My father is Algerian; his family emigrated to France when he was a toddler, along with other tens of thousands of their countrymen in search of a better life.
My grandmother’s cooking was said to be excellent, even though food was scarce and she had a lot of mouths to feed with very little money. She sadly passed away shortly before I was born so I never got to try her food, but my father has been quite successful in re-creating some of her dishes. Her recipes revolved around a few North African staples like semolina, which is cheap and nourishing. It is also surprisingly versatile: it can be used to make sweet pastry, or steamed and served as part of “couscous”, or made into bread like here.
Baking, however, is not among my father’s skills set, so he never attempted to make this bread himself. Instead, he would buy it, along with delicious pastries, from the Algerian butcher’s (the butcher’s wife and mother would bake a load of bread and pastries to sell in the shop, usually during religious festivals).
When my aunt offered to show me how to make this bread, I jumped at the chance. I was surprised at how easy it was, and was mesmerised by the transformation of semolina into a smooth dough. This is my aunt’s recipe; every family will have a slightly different version of this bread (some recipes call for part-wheat flour, part-semolina, some omit the seeds) so feel free to experiment and add your own touch!
This bread is at its best on the day it is made, but will keep rather well for 2-3 days if you wrap it tightly in foil. Don’t worry if it seems a bit drier on the second day, because it will then be delicious lightly toasted and served with either cold meats or cheese. It is absolutely sensational with butter and jam, too! Any slightly stale leftovers can be turned into breadcrumbs, to make the crispiest chicken nuggets!
You will need:
750 g semolina flour
1 tsp salt
7 tbsp sunflower oil
250 to 300 ml water
20 g fresh yeast (or 10 g dried yeast)
2 tsp warm milk
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp nigella seeds (aka black onion seeds)
1 egg, beaten, for glazing
In a large bowl, combine the semolina and salt, then add the oil and mix with your hands so the oil is evenly distributed.
Gradually add the water, mixing with your hands, until you have a slightly sticky dough. Turn out onto a large wooden board and knead for a few minutes until the dough starts to feel smoother.
In a small bowl or cup, mix the yeast and milk to a paste.
Add the sesame and nigella seeds to your dough and knead to distribute. With your fingers, create a small hollow in the dough then pour in the yeast and milk mix, and knead for about 10 min, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Shape the dough into a disc 2 to 3 cm thick, then cover with a thick cloth and leave to prove somewhere warm for 1 to 2 h.
Preheat your oven to 220º C/ 200º C fan/ Gas 7. Sprinkle a non-stick baking sheet with semolina.
Gently transfer the risen dough to the baking sheet, and with your thumb create a hole in the centre of the disc, going all the way through. Brush the top with the beaten egg, and bake for about 35 min, or until golden brown on top, and you get a hollow sound when tapping the bottom.