Traveling for an extended period in a foreign country has its advantages, not the least of which is having time to make side trips to remote villages. Saraguro, Ecuador, was one such village, where I could have spent ages wandering through the artisan shops and along the dusty mountainside. Luckily, I was passing through on a Sunday, when the mercado is swollen to its fullest. The indigenous women of the region wear their most splendid dress on this day, with colorful beaded jewelry, long skirts, black-and-white wide-brimmed hats, and stoic smiles for inquisitive gringas. The men have their own uniform of black capri-style pants, a white shirt with a black vest and poncho, and a long, sleek ponytail dangling from beneath a bowler hat.
The stalls of the mercado were grouped by similar vendors, partitioned off from other kinds. The meats were separate from the fish, which were separate from the vegetables, grains, various exotic fruits, and so on. Up the hill and off to the side was a little enclave of women and their children making flatbreads over hot coals. I watched as they stuffed what seemed like a coarse whole-grain, unleavened dough with queso fresco, the cheese that is ubiquitous in Ecuador. Curious, I tried a warm sample. Its surprisingly sweet and nutty barley flavor was strong, and it was obviously made from freshly ground flour. I had never tasted barley this fresh and alive; it made all the difference in the flavor of this bread.
Returning home, the memory of that experience lingered, and it has been difficult to replicate it. Here is my best attempt using the freshest milled barley possible. An even more pleasing result is to sprout the barley first before grinding into flour, a process that extracts the natural sweetness of the grain. If you can’t source queso fresco, a strong feta or goat cheese can be substituted, but even a melty cheese will be delicious.
Note: This recipe from Sourdough contains ingredients measured by weight, which requires a kitchen scale. To measure ingredients by weight, place an empty container on a digital kitchen scale. Hit the “on/clear” or “tare” button on the scale to reset it, and then add the ingredient you’re measuring to the container. The number displayed on the scale is the weight. Makes four 6-inch flatbreads.
Saraguro Cheese Sourdough Flatbread Recipe
For the Dough:
• 250 g barley flour
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 5 g salt
• 40 g cold unsalted butter
• 105 g buttermilk
• 20g strong honey (buckwheat, locust or chestnut work well)
For the Stuffing:
• 80 g queso fresco, crumbled
1. In a large bowl or food processor, whisk together or pulse to combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut or pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse, pea-sized crumbs. Add the buttermilk, honey, and starter and pulse or stir until the dough comes together. Remove from the bowl and gently knead on the counter a few times to gain an even consistency.
2. Divide the dough into four equal balls and create a well in each. Stuff with 1 to 1½ tablespoons of cheese and seal. Place onto a lightly floured surface and roll to coat. With the palm of your hand, begin pressing a ball into a flat round. Once the dough has become thin enough to see the cheese, pick it up and pinch continuously with your hands, rotating the circle parallel to your torso. As you work, the weight of the dough will help stretch it until it reaches about a 6-inch diameter. Set aside and cover with plastic. Continue shaping the others while the first ones are cooking.
3. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook one round at a time until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with more strong honey or top with beans, a fried egg, and salsa for a hearty brunch.
Check out Sourdough Culture for more great recipes.
From Sourdough, by Sarah Owens © 2015 by Sarah Owens. Photographs © 2015 by Ngoc Minh Ngo. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com