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Chapatis, revisited  RSS feed

Tim Holloway
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As previously discussed here.

Since I adamantly refuse to add milk/yoghurt (e. g. fats) to my chapatis, I pulled out all the stops on baking tricks I've learned. I just made (and ate!) a batch using US whole-wheat flour. I prefer atta flour, but I'm not buying any more until I can work my way through several other flours that would only go rancid if neglected.

1. Autolyze. Mix up the water with the flour until everything just holds together, cover and let sit for about 30 minutes. Autolysis confers 2 benefits: 1) it allows the water to be more evenly and completely absorbed by the flour. 2) Whole-wheat flour contains bran and the bran particles are like little knives that snip gluten strands when the dough is worked. The idea was that the water would soften the bran and make it less knife-like.

2. Knead. Probably the most critical stage of all. Recipes I've seen call for 8-15 minutes of hand-kneading. I cheated and used a stand mixer this time around. Same amount of time, but it kept me from getting tired/bored and short-changing the process. Kneading is critical since there aren't any leavening agents in chapatis to expand the dough and make it effectively softer. Kneading is one of those things where you can do it for what seems forever, but once the critical point is reached, the dough takes on whole new characteristics. Shinier, smoother, more like a plastic.

Food processors are supposed to be the most efficient kneaders. They can do the job in less time. There's actually a risk of over-kneading when using a food processor, though.

3. Rest. Once kneaded, roll the dough up into a big ball, cover, and let sit for about an hour. This allows the gluten to relax. I haven't tried tossing it in the refrigerator overnight, but some types of dough will undergo chemical transformations that make the dough even more pliable when that is done.

4. Shape. For me, this can be the trickiest part. My tortilla press makes fatter (and therefore tougher) chapatis than I want so I gave up on it and just roll them with a rolling pin. Any type of rolling pin will do. I cut off ping-pong ball sized chunks of dough, roll them into balls, then flatten the balls into discs between my hands. Once I have them disk-shaped, I start going round and round the edge, stretching the outer dough along its circumference. Periodically I pull the middle so that they'll be flat.

Once the chapati is maybe 4-5 inches in diameter, I slap it down on a floured surface and roll it out until it's maybe 7 inches in diameter. Using the rolling pin at this stage allows me to make them of a more consistent thickness than hand-shaping would and that means that they'll cook more evenly. All the tricks I did with the dough seemed to help. I'm used to ending up with chapatis shaped like India. Or Argentina. . Instead, I was able to get them almost completely circular. To roll them, I made sure that both the rolling pin and surface had enough flour applied to keep the dough from sticking, but not wallowing in dry flour (which would just make them drier). Rolling away from me to spread the dough, and not back-and-forth (or up-and-down) ensures that the gluten isn't compressed. Good old gluten! When properly done, I was actually able to do the roll-and-spin-and-roll trick like on TV which is how to get them round instead of irregular.

In the mean time, I had a dry cast-iron griddle heating. Although my original instructions called for medium-high heat, my electric stove apparently runs hot, so medium works better. Plop each chapati down, allow time for it to change color, flip it and leave until it lightly bubbles up and then flip back. With luck, the chapati will begin to balloon up. I hold a large flat spatula over the griddle so that as it expands against the spatula, the bubble will be forced to expand sideways. This expansion makes for 2 thin sides instead of one thicker one, which means fewer broken teeth. Of course, if you have a gas flame, you can also do this step the traditional way, holding the chapati in the flame briefly (carefully!)

Now if I can just come up with a way to keep cilantro from going to seed within 15 minutes of planting...
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