Lately, I’ve been experimenting more with baking breads, which has taught me a thing or two about using yeast and allowed me to draw several parallels about yeast and life -- mainly that both are unpredictable and come with zero guarantees.
The first time I made the recipe below, it came out fantastic. Each piece had risen to perfection as it sizzled and browned on the cast iron grill. I sprinkled them with a hint of garlic powder, which smelled so good I could hardly wait to grab one, break it in half, watch the steam rise up from the center, and take a bite. The texture was pillowy soft, yet hearty and satisfying. I wanted to eat the whole batch.
A few weeks later, I tried to make naan again, this time with Active Dry yeast because I was out of the Instant Rapid-Rise yeast I had used before. I had a feeling something was awry even before I began -- when I tried proofing the yeast in warm water and it never got frothy. If you’ve never worked with yeast before, proofing it is an important first step, yet it has to be done correctly. The water needs to be just the right temperature; not too hot because it can scald the yeast and kill it, and not too cold because it won’t activate properly.
In hindsight, the water temperature may have been where I went wrong, or it was the yeast itself. I had just bought it at Whole Foods only a few weeks prior, but who knows how long they had it on the shelf for. Another important characteristic to note about yeast is that it most definitely has a shelf life.
Whatever the case may be, I decided to forge ahead anyway and hope the yeast would start to activate once I added the rest of the ingredients and waited several hours for it to rise.
And this is the part where husbands are incredibly awesome because they earnestly eat all your failed food attempts and tell you they are great even when you both know they could be better. Paul swears the large amounts of garlic powder I doused them in made up for the hockey puck-like texture (my words, not his). But I knew the yeast had failed me and it was frustrating because I had no idea why.
I began experimenting with water temperatures, rising time, kneading, different brands and types of yeast. What I have found is that Instant Rapid Rise yeast does what it is supposed to do about 99 percent of the time. Active Dry yeast, on the other hand, is obnoxiously fickle and high maintenance. It’s like a moody feline that only wants to be pet when it’s in the mood. Instant Rapid Rise yeast is more like a dog -- loyal and eager to please. Most grocery stores don’t carry it, however, but I’m happy to report that Smart & Final always has Instant yeast, both in individual packets and in bulk. But don’t buy it in bulk unless you plan on baking bread for the entire neighborhood because as I mentioned, it does have a shelf life, and once it is opened, you need to use it quickly, or put it in the freezer.
But enough with all this talk of technique -- let’s bake some naan already! And once you do, note that you can slice it lengthwise and stuff it with all sorts of goodies like a sandwich. My favorite filling as of late is salami, Swiss cheese, and mixed greens dressed in balsamic. For a vegetarian option, try roasting eggplants and red peppers in the oven. Drizzle them in olive oil, salt and pepper, then lay them out on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. They taste amazing in a sandwich with avocado, your favorite cheese, and pickled onions.
Lastly, if you choose not to sprinkle garlic powder on the outside of the naan, it can easily work as a quick breakfast topped with jam and washed down with a steaming cup of tea or coffee.
(adapted from the recipe on Half Baked Harvest)
1/4 cup hot tap water
1 Tbsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. Instant Rapid Rise Yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup milk (warmed in microwave, but NOT to the point of boiling or scalding)
1 cup Greek yogurt
garlic powder (optional for sprinkling on top)
Let the tap water run until it feels really hot and is steaming. Measure out 1/4 cup of it and pour it into a small glass bowl or measuring cup. Add the sugar and stir until it melts. Next, add the yeast and stir until it dissolves, then let it sit for 10 minutes, or until the mixture begins to froth and rise.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda until well combined.
In a separate bowl, or preferably, the bowl of a Kitchen Aid mixer, combine the warm milk and yogurt, then pour in the yeast mixture using a wooden spoon to blend it all together.
Next, add the flour mixture and use the dough hook (if using a Kitchen Aid) on medium speed for 6 minutes. (Otherwise, knead on a floured surface for 6 minutes). Remove dough and place it in a well- oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. At this point, you can either let it slow rise in the refrigerator overnight, or let it sit out at room temperature for 1 hour.
Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and divide it into 8 equal parts, rolling each into a ball. Place the balls of dough onto a cookie sheet, cover again with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for another 30 minutes. Once they have doubled in size, they are ready to bake. At that point, you will need to take each ball of dough and stretch it out into a long oval shape, about 6-8 inches long, and 1/4 inch thick.
Get out a cast iron skillet and either spray it with cooking spray, or use melted butter or oil to grease it. Cook as many pieces of naan as you can fit in the pan at one time on medium/high heat for about 4 minutes per side. You may need to play around with the cooking time, as all stove tops work differently. Treat them as you would pancakes, checking periodically to see if they are browning enough on each side and still cooking fully throughout the middle.
Sprinkle each side with garlic powder, if you wish.