Even though it appears that my diet is only about cake and candy, I assure you it’s not. Adventure is the name of the game and food is a big reason and consideration for my travels. I love to try food that is shaped by history and geography, culture and necessity and delve into its origins. Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean cuisine is one of my favorites. It’s one thing to eat at a theme restaurant in your city, quite another to experience it first hand.
Smells still trigger memories of our trip to Cairo a few years ago with its mouthwatering cuisine of shwarma, felafel, fitir,
One vivid memory is of an evening sitting in the Khan-e-Khalili. As the clock struck 7, we saw several men rushing warm pita either on carts or a delicately balanced long plank on their heads. One of them stopped over to give us a piece of warm pita, and that moment right there is my most unforgettable and special bread moment.
I’ve always been a big fan of pita with hummus. Shwarmas make for a mid week meal every once in 2 weeks, but eating a wrap here doesn’t come anywhere close to what we ate in Cairo. The taste, the feeling and the texture of the bread remains unmatched. Honestly, I never thought of making my own pita but Katherine did and I was truly excited. It was her very first time baking pita and I’m privileged she is sharing her experience on our Bread 101 series.
Pita, the most widely consumed bread in West Asia, makes it to the table of all classes and groups across borders. Used to scoop dips and sauces and served with meat, it makes for an excellent meal no matter what the season is. The pocket created by steam in the pita gives it that puffy appearance. It usually flattens as it cools down however, the pocket still remains.
Katherine Martenille, our guest writer today, is an internationally published food writer. She contributes to publications across three continents. Her recent cookbook, Puff Pastry at Brunch has been a roaring success. She recently moved to Be’er Sheva, Israel, which she likes to call home. Pita is both native to home and something that has been on a ‘must bake’ list forever.
Take it away, Katherine.
When Anuradha asked if I wanted to contribute to her bread 101 series I was so excited! I’m a huge fan of her gorgeous blog and spectacular recipes. I also have a feeling she can teach me far more about bread than I can teach her, but here goes nothing! I decided for the post I would tackle something that is both very relevant to where I live (Israel) and is a bread I’ve been wanting to make for ages: Pita.
I’ve read lots about how pita is a great bread for beginners, which is another reason I thought it would be perfect for the series. I used to have a fear of yeast, but the truth is it’s so friendly and magical – as long as it’s fresh, it really does all the work itself. Of course because pita is supposed to be so easy to make, I started out a little over-ambitiously. I tried to make whole wheat pita, which even when done well is a little denser and drier than normal pita.
Not thrilled with the results, I decided to take a step back and give it a go with all-purpose flour.
The truth is, this is the story of me learning to make pita, which is still in process. I’ll tell you right now that I’m not an expert, and that even after trying multiple times I haven’t made that perfect pita.
But here’s the secret, and the real reason that pita is the perfect bread for beginners: Even if you don’t get the bread to poof up to create the pocket, you’re still left with a most excellent flatbread. One that tastes like pita, and can be used almost like pita – it’s a win-win.
After consulting websites, cookbooks, and professional bakers, I’ve learned a lot about making pita and why mine didn’t turn out perfectly. First, perfect pitas require an incredibly hot oven, which I don’t have. I don’t have a broiler, and my weak electric oven just doesn’t get as hot as a good bread needs. Steam helps too, I’m told, and throwing a few ice cubes in the oven is a great trick for creating that perfect crust on bread – and apparently getting your pita to pocket.
A baking or pizza stone also goes a long way. I tried two methods for making the pita bread. First, I put a large baking sheet upside-down in the oven to heat up as much as possible before putting the pita on to bake. I also tried cooking them on my cast iron pan on the stovetop, which has the potential to get quite hot. Both methods worked well, but I slightly preferred the oven.
I also realized that the original recipe called for bread flour and I used all-purpose, which I’m sure played a big role. Silly me. In the end, even though the pitas didn’t look perfect, they were light, fluffy, and tasted delicious. I enjoyed them with homemade hummus and labne and can’t wait to make them again soon.
Put the bread flour and yeast in a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer). I used instant dry yeast, which means that I could combine the dry ingredients at once, instead of putting the yeast in liquid. Then add the water, sugar, and salt – once you give it a stir, you should see it bubbling up a bit.
Knead it by hand or using the kneading hook of a stand mixer for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth but still slightly sticky.
Form the dough into a ball and put into a lightly greased ball. Drizzle olive oil over, cover with a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for at least half an hour, or until it has doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 500F, if your oven goes that high (450F should be fine too).
Gently punch it down (you can see my knuckle marks in the fourth photo) and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Separate into 10 equal parts, roll into a ball, cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel, and allow to rise for another 10 minutes. Roll each ball into a 4-inch disc about ¼-inch thick.
Bake on a parchment-lined baking tray for 5 minutes, just until they swell up and begin to show golden spots. Don’t over-bake, as that will cause them to be dry! Alternately, you can experiment with cooking them in a lightly oiled, hot cast iron pan on the stovetop.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Cover the pitas with a kitchen towel for a few minutes to keep them soft (this tip really works!).
- 500 g (3½ cups) bread flour
- 2 ½ teaspoons instant dry yeast
- 360 ml (1½ cups) warm water (about 110F)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 30 ml (2 tablespoons) olive oil
- Put the bread flour and yeast in a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer). Add the water, sugar, and salt and stir to combine.
- Form the dough into a ball and put into a lightly greased ball. Drizzle olive oil over, cover with a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for at least half an hour, or until it has doubled in size.
- Preheat the oven to 500F, if your oven goes that high (450F should be fine too).
- Gently punch it down and transfer to a lightly floured work surface.
- Separate into 10 equal parts, roll into a ball, cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel, and allow to rise for another 10 minutes.
- Roll each ball into a 4-inch disc about ¼-inch thick.
Thanks, Katherine for that very insightful post. So much to learn! Honestly I would have also given whole wheat a try but considering I’m still taking my baby steps in the yeast world, I’m not entirely confident of playing around with the recipe just yet.