Semit – Kouloúri

These round, sesame-studded bread rings would be my breakfast of choice any day. In some parts of the world they are known as semit (also spelled simit). Semit is derived from an Arabic word for fine white flour – the same root as the word semolina. Claudia Roden in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food nostalgically describes them as an urban street food from her childhood in Egypt – sold by hawkers from large baskets or threaded on long poles. Roden certainly understands the powerful connection between memory and food, as similar reminiscences are woven throughout her book.

Just as strong as Roden’s childhood memory are mine from long ago of early morning sellers in Athens brandishing poles threaded with fresh, warm, fragrant sesame-studded bread rounds. More recently, they were impossible to escape in Thessaloniki where there seemed to be vendors’ carts at nearly every street corner, all selling a slightly thinner, crispier version than their southern cousins.

koulouria1

However, in Greece, these delicious sesame bread rings go by the name kouloúri (plural kouloúria), although a number of Greek cookbooks also acknowledge the term simíti (plural simítia). Kouloúri is from the Byzantine Greek word, κολλύριον, the name for a small round bread roll. Etymologically the name has interesting links to medicine, specifically in the field of ophthalmology – as an eye compress (a collyrium), originally a soft round bread soaked in a medicinal lotion. For more information, the Sweet Almond Tree blog has an interesting article on kouloúri. It would seem, given the antiquity of both names, sesame bread rings have been around at least from Byzantine and later Ottoman times – right up to the present day.

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Semit – Kouloúria
This is one of my contributions to the blogging cookbook club, The Cookbook Guru who are testing recipes from Roden’s book this month. I’ve deviated somewhat from her recipe in the seed coating – both in the application method and the additions to the sesame seeds. I’ve also reduced the size of the kouloúri so that it can be more easily handled.

Makes 8

  • 3 cups strong bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried yeast
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 egg + 2 Tablespoons water
  • sesame seeds
  • selection of crushed coriander seeds, nigella or cumin seeds

Make your bread dough by combining the flour, salt, yeast, 1 cup of water and oil in a mixer with a dough hook. Process on low speed until the flour has absorbed all the water. It may need more water, depending on the flour. Turn the speed up and mechanically knead the dough. The dough should wrap around the hook and lift from. the bottom of the bowl.

Remove the dough from the mixer and place in an oiled bowl. Turn the dough so that it is completely coated in oil. Cover with clingfilm and set in a warm place for an hour or two while the dough rises.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Prepare enough baking trays to hold 8 bread rings by covering them with baking parchment. Punch down the dough and place it on a flour dusted board. Cut into eight equal pieces. Roll each of the eight pieces into 18 to 20 inch long ropes.

koulouria_prep1

Wet the ends with a little water and attach them together, forming a ring approximately 6 inches in diameter, and pinch to seal.

koulouria_prep2

Place them on the baking parchment covered trays, cover with a clean tea towel and let them sit for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, beat the egg and water together in a wide shallow bowl. In another bowl, place your sesame seeds and any other seeds (one or more) you may want. Carefully lift the bread rings and lay it in the egg wash. Using a pastry brush or carefully turning over, coat the top.

koulouria_prep3

Take it out of the egg and lay it in the bowl of seeds, making sure to coat all over. I did this in batches, making two of the eight kouloúri plain sesame, two sesame and nigella, two sesame and coriander and two sesame and cumin. Roden simply applies an egg wash to the tops of the breads and sprinkles on sesame seeds. The kouloúria and semit I am familiar with are covered all over in seeds.

koulouria_prep4

Place the bread rings back on the baking trays and place in the preheated oven. After 5 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees F. for another 15 to 20 minutes. The bread should be golden and hollow when tapped. Cool on a rack – if you can resist the smell of warm bread and aromatic seeds.

koulouria_feature

Notes & Evaluation:
Roden’s recipe for semit is a basic one, listing “ordinary bread dough” as her main ingredient. My bread dough varies little from the many other recipes I have found for either semit or kouloúria. Regional differences are known, but particularly in the size of the ring and the texture of the bread. I also have run across mention of the traditional use of “molasses” to adhere the seeds to the dough instead of an egg wash. The “molasses” referred to is almost certainly pekmezi, a concentrated grape must syrup – the standard “molasses” of the region. In some recipes, poppy seeds replace the sesame. In fact, this is what tempted me to add other seeds – nigella, cumin, crushed coriander – to the basic sesame. Nigella seeds are often called “black sesame” in Greece and are frequently paired with sesame seeds in baking. The cumin and coriander seeds are ingredients in dukkah (do’a), a spice mix Roden mentions was often eaten with the bread. In addition to reminiscences, Roden stresses the superstitious and religious feelings attached to bread in Middle Eastern cultures. She states: “To some it is, more than any other food, a direct gift from God.” Indeed, a meal would not be complete without bread on the table.

24 April 2014
 
Update on Semit – Kouloúri
 
In making a second batch of semit, I used pekmezi (grape must syrup or “molasses”) to coat the bread rings and adhere the seeds. When baked, it added to the flavour somewhat, but remained a slight bit sticky. It also did not produce a shiny crust like the egg wash did. Given the difficulty in acquiring pekmezi (I make my own – a long and laborious process!), I think I will stick(!) with the egg wash process.
 
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34 comments

  1. Wow! You’ve cooked one of my favourite foods from my trip to Athens. I was obsessed by these babies but didn’t know what they were called. Now that I know I have the recipe in my hot little hands they’ll be going on the baking list! Thank you for another great contribution to the cookbook guru.

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    • Claudia Roden is great! What do you think of her Book on Italian Food? I don’t have it, but am considering it. And, do contact Leah at The Cookbook Guru. I believe next month’s book is Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management – a historical one, and oh, so very English!

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      • I don’t have that book… Maybe cos being italian i’m more curious to discover foreign recipes… But as I saw on all her books, Claudia Roden digs into every foreign cuisine, the recipes are detailed, filled with history… So I’m sure that also Food of Italy is trustworthy …and when a book i seublished after 30 years it really must be a good book! 🙂
        I have the kindle ebook of mrs beeton …i’ll start looking for some recipes to try! 🙂

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    • The best was the coriander, but the others worked as well. Though, might put less cumin seeds in with the mix next time as they are quite strong. They were so good that I just made a second batch!

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  2. I have vivid memory of the simit vendors in Instanbul, baskets piled high, calling “simit, simit”. Great post Deb, I just love the way you put food into social context. My copy of Roden’s Book of Italian Food is very well used. The cultural aspect is not as detailed as her Middle Eastern book, but wonderful usable recipes

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    • I think I’ll stop dithering and order my copy of Roden’s book on Italian Food. My husband just presented me with an anniversary gift of her book of Spanish Food and has threatened to bookmark what recipes he wants me to cook. Amazing what we soak up when visiting foreign places – especially if we’re attuned to food! In Athens the yell kouloúia!

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  3. I remember these from my trip to Greece. They became a morning treat while walking around. It never occurred to me to try and locate a recipe for them. “Every thing comes to he who waits.” That was easy. 🙂
    Thank you for sharing the recipe and for the lesson on its origins. These things fascinate me.

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    • These little cultural and historical insights fascinate me, too. My second batch was made yesterday and I unearthed a small jar of grape must syrup (pekmezi) from the back of the cupboard to coat the seeds to the bread. It adds to the flavor, but makes the final result a tad bit sticky! I think I’ll stick(!) with the egg wash.

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    • They may be related. I do know that these are sometimes referred to as “Turkish bagels”. The ones I know of in Greece are much larger in diameter than the ones I made, so aren’t really bagel-like. I reduced the size in order to have a better handle on them before they were baked. Putting things into cultural/historical context is almost second nature to me. It’s also fun!

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  4. Reblogged this on The Cookbook Guru and commented:
    In my excitement and joy at seeing this post from Debi I almost forgot to share it with you all. I first spied these delicious sesame breads in Athens and seeing this post brang all the memories back of just how good they were. If you love bread and you love sesame seeds then you have to check out this beautiful recipe that has been shared by Debi at The Kitchen Witch. Another Roden gem.
    Leah

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  5. Hi Debi, I was thinking of making these, now I don’t have to! In Lebanon men walk the streets pushing a trolley and selling semits which are hung from a wooden pole – a lovely image.

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    • No reason you can’t make them, too! With your fantastic bread making skills, I bet they’ll be delicious. I wonder what they would be like using a sourdough starter? I remember in Athens (too) many years ago that kouloúri sellers would walk around busy squares brandishing long poles threaded with them- that in one hand and poles with lottery tickets fluttering like little flags in the other hand. I was a young student at the time and soaked up the atmosphere like a sponge!

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    • Yes, Rhodes and Corfu do count, but they both have histories that differ from other parts of Greece. Corfu was part of the Ionian Island complex that had little Ottoman presence (more Venetian) and after the Napoleonic Wars was actually British up until 1864. That’s why they still play cricket on the island. Rhodes, as one of the Dodecanese, was under Italian control up to WWII even though it is quite close to The Turkish coast. So…I’m sure this is reflected to a certain extent in the local cuisines. And, I suspect semit/kouloúria are more urban phenomena. Sorry! Got carried away with a mini history lesson!

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  6. I’ve almost lost this post… I’m sorry! they look great! I have just some problems to spell the name correctly… do you mind if I call them “round breads”??? thanks for the recipe and for the cute story!

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    • I have a grape vine growing on the fence between us and a neighbor – mainly to provide a green screen for privacy. I was actually surprised when it produced tiny grapes, but they were too sour to eat. So, I simply juiced them and boiled it down until I got a small jar of syrup. It wasn’t much of a bother except to keep an eye on the liquid as it reduced. Otherwise, the grapes would have rotted on the vine and I hate to see waste. Admittedly my pekmezi is not as sweet as the stuff you get in Greece or Turkey, but still useable. Anyone with a vine can do it!

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