Saturday, September 30, 2017


Is dinner just over this dune?

A good spot to set up a cookfire, in the shade of a tamarisk tree in the sandy desert.

Your caravan of dromedaries comes over the golden dunes. You set up the jaimas. In the shade of a tamarisk tree, you start a fire in a sand pit with palm fronds and dry brush. Pat out the bread dough. Spread with filling, top with more dough. Set the filled pie in the hot sand. Push coals over the top. And wait while the bread bakes.

Brush off all the sand, slice and serve to your nomadic Berber family. Berber “pizza,” it’s called, although it’s more like Spanish empanada, with thick, bready crusts. I first tasted it at Café Nora at the desert village of Khamlia in Morocco. There owner Hassan and his family prepared and served the pizza in an air-conditioned dining room carpeted in colorful rugs. At Café Nora, the filled bread is baked is a pizza oven fueled by bottled gas.

We returned another day at sundown to see how nomadic tribes prepare the bread in the desert sands.

Hassan starts the fire in a shallow sand pit.

Hassan pats out the bread dough on a clean cloth.

He spreads the dough with filling, tops it with another round of dough and crimps the dough to enclose the filling.

Hassan brushes away the coals and sets the filled bread on the hot sand. Coals are pushed on top of the bread, completely enclosing it.

Daughter Amine kneads dough for her own pizza.

Hassan uncovers the bread to test for doneness. It's ready when it "sounds like a drum" when tapped with a stick. Parts of the bread are not fully cooked,

so, he adds more twigs to the fire to finish the baking and sets a teapot to heat in the coals. No repast is complete without mint tea.

Moha, our guide, pours tea.

When the pizza is done, Hassan removes it from the coals and carefully brushes away any sand clinging to the crust.

Now Amine's small breads can bake in the hot sand.

The pizza smells divine--smoky bread, spicy meat filling. A desert feast.

The recipe, from my kitchen in Spain, where it was baked in an electric oven.

All photos, text and recipes ©Janet Mendel.

 Berber Pizza
Empanada Berebere

The filling can be made with chicken, beef or lamb. For a vegetarian version, increase the quantity of onions to 3 cups and use three carrots instead of two.

Ras el hanout is a spice blend that flavors the filling mixture. If you don’t have the real thing, mix 1 teaspoon ground cumin, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, and ¼ teaspoon each of grated nutmeg, ground ginger powder, cardamom, cinnamon, chile powder, black pepper, allspice and 1/8 teaspoon turmeric. Use 1 teaspoon of the mixed spices for the filling.

The recipe for the pizza dough is the same as for Moroccan bread, which is baked in flattened round loaves. Bread may have anise seed or sesame seed kneaded into it.

Makes 10 slices.

For the filling
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 carrots, grated (1 cup)
1 teaspoon ras el hanout spice
¼ cup chopped parsley
½ cup water
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
1 tablespoon torn mint leaves

Use a sharp knife to chop the chicken into small dice. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a skillet and add the chopped onion and garlic. Sauté until onion just begins to brown. Add the carrots and cook 5 minutes more. Add the minced chicken, stirring until it loses its pink color. Chicken does not need to brown. Sprinkle with the spice and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the parsley and water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender and liquid reduced, about 20 minutes. If a lot of liquid remains, uncover the pan and cook off the excess liquid.

Filling may be prepared in advance and refrigerated until ready to bake the pizza. Bring it to room temperature and stir in the fresh mint before filling the pizza.

For the pizza
6 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil + additional for bowl and brushing on pizza
1 ¾ - 2 cups warm water
Fine semolina for dusting baking sheet
Filling for pizza, room temperature

Place the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt and dry yeast and mix. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add 2 tablespoons oil and 1 ½ cups warm water. Use a large wooden spoon to mix the liquids into the flour. Add enough additional water to make a soft dough that can be easily gathered into a ball.

Turn the dough out on a board and knead it until glossy, smooth and stretchy, about 10 minutes. (Dough can be kneaded with dough hook of an electric mixer.) Gather the dough into a ball.

Clean out the bowl and oil it lightly. Place the ball of dough in the bowl, turning to coat it on all sides with oil. Cover with a dampened cloth and put in a warm, draft-free place to rise for 2 hours.

(If dough is to be used to make Moroccan bread, after kneading, divide it into two equal balls. Pat or roll them into circles each about 10 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheets sprinkled with semolina. Cover with cloth and allow to rise 2 hours. Bake the breads in preheated oven.)

Separate about one-third of the dough (a piece of approximately 13 ounces). Roll it into a ball and set aside. Gather the remaining dough into a ball. Place it on a clean kitchen cloth. Pat it into a circle. Roll, pat or stretch to make a large disc, about 14 inches in diameter.

Spread the filling on top of the disc. Roll the smaller ball of dough to make a 9-inch disk. Place it in the center of the filling. Wet the edges of the bottom disc with water. Fold them up to meet the top disc and crimp to enclose the filling. 

Invert the filled pizza onto a baker’s peel or a rimless baking sheet sprinkled with semolina, so that the crimped dough is underneath. Pat it to flatten slightly. Prick holes in the top with a knife or skewer. Let the pizza rest, covered with a damp cloth, 15 minutes while heating the oven.

Preheat oven to 400ºF. If using a pizza stone or earthenware slab, preheat it in the oven.

Slide the pizza onto preheated stone or place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake until crust sounds hollow when tapped, about 25 minutes. If desired, finish the pizza under the broiler to brown the top, 5 minutes.

Remove the pizza and brush the crust with oil. Cover with a cloth let set 10 minutes. Slice and serve the pizza. It's good hot or room temperature.

An oven in the desert, where bread is baked daily.

A desert family serves us fresh bread and mint tea.


  1. Fabulous photo essay. What an exciting and worthwhile trip for all involved. And the recipes are intriguingly delicious. Thank you.

    1. JohnD: Thank you! Yes, I will be veering towards Morocco in the blog for the next few weeks.

  2. This looks fantastic! I am planning an open house in 3 weeks for my new neighbors and had planned to prepare Tortilla Espanole, Manchego cheese with Membrillo, and other Spanish finger foods, but will now add Berber Pizza. Thank you!

    1. Patty: The Berber pizza is a lot like the empanada of Galicia--but with more spices. So, it should go really well with your Spanish tapas menu. Hope your open house is a success.

  3. Wonderful, Janet! Terrific photos!

    1. Donna: Thanks! For the salads, I had to recreate them in my kitchen.