I arrived Monday braced for defeat. It makes the week start with much more than a groan of wishful dreaming for that far off Friday.
Our star ingredient this week was spinach. I was ready for false convulsions to the floor (they’ve happened). Ready for tantrums, or refusals of our first rule of the kitchen (try everything). I was ready for threats of dropping the class. Ready for a student to distract me with a sudden and mysterious pain in the foot and she can’t possibly take a bite with so much personal pain in the world. (That was a kindergartener during week one. I told her the only solution was removal of the foot and the pain disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived. She’s been a hardy eater ever since.) I was ready for anything my students could throw at me. So I tried to cushion the blow.
I entered with an arsenal of distractions. We would add plump juicy raisins to our fatayer. Not traditional, but I figure grapes grow in the Middle East, so it’s a possibility. Plus, what kid doesn’t love raisins? (Turns out I have 3 in my class.) I would explain fatayer as our special filling wrapped in a blanket of pizza dough. Our secret ingredient for the week, sumac, would actually go inside our dish. Our class would be filled with science experiments. What? Did you say pizza?I know from experience every student loves making dough (they also love eating it, but that’s a separate issue). It must be programmed in our primordial senses to get lost in the perfume of yeast and the comfortable warmth of bread baking. And, yes, it smells like pizza baking. But aside from pizza, I know from experience, every student loves a good yeasty tale:
“Our yeast is asleep right now.” I explain. “He is hibernating, like a bear, and we need to wake him up. Like a bear, he needs to warm up to wake up, and when he wakes up, he’s hungry.”
“Yeast is alive!?”
“We’re going to eat him?!”
“Will he feel anything?”
“Let me eat some now!”
Some of my students sample some dry yeast. I call a few to the sink for warm water. Smartly, a student questions if we can use “fire water” to speed the wake up process. “No, no. Fire water will kill the yeast. He just needs a warm bath.”
We feed our yeast the warm water and honey and we wait. We talk about yeast eating sugar. The yeast is so hungry, he’s eating up the sugar quickly and what happens…? He burps. Woah.
“Can we hear him?”
“I think I can hear him!”
“Where’s his mouth?”
We watch as the yeast blooms to the top. My students go frantic trying to hear burping. I talk a little about holes in bread, bread rising and what it all means about yeast, but everyone is fixated on the burping yeast. So we jump into our next step of forming a dough ball. And no, he will not eat your hands.
Our filling will be a tougher sell. There is a giant bowl of spinach looming in our future. We pour salt over it and dip our hands in, crunching the leaves between our fingers before setting it aside. Quick to ignore that terribly delicious spinach, we get busy mixing other ingredients. We pass around sumac to smell (some adventurous eaters taste, declaring it to be salted raisins). We measure out lemon juice, “Can we drink the rest?” We measure out raisins– Or what is left of raisins after nearly the entire pile is snacked out. We measure onions and mix everything together. And now for the spinach.
I cringe waiting for the protests, but they never arrive.
My students are totally fascinated and distracted by the fact that what was once an enormous bowl of fluffy spinach is now pathetically wilted in a sea of luminous bog water at the bottom of the bowl.
“What happened?” There is a hint of sadness in the voice that asks. We pass around the bowl of neon salt water. To my surprise, there are requests to drink it.
“It’s spinach juice.” (Very salty spinach juice.)
So we talk about dehydration and salt-sucking-water. We are happily expelling the remaining water between our fingers before adding the spinach to the bowl that I am positive we have forgotten we are working with spinach.
We roll out balls of dough. We add some filling. We wrap them up making sure to crimp all edges closed– don’t let anyone see that surprise present or it is no surprise. We bake our fatayer. The room is soon filled with that loving fragrance of baking dough. The kids get restless, especially when they are pulled out, too hot to sample. They’re pecking at the fatayer trying not to burn themselves, too excited to let it rest. While sucking in cool air, it is declared (by the one that can speak because he has taken a break from blowing, pecking and chewing),
“This is the best thing we have ever made.”
3/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
4 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1-1/2 cups white flour
1 pound spinach
1 tablespoon salt (Yes, that’s a lot! We use it to wilt the spinach, it doesn’t end in our dish.)
3/4 cup (1 medium) chopped onion
1/2 cup raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sumac
Make the Dough: Dissolve honey and yeast in a bowl with the warm water. Set aside 5 minutes until the yeast begins to surface and bloom. Add olive oil and flours to the bowl and use hands to mix and fold the dough to form a ball, kneading for 5 minutes until elastic. Divide dough into golf ball-sized pieces. Cover with a damp cloth while preparing the filling. (NOTE: Alternatively purchase pre-made pizza dough.)
Make the Filling: Add the salt to the spinach. Use your hands to rub and crush the salt into the spinach leaves, wilting the spinach. When the spinach appears thoroughly wilted, set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together onions, raisins, lemon juice, olive oil and sumac. Working in small handfuls, squeeze as much water out of the spinach as possible, then add to the onion-raisin mixture. Stir to combine filling.
Assemble: Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Roll out a ball of dough on a lightly oiled surface to form a circle. Add a spoonful of filling to the center of the dough. Fold in half and pinch edges to seal. Continue with remaining dough and filling. Advanced and traditional fold (second grade and up were able to complete this fold): Take two “edges” of the circle and crimp in the center. Pull the bottom edge up to meet the two edges, forming a Y-shaped crimp and triangular fatayer.
Brush tops of fatayer with a light coating of milk or egg wash and bake about 15 minutes, until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.