This is probably one of our favourite times of year. In Greece, carnival season is ending and Monday marks the beginning of lent for Greek Orthodox Easter (Pascha). Although we live in Canada, and there are no such Carnivals, we do what we can to keep with some of the Greek traditions and customs. Many people have abstained from eating meat this past week and will now continue to abstain from meat, eggs and dairy until Easter Sunday. Whether you are fasting entirely, partially, or not at all, is of course a personal decision. Throughout our lives, for various reasons, we have fasted in the ways which were most appropriate for us at the time. One thing that has always remained constant however is that on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday), we eat lagana.
Lagana is a Greek flatbread, traditionally only eaten on Clean Monday to mark the beginning of the fasting period. Although we are fortunate to live in a city with a strong Greek community, which means that laganes are readily available in Greek markets and bakeries, our parents often make their own. As you will see in the recipe which follows, it is an easy bread to make, and well worth the effort. In fact, it is so easy, and so delicious, we always wondered why it isn’t made more often…like every week!
In Greece, Clean Monday is a National holiday and families usually gather in parks and other green spaces to picnic, celebrate and fly kites! How beautiful! During all the merriment, people traditionally enjoy lagana served with olives, and taramosalata, and other lenten foods. On Clean Monday a knife is not used to cut the lagana since the use of a knife (in the olden days, they were usually made of iron) is felt to introduce bad luck. Instead, the lagana is torn with one’s hands, making this bread not only delicious, but also kind of fun to eat.
Although traditionally lagana was made without the use of yeast, our parents do use it in their recipe. Otherwise, they keep with tradition in shaping their laganes into flat ovals and sprinkling them with sesame seeds before baking.
Be sure that the yeast you have has not expired and is still active. There is nothing worse than starting to bake only to realize that your yeast is no longer able to do what it needs to. When you mix the yeast into the warm water, sugar and some of the flour (as described below in the recipe) you should see some bubbling action after a few minutes. Not much…but just a little, to note that there is something going on.
The water that you will use to help activate the yeast must be warm, but not hot. Our parents do not use a thermometer, and we’re going to go on the assumption that many of you don’t either (we don’t!). The water should be warm enough so that when you put your finger into it, it feels warm, but is not so hot that you can’t tolerate having your finger in it.
The sesame seeds that you add onto the surface of the unbaked lagana sometimes have trouble sticking. Our parents make a mixture of water and cornstarch and brush this onto the top of the lagana before baking. The sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of this wet dough. The cornstarch and water make a sort of glue, helping the sesame seeds stay put. Another way to help secure the sesame is to make indentations with your fingers on the dough before you brush on the water/cornstarch mix and seeds.
This recipe makes 2 laganes. Each one is about 12 inches x 7 inches. Of course, this is not an exact science. Just make sure that the laganes, when shaped and awaiting their second rise, are about 1/2 inch thick.
Mia Kouppa: Lagana
- 4 cups (1000 ml) all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) warm water
- 2 teaspoons (8 ml) active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon (4 ml) salt
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons (15 ml) sesame seeds
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) water
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) cornstarch
- In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup of flour, sugar, water and yeast. Mix well. Allow to sit for approximately 10 minutes.
- Whisk together the salt and the remaining 3 1/2 cups of flour. Add this to the yeast mixture. Using the dough hook attachment of your stand mixer, or your hands, mix all the ingredients well until well combined. Knead the dough for approximately 5 minutes.
- Add the vegetable oil and knead again for about 2 – 3 minutes until the oil has been incorporated into the dough.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and with a clean kitchen towel. Allow to rise in a draft free place for about 4 hours, or until the dough is double in size.
- Punch down the dough and divide it into two balls. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper. Knead each ball separately and shape each one into an elongated oval. The oval should be approximately 1/2 inch thick and 12 inches x 7 inches. We find that the easiest way to create this shape is partially in the air, almost like a pizza maker would make pizza dough in a cartoon! Then, finish shaping the lagana on the baking sheet. Do NOT use a rolling pin; imperfections are perfect here. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise in a draft free place for approximately 30 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Take one lagana at a time and make indentations into its surface using your fingertips. In a small bowl combine 1/2 cup water with the cornstarch and mix well. Brush this on top of each lagana and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds onto each one.
- Bake in middle rack of your oven for 20 – 22 minutes, until the lagana is golden brown.
- Allow to cool, and tear away! Enjoy!