the oven light and watch the dough bubble!
When the bread is golden brown at the edges, remove from the oven to a baking rack and cool for a few minutes. The za’atar topping may seem oily when it’s still hot but it will dry and taste just right. Repeat the process with each of the 4-6 balls of dough.
Top the mana’eesh with feta or halloumi cheese, fresh cucumber and tomato, or anything that strikes your fancy. I have known people to fry an egg over-easy and put one on top of the mana’eesh.