Zahie LaHood makes Lebanese flatbread so rich in tradition it can reduce a man to tears and swell his heart with gratitude. In the middle of summer, when days are hot and humid, LaHood starts baking in her basement kitchen at midnight. In the fall and winter, she might not heat up her Roper gas oven until 3 a.m. 

Before dawn on chilly autumn mornings, her house in Peoria, Ill., feels warm and snug, filled with the comforting aroma of yeasty baked bread. Though LaHood, 80, sold her bread in Chicago markets when she first came to Peoria from Lebanon, she now bakes only for family and friends.Her flatbread is family tradition for all six of her children. Each family will get six dozen "loaves" of the 15-inch circles of pliable bread – the traditional bread of Lebanon. An ancient dance of hands and feet starts after the bread dough rises the first time, and LaHood shapes it into small balls. Once the dough begins to rise again, her hands pick up speed. She pats balls into a pancake shape and blankets them with kitchen towels, allowing the pieces to rest as she works through the batch.When she’s ready to bake, she takes each piece of dough and throws it – shaping, pinching, tossing and twisting from hand to hand. Her movements are so fast, even daughters who have observed this ritual for 50 years can’t duplicate the motions or confidently describe the choreography.

With a final toss, the dough alights on a wooden baking paddle, is slipped into the oven, baked briefly, and then gingerly moved to the lower broiler for a hint of browning.

When good friends Rizk Alwan, 84, and his wife Laurice, 74, stop by, LaHood can’t divert her attention from the dough.

"Culture is the highest thing in Lebanese thinking. Every meal is a celebration of thanksgiving. Every meal includes bread – breakfast, supper, dinner, funerals, weddings.

"Without bread, you have nothing. It’s a very emotional subject," Alwan said, choking on his words.

"You never forget the flavor of this bread. You never get enough of it. This bread is a sacred thing. Making bread is based on faith."

Even today in poor Lebanese villages, bread is part of the social welfare network, Alwan said. Families with bread share with families without bread. It becomes a symbolic gesture of expressing care, connection and thanks, he said.

LaHood’s daughter, Cathy Kouri, said she and her siblings grew up unaware of the shape of an American loaf of bread. When they started school, they spoke only Lebanese.

Their lunch might be peanut butter and jelly, baloney or a hot dog on Lebanese flatbread.

Marie Arendell, Kouri’s sister, said, "I can remember going out to eat, and my mother put bread in her purse for me. We were so spoiled. We couldn’t eat a meal without her bread. We never needed silverware. We used bread."

The sisters said few Lebanese women in Peoria still bake flatbread.

"This was something the older generation did. If you don’t learn by the time you are 3, you won’t learn," Kouri said. "None of us learned."

The tradition of family and helping members of the village continued even when Lebanese immigrated to the United States, she said.

As a child growing up, Kouri recalled seeing a large jar of coins in her aunt’s kitchen. Visitors to her aunt’s home always left coins in the jar.

When her aunt became ill, the jar was moved from the kitchen to her bedside. Over the years, the jar was emptied and coins were sent to Itoo, Lebanon, earmarked for an automobile.

"There was no car in the village for funerals. Pallbearers would carry bodies to the grave site," Kouri said. "My aunt kept track of all those coins. She passed away five years ago and before she died, the village had enough to buy a car for funerals."

Bread as an expression of thanks continues in the basement where LaHood has baked for more than 40 years. It takes her three successive days of baking to have enough bread to give family and friends.

"I learned to bake bread in Lebanon. I was baking bread by the time I was 3," she said. "When I came here, I sold to people in Chicago and in Peoria, but I don’t sell anymore. I only give."

Lebanese flatbread is made with flour, water, salt and yeast. Family members cut the loaves into quarters and freeze them.

"My mother would stay up night after night baking when we were young so she could buy us all new Easter outfits," Kouri said.

"To this day, she does not read or write English or Lebanese, but she is smarter than anyone with advanced degrees.

"She spoils us with her bread. Her recipes are a pinch of this, a pinch of that. We eat everything with her bread, even eggs over easy."



5 pounds all-purpose flour

1 cake fresh yeast, or 1 envelope active yeast

1/4 cup salt

2 cups or more water

Yields about 24 (15-inch) loaves.

Preheat oven to 550 F or higher.

In small bowl, dissolve yeast in small amount of warm water.

In large bowl, combine flour and salt. Add yeast mixture. Mix well. Dough must be medium soft. If necessary, add more water to make dough softer.

Turn out dough on floured surface and knead well, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Let dough rise until double.

Cut dough into balls about the size of a small cup. Cover well. Let balls of dough rest about 20 minutes.

Pat out each ball into flat circle, like a pancake. Let rest again until ready to bake.

Taking one pancake-shape of dough at a time, pat out until very thin and as large as possible. Flip from hand to hand until quite large. Be careful not to tear. Place on large wooden paddle and place in hot oven for about 30 seconds, or until it begins to bubble.

Remove from oven and place in very hot broiler until brown, about 30 seconds. Watch closely in oven and broiler.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 336 calories; 9.9 g protein; 0.9 g fat (2.4 percent of total calories); 72.2 g carbohydrate; 2.7 g fiber; no cholesterol; and 1,182 mg sodium.


2 cups chickpeas, cooked or canned

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup tahini paste

3 cloves fresh garlic, minced, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt, to taste

Olive oil


Baby carrots, chopped, for garnish

Hot peppers, thinly sliced, for garnish

Parsley leaves, chopped, for garnish

Yields 8 servings.

Drain and reserve juice from canned chickpeas.

Place chickpeas in blender or food processor with lemon juice, tahini and minced or powdered garlic. Blend well, adding dabs of reserved juice from canned chickpeas, to form smooth paste. It should be about the consistency of thinned mashed potatoes.

Add salt to taste.

Scrape hummus into covered container and refrigerate overnight or at least 3 hours before serving. Remove dip from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.

To serve, divide dip into 3 small bowls. Swirl top with back of spoon, creating pocket in center. Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle a little paprika over top. Garnish with pinches of carrots, hot peppers and parsley.

Serve with flatbread cut into wedges to scoop up hummus dip.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 127 calories; 4.4 g protein; 4.8 g fat (33.8 percent of total calories); 16.7 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; no cholesterol; and 180 mg sodium.


2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons fresh basil, chopped

2 tablespoons ground thyme

1 teaspoon fresh whole thyme

2 teaspoons savory

2 teaspoons ground marjoram

1/2 teaspoon whole dry marjoram

1 tablespoon sumac (available in specialty food stores)

1/2 cup sesame seeds

1-1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Zest of two lemons, finely minced

Olive oil

In bowl, blend together all ingredients except olive oil.

Yields 1/3 cup for 4 servings.

For an appetizer: Cut pita into wedges, sprinkle with za’atar and olive oil, and bake for 5 minutes at F degrees.

For condiment: Thinly slice onion, sprinkle with za’atar and vegetable oil to use on sandwiches and salads.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 184 calories; 5.1 g protein; 13.9 g fat (68 percent of total calories); 9.6 g carbohydrate; 5.3 g fiber; no cholesterol; and 888 mg sodium.




3 or 4 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Juice of 1 lemon


1/2 cup lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces

1 cup parsley, chopped

2 tomatoes, cubed

1 cucumber, chopped

2 green onions, chopped

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

1/2 loaf Lebanese flatbread, toasted to golden brown and broken into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)

Yields 4 servings.

To prepare dressing: In small salad bowl, mash garlic with salt. Gradually add oil to garlic and blend well. Add lemon juice and continue mixing until thoroughly blended. Set aside.

In salad bowl, place lettuce, parsley, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, mint and toasted bread. Just before serving, add dressing and toss well.

Note: Any kind of vegetable can be added to salad.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 408 calories; 12.1 g protein; 8.7 g fat (18.9 percent of total calories); 70.6 g carbohydrate; 4.9 g fiber; zero cholesterol; and 922 mg sodium.


2 pita bread rounds

1/4 cup onion, chopped

3/4 cup roasted chicken, thinly sliced

1/4 cup sprouts (optional)

1 cup thick, plain yogurt

1/4 cup cucumber, finely chopped

1/4 cup bell peppers, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 cup coriander leaves, finely chopped

1 green chile, chopped finely

Yields 2 sandwiches.

In bowl, mix together all ingredients except pita bread.

Cut pita bread rounds in half. Carefully open each 1/2 into 2 layers like a pocket. Evenly divide filling into the 4 pockets.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Wrap stuffed pita bread halves in foil. Place in oven for 15 minutes.

Serve with sliced tomatoes.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 426 calories; 40.9 g protein; 5.9 g fat (12.4 percent of total calories); 52.4 g carbohydrate; 3.6 g fiber; 80 mg cholesterol; and 780 mg sodium.

Clare Howard is a food writer for the Peoria, Ill., Journal Star.