Clay oven chicken the medieval way


For years Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written several guest blogs in this space, and his wife, Marilyn, have participated in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), where they join other like-minded people in living for a few days or a few weeks in true medieval fashion. For months I’ve been badgering Marilyn to write a piece about medieval cooking, and she finally came through.

Marilyn Finkelman has been a teacher of writing and research in law schools, a teacher of adult Jewish studies, and a homeschool mom. In the SCA, as Lady Miriam bat Pessah, she does archery, embroidery, cooking, calligraphy, brewing (wine and mead), cheese making, illumination, and Jewish cultural studies. 

The Finkelmans are planning a clay-oven cooking extravaganza as part of their celebration of the festival of Sukkot, which started this year at sundown Sunday, Sept. 27. The festival in part celebrates the fall harvest, so that seems entirely appropriate!

Historic cooking is among my many hobbies in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an organization that encourages study and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe, the “Middle Ages.”

It always amazes me that we have cookbooks from that period given that, even in very wealthy households, the cook probably couldn’t read and no one would allow anything as valuable as a book to go anywhere near a place as dangerous as a kitchen.

Islamic recipes more user-friendly

I find the medieval Islamic recipes more user-friendly than northern European recipes. There are several wonderful translations available, including Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, a huge collection of recipes from 10th century Baghdad, and Charles Perry’s A Baghdad Cookery Book, a shorter collection of recipes from the 13th century.

But even the recipes that make sense intuitively present challenges. These dishes were cooked on open fires or in clay ovens, using different utensils and cooking methods. Some of the ingredients are hard to identify, and even those that are familiar may not have been very much like the ingredients available in our local market. The recipes are much sketchier than modern recipes, rarely including amounts or precise instructions. Typical is the instruction to add a given ingredient or cook the dish “enough.”

All of the Islamic cookbooks include several versions of judhaba, which involve making some sort of bread pudding, and cooking it in an oven while “hanging over it a fat chicken.” Here is the first of about 15 variations from Caliphs’ Kitchen (p.374):

Take a whole bread made with the finest … flour, let its weight be 1 ratl. Cut it into morsel sized pieces, which you then soak in water in a green glazed bowl for about an hour. When the bread pieces are saturated and puffed, put them in the pan. Pour on them 1 ratl honey, 2 ratls sugar, and 1 ratl water. There should be enough to cover the bread and a little more. Mix in aromatic spices and saffron, too. Put the pan in the bottom center of a hot tannur, suspend a plump chicken over the pan, and [let it roast until done], God willing.

As many questions as answers

Doesn’t that sound delicious? But it presents as may questions as it answers. What kind of bread would be considered “made with the finest flour”? Does the “green glazed bowl” matter? This recipe calls for equal weights of bread, honey, and water, and double the weight of sugar. Doesn’t that seem cloyingly sweet? What spices and how much of those spices? How do you suspend a chicken over that pan? Would it work in a modern kitchen oven, or do you need the live fire cooking?

And there are lots of variations in other judhaba recipes. Some call for different types of bread, cut to different sizes. The bread is soaked in different liquids, for example milk or berry juice. Proportions and types of sweetener vary. Recipes call for additions of different ingredients, for example apricots, dates, raisins, rosewater syrup, bananas, walnuts, almonds, sesame oil, eggs, onions, mushrooms, and more. Some recipes call for a thin bread laid under and over the bread pudding.

I tried a version of this in my kitchen oven, just laying chicken pieces over some soaked bread mixture, but it came out dry and dull.

Then, last summer, we built a clay oven in our backyard, and I decided to try this concept again.

Working from the base recipe, I used a loaf of medium density bakery bread. I soaked it in my metal mixing bowl, letting it get soggier than my usual bread pudding would be. I could not get myself to make it as sweet as the original recipe suggested, so I used the honey but not the sugar.

I looked through the other recipes for spices that might be mentioned, and ended up adding salt, cinnamon, sesame oil and cloves. I wanted to do one of the additional flavors, and settled on dates. I used some thin pita I had in the freezer for the bread above and below the bread pudding.

Hanging the chicken

I was stumped on how to hang the chicken over the bread pudding until a friend solved the problem for me. “What’s wrong with you, girl?  Haven’t you ever heard of beer can chicken?”  I used tomato cans instead.

There was a steep learning curve as we started using our oven. Once the oven was fully heated up, after about two hours of fire, we cleared the coals out and cooked with the residual heat. (We have since started doing some of the cooking on the fire while the oven is heating up.) We put the judhaba in right after the sourdough breads came out, so the oven was probably around 400 degrees, and left it in for about an hour or maybe a little less.

The result was superb. The pita on top of the bread pudding crisped up, turning into chicken flavored pita chips. And with the pita on top, the bread pudding stayed nice and moist. It was sweet and delicious.

The chicken was clearly not the point of the recipe, but it was crisp-skinned and delicately flavored. We served on a large platter, with the cut up chicken in the middle, surrounded by the bread pudding, with the pita chips around the edges.

My redacted recipe is still less precise than most modern recipes. And I do not know whether it would be as good cooked in a modern oven. But we are planning a “clay oven greatest hits” cook day this fall, and judhaba was tops on everyone’s list.