Julie Taboulie’s Khebez Arabi: How to bake warm, fluffy Lebanese pocket bread

With the debut of her first cookbook, we invited Julie Ann Sageer, host of the Emmy-nominated PBS show Cooking with Julie Taboulie, to share one of her family’s favorite breads. Her recipe for Mediterranean Khebez Arabi transforms a versatile yeasted dough into a light and airy pocket bread. We’ll let Julie take it from here. — Edit.

In Lebanese cuisine and culture, bread is considered “the breath of life.” For centuries, my culture has been making, baking, and sharing bread with family, friends, and neighbors – for bread is believed to be the body, a symbol of peace that brings people together and around the table. Thankfully for me, my maternal grandmother and my mother are master bakers, and have passed along authentic recipes like Khebez Arabi, which I am now gratefully able to share with you.

My new cookbook, Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen, includes a chapter dedicated to the traditions of making and baking bread the Lebanese way. Today, I am offering two of the most important and introductory recipes.

The first is ajin, my all-purpose yeasted bread dough. I would consider this the “mother recipe” in my repertoire, upon which many of my other recipes are built: from my savory dough pies and pastries to my succulent stuffed turnovers and delectable dumplings.

The other recipe that I am sharing with you is Khebez Arabi, my thin pocket bread. After you have made a beautiful batch of ajin, I’ll show you how to transform it into large dough rounds, and then bake it into puffy pocket bread that you can boast about!

Ready, set, and get ready to bake the Lebanese way.

Julie Taboulie’s Khebez Arabi via @kingarthurflour

Preparing the ajin

When I think of ajin, which means “dough” in Arabic, I immediately think of my mother. Since I was a little girl, I grew up to the sights and smells of this heavenly dough surrounding me while my mother would be baking away.

Every Sunday for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen my Mama making this dough in the biggest stainless steel mixing bowl you can imagine. In one sitting, she’ll make up to fifteen pounds of ajin for use in all of our family’s favorite bread dishes, like Manoush (breakfast dough pies), Fatayer (triangular stuffed spinach and meat pies), and, of course, Khebez Arabi (Arabic pocket bread). There are just so many wonderful things you can make with ajin, and lucky for you, I’ve got a lot of ideas!

Let’s get started. Gather your ingredients:

1 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
5 cups (21 1/4 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 to 2 teaspoons fine (not coarse-grain) sea salt*
1 3/4 cups (14 ounces) lukewarm water, divided; bottled spring water preferred
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (1 ounce) extra-virgin olive oil

*Editor’s note: Why the large range in salt? Julie’s original recipe calls for 1 teaspoon salt; but Americans tend to like saltier foods, and 2 teaspoons salt produces bread that’s more in line with American tastes.

In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, 1 teaspoon of the flour, and 1/4 cup of the lukewarm water. Mix thoroughly and set aside at room temperature to rise for about 5 to 10 minutes. Once the yeast begins to foam and small bubbles form on the surface, it’s ready.

While waiting for the yeast to foam, place the remaining 5 cups of flour into a large mixing bowl and add the salt. Working in a circular motion, thoroughly mix in the salt with your fingers.

Make a deep hole in the center of the flour and add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining 1 1/2 cups of water, and the yeast mixture. Mix everything loosely together with your hands, starting from the outside of the bowl and working your way into the center.

Julie Taboulie’s Khebez Arabi via @kingarthurflour

Knead the dough by punching and rolling into it with your fists, then flipping the dough over and repeating the process. The dough should be moist but not too sticky. If it’s too dry, add more lukewarm water by the teaspoon; if too wet, add a bit more flour by the teaspoon. Once the dough is soft and bounces back when you press a finger into it, it’s ready.

Pour the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil into the bottom of a large bowl, and roll the dough in the oil until it’s completely coated.

The temperature of your kitchen is an important factor in this recipe. If it’s colder, it will take longer for the dough to rise; if warmer, it’ll take less time. The rising time can vary between 1 and 2 1/2 hours.

If you’re using the dough within about 2 1/2 hours: Securely seal the bowl with plastic wrap, leaving plenty of space at the top for the dough to rise. Cover with a large clean kitchen towel. When the dough has doubled in volume, it’s ready to use.

If you’re not using the dough within 2 1/2 hours, but within a couple of days: Cut the dough in half, place each piece in a roomy plastic bag, and refrigerate. When you’re ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to rest at room temperature for 1 hour before using.

Julie Taboulie via @kingarthurflour

Shaping the Khebez Arabi

Khebez, which means “bread” in Arabic, is an irreplaceable part of Lebanese cuisine and culture. It’s so important to our rich culinary heritage that if you accidentally drop some on the floor, you must immediately pick it up and kiss it to let God know how highly you regard it.

The Lebanese version of pita bread, khebez, often replaces utensils — who needs a fork, knife, or spoon when you can scoop up spreads, salads, stews, and meat dishes with warm, fluffy pocket bread? To enjoy Lebanese food is to enjoy khebez.

Once your ajin is ready to go, preheat the oven to 500°F. Before you begin to roll out the dough, place two to four baking sheets (as many as you can fit) into the heating oven.

Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough in the center, sprinkling a little flour on top. Using a sharp knife or bench knife, cut the dough into two halves, then cut each half into quarters for a total of eight pieces.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, pull the edges of the dough downward to create a smooth top surface, tucking the edges underneath. Roll the resulting ball between the palms of your hands to smooth it out. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces.

Place the dough balls on a lightly floured surface and allow them to rest for 10 to 15 minutes, covered; this will make them easier to roll.

Again working with one ball at a time, stretch it into a smooth, flat circle, making sure not to pull so hard as to create holes. Place the circle on the floured work surface and roll it 1/4” thick, about 8 1/2” wide. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.

Julie Taboulie’s Khebez Arabi via @kingarthurflour

Into the oven

Carefully place two dough rounds onto one of the hot baking sheets, and place on the center rack of the oven.

Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until the dough puffs up and turns light golden brown. Remove from the oven and immediately transfer the breads to a rack; cover with a clean kitchen towel to retain the heat.

Serve the khebez hot out of the oven or warm.

Lebanese pocket bread makes the perfect side to savory meals — or the perfect utensil. Dig in! Click To Tweet

Takloull bil’ hanna – eat in happiness!

Our thanks to Julie for sharing this recipe. One note: If you read the recipe in Julie’s book, you’ll notice that her ajin calls for 4 cups of flour, while we call for 5 cups here. The difference is strictly in how different people measure flour by volume; some pack it into the cup, some sprinkle it in gently. The easiest way to get good results consistently is to measure by weight. To make a soft but workable ajin dough, you need about 21 ounces of flour for the 14 ounces water in the recipe.

Photographs copyright by Alexandra Grablewski. Reprinted with the permission of St. Martin’s Press.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Dunyia

    I bought Julie’s book and was so pleased when I saw this on your blog. Being first generation Lebanese it is wonderful to see our food given the recognition it deserves. We watch Julie on PBS and I learn something every time. I had to smile when I saw the reference about dropping some on the floor, it brought back many wonderful memories growing up. Thank you KA for sharing this.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Dunyia, we’re very happy to help spread the joy of baking, which is absolutely international. All cultures enjoy bread; and it’s wonderful to take a peek into someone else’s kitchen and share their memories, isn’t it? Thanks for connecting here — PJH

  2. Ricardo Gonzalez - Petrópolis, RJ - Brazil

    Here at Brazil Lebanese version of Pita Bread is not common. Pita Breads are made of various Standards and it leads to confusion.
    We have dried and flatened Bread that dont open a lot. I Bake a version of this bread i learned from The Fresh Loaf. The great secrets are basically 2. Very hot oven and Very hot sheets.And The second is to stretch dough at center until we almost could see trough thin dough. It makes a great difference in the Breads opening as they pop like pillows at the oven.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Ricardo, interesting feedback about the very thin middle — I’d never heard that and will definitely try it. Thanks! And I hope things are going well for you these days, friend — PJH

  3. Steven Baker

    My mother-in-law is Lebanese and this is very close to the family recipe. The only difference? We cook the bread directly on the oven racks (not pan needed). Serve with some delicious stuffed grape leaves, tabouli, or hummus!

    Reply
  4. Carol Z

    Can you substitute Gluten Free flour for regular all purpose flour in this recipe? JULIE TABOULIE’S KHEBEZ ARABI: HOW TO BAKE WARM, FLUFFY LEBANESE POCKET BREAD

    Reply
  5. Diana

    I am of Lebanese heritage and also watch Julie’s show on PBS, great to see her and Lebanese cuisine recognized here on the KAF site. Also, some gluten-free versions would be great.

    Reply
  6. Florida hydrologist

    As a hydrologist, I question the preference for “bottled spring water” listed as an ingredient in the recipe. Chlorine is used in municipal drinking water here in the US to kill any bacteria, and that could affect your yeast growth obviously. If your water is highly chlorinated, any bottled water should be fine. In any case, I look forward to trying this recipe and thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
  7. Sonia V

    Looks and sounds wonderful! I’m not the least bit Lebanese, but I can’t wait to try this! I’m curious about how it will turn out on my baking stone versus baking sheets.

    Reply
  8. Chava

    I was so happy to see this recipe. Only two days ago I was searching for a recipe for pita, since I could only find a poor imitation in the supermarket. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to bake this properly in my tiny apartment oven. If I put more that one baking sheet in, whatever is on the bottom sheet inevitably burns. Do you think I could cut the recipe in half successfully?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Chava, this recipe is quite versatile and so a half batch should turn out just fine. (Simple use half of all of the ingredients listed here.) Either that, or you could make a full batch of dough and refrigerate the proofed pitas while the first batch bakes. Any extras can be frozen for up a month and reheated before served. Kye@KAF

    2. Eugene Sedita

      Get KA’s 200th anniversary Cookbook. I’ve been using it for 20 yrs. about. It’s wonderful for ALL kinds of bread ,cakes , etc etc.

  9. Ellen Wright

    This looks delicious and I’m hoping to try it soon. I’m a “gluten free”person, not by choice so I’m wondering if Measure for Measure or the gf all purpose flour would work as well. Also, I read that gf yeast bread calls for a different technique. How so, please!

    Before I was gluten free I made bread with your bread flour and it was so nice to knead the dough and smell the yeast while baking and then ………..ummmmmmm so good. I hope to try this soon.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You’re right Ellen, gluten-free yeast breads need a little bit more love. We might suggest you try a designed-to-be-gluten-free recipe like our tortillas or flatbread. However, if you’re determined to give this a try, then you might want to read this article about converting recipes to gluten-free for ideas about where to start your conversions. Good luck, and happy GF baking! Kye@KAF

  10. Julie

    I just a few days ago watched PBS ‘s “Julie Taboulie”. I had never heard of her. But I am a Julie too, so I knew it would be good. I enjoyed the show very much and I was very happy to see this article on your blog! This pocket bread recipe sounds wonderful. I have a baking steel and will try baking the bread on it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Beth, Julie recommends serving the khebez while it’s still warm, right from the oven for best results. However, if you need to bake ahead of time, you can wrap the pockets in a bit of foil and put them in a low oven (around 300 degrees F) until they’ve warmed all the way through. Wrapping the warm khebez in a clean kitchen towel is good way to keep them warm while they’re on the table or right before they’re served. Enjoy! Kye@KAF

  11. Linda Nojaim Clarke

    This looks so good. IF Julie Taboulie or King Arthur could come up with a recipe with KA Gluten Free Flour, I would be thrilled. My big family misses our pita bread so much.

    Reply
  12. Jerry Miller

    Your recipe instructions and comments reminds me of a story I heard and then witnessed in Khamis Mushayt, Saudi Arabia. Saudi bread is very similar to the Lebanese Khebez or bread and the same comment about some of the bread landing on the floor is the same. I witnessed the making of ‘Arabic bread’ or tameez in the village of Khamis Mushayt in Saudi Arabia. The bread was made in a small shop on an automated batching and conveyor system. No human hands touched the process. At the end of the conveyor belt all of the bread fell on the ground/dirt. This seemed normal for all of the workers I talked too. Still not sure of the meaning of some of the bread falls to the ground?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Jerry, from Julie’s description of the tradition, it sounds like by kissing bread that has (accidentally) fallen to the ground, it shows that you still highly regard and respect bread. It seems like bread is integral to the Lebanese culture and cuisine, so people try to show their reverence for what might be considered an everyday food. Kye@KAF

    2. Des

      yea but why let it fall to the ground and not have a basket / or a bin to collect them as they fall. I mean aren’t they afraid of diseases? Walking on the same floor the bread has fallen is gross. They say its cleansiness to take your shoes off when you enter a home, so shouldn’t they worry what goes into the mouth too ????

  13. Fran Brellenthin

    Just whipped up a batch of this bread. From the photo, the bread seems to be larger than 8 1/2 inches. Also wondering if the eight loaves applies to all the dough, or the half batch mentioned. Dough is beautiful, so can’t wait to see how it turns out.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for giving this recipe a bake, Fran. As Julie mentions, the mother dough, Ajin, is incredibly versatile and can be baked in many different ways, including both an 8 1/2″ round and larger, as you see here. Using the full batch of dough, you should get eight rounds at 8 1/2″ each (fewer if you make them larger and vice versa). Hope you enjoy it! Mollie@KAF

  14. Peter

    In what way is this a lebanese version? This is not a criticism, just an enquiry. It seems identical to every other pita recipe I have seen and baked. Am I missing something?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Peter, interesting question. Perhaps all of the versions of pita we’re used to are in fact Lebanese? Julie’s version here comes from her Lebanese mother, who’s made it for decades, so I think it’s safe to term it Lebanese. If you read Julie’s book, though, I think you’ll find this same dough morphing into some very typically Lebanese breads; ajin (pita) dough is the building block for a whole lot more. This doesn’t answer your question, I know, but all we can really do (without researching a collection of ajin recipes from Lebanon) is surmise. PJH

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