Here in Istanbul only a few might make simit, sesame-bathed bread rings, at home. But while visiting my parents in Russia it felt like a right thing to do: after all my dad is a simit-addict. When my parents came to Turkey last autumn, dad walked from our Sapanca property down to the village (1 hour downhill and then 1.5 hours back) to combine exercise and purchasing of some simit. Much to his embarrassment he forgot the word and could not make himself clear to a bakkal who would not sell simit anyway.
That’s why my caring husband assumed the duty of finding a good bakery wherever we stayed during our road trip with parents and diligently procured simit every morning. I can’t call most of the simit on the Aegean coast the real deal, but dad felt his breakfast was incomplete without a bread ring or two. No wonder that my impossible-to-excite parent brightened when I announced I would be making simit.
My dad is hardly alone in his simit enthusiasm: I am yet to meet somebody who visited Istanbul and did not fall for the sesame bread rings. What’s the magic behind simit sold off the red carts anywhere in Istanbul? Why does everybody happily munch it throughout the day? Why does my husband head out to procure it first thing in the morning if in Istanbul? Why do cheese, jam or butter not seem compulsory next to a simit straight out of the oven? Why, why, why?
I have been contemplating the matter for a while and came up with a few explanations of the simit magic:
1) Simit has a pleasing ratio of crust to crumb. Who does not like bread crust? Well, some people eat only the crumb, but then they should be send to a place where simit is the only type of bread existing to experience as much torture as the bread they have been eating all these years. As a bread ring, simit naturally has a lot of crust – sometimes light caramel, sometimes deep reddish brown, but always satisfying and crunchy.
2) Simit is crunchy: If a simit maker has not skimmed on pekmez (grape juice reduction) and coated the bread rings well, then his simit gets its well browned and characteristically crispy crust. We might be eating simit for the same reason we east chips: because of the crispy factor. Scientists say that human beings are genetically wired to seek out crispy foods as our ancestors used to eat insects and plants, and with those crispy meant fresh. Unfortunately, not all the simits are created equally crispy. Some (and we will not point fingers) simit bakers skip pekmez taking away a big part of the simit pleasure from the eaters. Thankfully, they don’t skim on sesame seeds.
3) Simit is covered with sesame seeds. The seeds add buttery and nutty note to simit: an unassuming bread ring bathed in the sesame seeds transforms into a sophisticated treat. Plus, there is no more pleasing sight than a bunch of simits piled up in a basket, their brown exterior dotted with the sesame seeds. Sometimes simits come coated with the sunflower seeds (and I madly love those), but then they can’t beat the classic version for its aesthetics and flavor!
4) Simit is round. A couple of times I saw simit shaped as a braid. But only a couple of times: I don’t think the customers approved. Simit has to be round! Ring, an ancient symbol, is perfection, completeness, balance, recreation – all those things we are seeking in life and can obtain (even though to a short lived effect) for just 1 Turkish lira in the form of simit.
5) Simit feels like a treat. Buying pretty bread rings from a white-gowned cart vendor commanding authority always feels like a little treat you have deserved! The bread rings are baked twice a day – early morning and early afternoon, and it’s hard not to consider yourself lucky when you get a still warm crunchy ring.
I wondered how close I can get to the classic Istanbul street food while recreating the simit magic at home. I went through a ton of recipes ranging from the plain bread dough to the enriched versions with eggs and fat. I used my emerging baker’s logic (and the formulas I typically rely on) to calibrate a recipe that would work for simit.
Simit dough is fairly dense (think New York Bagel) which makes it easy to shape into long even rolls. After trying 65% hydration, I settled on 60% (meaning 60 g water for every 100 g flour), even though I came across the recipes insisting on the even stiffer dough (e.g. 55% hydration). I measured 1.5% (1.5 g for 100 g flour) of each salt and fresh yeast, and here goes your simit recipe.
I used less yeast that most of the recipes and focused on the longer rising time instead: simit is a morning bread, and it is not easy to justify waking up 4 hours earlier to have the bread rings ready for breakfast. That’s why I am making the dough in the evening before going to bed, letting it rest in the fridge overnight and then have a beautifully risen dough to shape, proof and bake in the morning. When you proof longer (and even at the lower temperatures that inhibit the yeast bacteria) you don’t need spoons of yeast.
The major challenge when making simit in Russia was that my parents did not have pekmez (reduced grape juice also referred to as grape molasses), so I replaced it with simple syrup I made of brown sugar to coat the bread rings and create the signature crust. My experiments with molasses later in Istanbul showed that pekmez is used for a reason: even though I watered down the syrup it gave a bit too much sweetness to simit in comparison with the molasses. But then this is my taste, because as I was still contemplating the result after the first run, my dad was already enjoying it. Eight simits were gone in no time: that’s how you know the recipe works and even crosses the borders.
Simit, Turkish Sesame Bread Rings
The whole simit baking affair is only 30 min of hands-on work and a bit of planning. I make the dough in evening – just before going to bed, let it slowly rise in the fridge overnight and come back to it first thing in the morning. This approach significantly reduces the “production” time to just 1.5 hours. Plus, the morning you make simits can become your most productive time of the day: you become so aware of the time and can sneak many errands in between attending to the dough.
If you make the dough on the same day, then proof it at the room temperature for 3 hours, folding after each hour.
The simit dough is rather stiff, and the kneading requires some muscle work. That’s why you should incorporate the flour gradually: that way you will be kneading the dough with less effort slowly thickening it.
Makes 8 bread rings
Prep time (hands-on): 30 min
Cook time: 20 min
Total time: 50 min + overnight proofing + 10 min rest + 30 min final proofing
500 g (3 cups + 2 tbsp) all-purpose flour + more for dusting (only when specified!)
300 g ( 1 + 1/4 cups) water
7.5 g fresh yeast (or 2.5 g (3/4 tsp) instant yeast, or 3.8 g active dry yeast)
7.5 g (1 + 1/8 tsp) fine sea salt
140 g (1 cup) sesame seeds
60 g (1/4 cup) grape molasses (pekmez)
60 g (1/4 cup) water
The night before
Make dough: Pour the water in a large mixing bowl and dissolve the yeast. Place the salt and 1/3 of the flour amount in the bowl and with a tablespoon stir into a runny pancake-like batter. Continue adding the flour gradually and stirring the thickening batter with the spoon. When about 1/3 flour left unused dust the clean working surface with some of it and transfer the dough to the surface. Knead slowly incorporating the flour. Once there is no flour left on the surface, add more from the remaining batch. Continue kneading until you have incorporated all the flour (about 10-12 min): the resulting dough will be a bit stiff. Place the dough in a bowl considering the dough will at least double. Cover with a cling film and leave to rise in the fridge overnight.
In the morning
Deflate dough: Release the dough from the bowl into a lightly dusted with flour clean working surface and knead it gently a few times to deflate. Divide into 8 equal pieces, shape each piece into a neat ball and make sure that each ball is lightly (!) dusted with flour. Cover the dough balls with a kitchen towel and let rest for 10-15 min.
Toast sesame seeds: Place the seeds in a medium size skillet and toast on a medium heat. Toss every 2-3 minutes to ensure even browning: after 7-10 minutes, the seeds should pick up light brown color, but make sure they don’t turn caramel-brown (meaning bitter). Transfer the toasted seeds to a small deep tray. Whisk together the grape molasses and water in a deep wide plate.
Shape rings: Take one dough ball and roll it into a long rope: start with your both hands working from the middle and then move the hands apart towards the edges of the rope. If you dusted the dough balls while dividing, you don’t need to dust the working surface with the flour: too much flour makes rolling tricky. As the rope is about 60 cm / 24 inch long, lift it holding from the middle and swing a bit to extend. Now holding the middle in one hand and both ends in the other twist the rope a couple of times. Place the ends into the loop to make a ring. Set aside on a lightly dusted with flour surface, cover with a kitchen towel and continue with the rest of the dough.
Coat rings: Dip each simit in the molasses and then transfer to a colander/sieve to drain the excess of the moisture. Once all the simits are dipped, one by one place them in the tray with the toasted sesame seeds and coat well. Arrange the coated simits on two baking trays lined with the baking paper and share each bread ring into a neat round. Leave to proof for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 240C/465F.
Bake: As you are ready to bake, place a metal tray with boiling water to the bottom of the oven and splash about 1/4 cup water into the oven: you want a bit of steam in the oven to ensure dramatic oven spring (rising of the bread rings during the initial stages of baking). Place the trays with simits and bake for 10 min. Remove the water tray (carefully, it is burning hot!) and let simits bake for 10 minutes more until the tops and bottoms are reddish brown. Simit is best within just a few hours out of the oven. You can cool down and freeze the baked ones and then warm them up in the high oven.