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Jachnun: Yemen’s Shabbat Bread, Transformed

Jachnun is a show of human ingenuity — simple ingredients turned into a delicacy that can be served hot on Shabbat, given the limitations of poverty and Jewish religious law. It’s also an immigrant success story, but like many immigrants, it succeeded in its adopted homeland by coming far from its roots — a hearty meal that soared to popularity by transforming itself into a pastry.

For the uninitiated, jachnun is flaky, caramelized rolls of dough, baked for hours at a low temperature in a sealed container and served alongside hard-boiled eggs, grated tomato and spicy, cilantro-heavy skhug. This is traditional Yemenite Shabbat food. Stick it into the oven on a Friday afternoon, and the following day you have a warm, decadent meal that can be served without violating the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat. jachnun is immensely popular in Israel, where Jews of all stripes buy it premade and just do the final baking themselves, eat it as snacks at rest stops and order it around the clock at restaurants.

But most people — even many children of Yemenite immigrants — have no idea that this mainstream staple bears little resemblance to what was eaten in Yemen. Wander through Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter, and most people can’t tell you much about what their parents or grandparents ate, or even whether they had jachnun at all.

“When my parents started talking about the old country, I would stop paying attention,” admits my friend Irit, an accomplished cook specializing in traditional Yemenite dishes.

But ask around enough, and residents will point you toward the few people who can give you an answer. Jachnun and its pan-fried cousin malawach probably originated as variations of Spanish puff pastry, brought to Yemen by Jews expelled from Spain, according to Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking.” Jachnun was mostly prepared in Aden, southern Yemen, where residents pronounced it gachnun, recalls one woman whose parents came from the region. Jewish families in northern Yemen tended to make kubaneh, another kind of slow-cooked Shabbat bread. Her parents told her of Shabbat breads baked under the embers in the family’s outdoor taboun, which gave them a taste like no other.

The original Yemenite jachnun was hearty, made from whole wheat flour and clarified butter, known as samneh, both of which were readily available, she recalled. Kubaneh was sometimes made with animal fat, so that it could be served alongside meat dishes. But in Israel, white flour and margarine are more common, and were substituted in place of the whole wheat and samneh. White sugar was added for good measure.

As a result, modern Israeli jachnun is far more delicate and flaky than the whole wheat original and also far less nutritious, but still incredibly popular. Nowadays, whole wheat and clarified butter are indeed available here, but most people wouldn’t want to eat old-style jachnun, say Yemenite quarter bakers, as they’re accustom to the more modern version.

So whatever happened to the jachnun of old, cooked under embers in outdoor ovens? Few people make jachnun this way anymore; the few who do so are old-timers living in small towns. But like many true delicacies, this one really is for the initiated: The jachnun is for their own consumption; good luck finding it for sale.

Jachnun Makes six jachnun about 14 centimeters in length

Most of the people who eat jachnun don’t make it from scratch, possibly due to the many commercial alternatives, but it is delicious made at home. It is a slow dish to make, and takes a night to bake and once you mix the dough, you let it sit for at least an hour or two, this helps the glutens develop and lets you stretch the dough thinner. Then, you take every individual portion, stretch it into a broad sheet of dough, and wrap it up into a little jachnun roll.

Even if it’s no longer popular, you can indeed use whole wheat flour. This produces sturdier, thicker layers and makes for a heartier meal; whether that’s a good thing is simply a matter of taste. In place of the margarine, you also could go back to the original samneh, which makes for a lovely flavor.

Generally, jachnun is baked in a round oven-safe metal pot with a tight-sealing lid, but I’ve also had fine results baking it in a crockpot. Alternately, if you’re making cholent, you can cover the cholent with tinfoil and bake the jachnun on top — just make sure the jachnun isn’t exposed to liquid from the cholent.

500 grams (3 1/4 cups) white flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
your choice of fat: about 6 tablespoons softened margarine, 4 tablespoons softened clarified butter or 2-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
a few slices of stale bread to line the jachnun pot

1) Knead together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and water to form a slightly sticky dough. You’ll know you have the right consistency if the dough springs back when you poke it. Let the dough sit for at least two hours or ideally, overnight (this makes it much easier to stretch).

2) Knead the dough again, and divide into 6 balls.

3) Smear some of your grease of choice onto your work surface: a large countertop or a clean plastic tablecloth, anywhere you have room to stretch the dough into a 40 centimeter (15 inch) square.

4) Take the first ball of dough. Pressing it with your fingertips, stretch it slowly into a large square, greasing the dough if necessary. Slip your fingers under the edges of the dough, lifting and pulling it outward to stretch it further. Try to repair any tears if they form, but don’t get too worried about them. Ultimately, you should have a 40 centimeter (15 inch) square. You can use a rolling pin, but it’s not recommended as the dough is more likely to tear this way. Smear about 1 tablespoon margarine, 2 teaspoons clarified butter or 1-2 teaspoons oil across the entire surface of the dough, and then fold the dough into thirds, to make a long rectangle. Starting at one of the narrow ends of the rectangle, roll the dough up over itself, pulling slightly as you go to thin it out a bit further, so that you have a tube approximately 14 centimeters (5-6 inches) long. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

5) Arrange the rolled jachnun in your baking pot of choice. Pad the bottom of the pot with some stale bread, this helps absorb excess oil and keeps the bottom jachnun from burning. Wrap each jachnun in a rectangle of parchment paper — which will help you separate them once they’re baked — and arrange in the pot. Put a layer of tinfoil on top of the pot, press it up against the jachnun to seal in moisture, and cover the pot.

6) Start the eggs, too. Either nestle them into the pot with the jachnun (they may distort the shape of the jachnun) or put them in their own oven-proof pot, covered in water. If you want, you can toss a teabag into the pot to help give the eggs the desired brown color. Put the eggs into the oven with the jachnun.

7) Bake at 100-110 degrees Celsius (210-230 degrees Fahrenheit) for 10-12 hours, or at the crock pot’s automatic setting. Use a thermometer to double check that your oven’s temperature is accurate. This is important for baking in general, but it’s particularly important when the baking time is this long and you’re not going to be next to the stove for the entire process. If you get the temperature right, you can leave the jachnun in the oven for extra time without any adverse effects.

Serve jachnun alongside cooked eggs, grated fresh tomato and skhug.

For the condiments:

Eggs (one per person is customary)
A teabag to give the eggs extra color while baking (optional)
Tomatoes (I like one per person, but it’s ultimately a matter of taste)
Skhug (recipe below)

To prepare the tomato:

Grate fresh tomato in order to create a pulp. I like using one tomato per person, but the quantity you need comes down to a matter of taste.

To prepare the skhug:

This recipe comes from my friend Irit, who leaves out the cloves and other spices often found in skhug. I find that this makes the resulting condiment more versatile.

1 hot green pepper about 10-15 centimeters long (4-6 inches), seeds removed
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
pinch cumin
salt to taste

Blend all ingredients together in a food processor. The skhug will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

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