One of the suggested accompaniments to the "Rockin' Moroccan Salsa" I posted the other day was fresh pita bread. I didn't have any in the house, and I didn't want to go back out to the store, and as I thought about what I could use instead, the outraged voice inside my head told me not to DARE substitute something else, but to just go on and MAKE my own pita bread already!
So, of course, I did.
For the recipe I referenced Flatbreads & Flavors, by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. I've had this book for years, possibly ever since it was published in 1995. Subtitled "A Baker's Atlas," this fun and fascinating book takes the reader/baker around most of the globe, sharing recipes for a huge variety of flat breads and crackers, along with typical local accompaniments. For instance, travel with Duguid and Alford to Beijing and learn to make not only these soft, round breads called bao bing, but also either Mushu Pork or Four-Thread Salad, and then use one or both as a filling for your breads.
I knew they'd have a recipe for pita bread.
Sure enough, on pages 181-183, in the EasternMediterranean section of the Flatbreads & Flavors, I found a recipe for Pita, also called khubz (in Arabic) or baladi (in Egypt.)
The ingredients are simple – yeast, water, flour, salt, and olive oil. The initial preparation is just like any other basic yeasted bread – combine yeast and water, add flour, then salt and olive oil. Combine, knead, cover and let rise. After that, you just divide the dough into pieces, roll them into flat rounds, and the either bake in the oven or cook on a griddle. Both methods offer the opportunity to see these flat circles puff up like balloons – an experience that's fun for both kids and. I know I enjoyed it!
Here are the ingredients (and measurements) from Duguid & Alford's book. My one alteration is in italics:
2 teaspoons dry yeast
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
5 to 6 cups hard whole wheat flour, or 3 cups each hard whole wheat flour and hard unbleached white flour, or unbleached all-purpose flour. (I used 5-6 cups unbleached bread flour)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
There are instructions for making pita either in your oven or on top of the stove. I made mine on a griddle that covers two burners, so that is the method I'll share here. Instructions from the book are in normal type, my notes or alterations are in italics….
You will need a large bread bowl…a cast-iron or other heavy griddle or skillet at least 9 inches in diameter, and a rolling pin.
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir to dissolve. Stir in 3 cups of flour, a cup at a time, and then stir 100 times, about 1 minute, in the same direction to activate the gluten. Let this sponge rest for at least 10 minutes, or as long as 2 hours.
I used my KA stand mixer with the dough hook.
And after a couple of hours, here's what the starter looked like:
Sprinkle the salt over the sponge and stir in the olive oil. Mix well. Add more flour, a cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to stir. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Rinse out the bowl, dry, and lightly oil. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until at least doubled in size, approximately 1 1/2 hours. (The dough can be made ahead to this point and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.)
Again, I used a stand mixer instead of my arm power. Because I'm a wuss.
When you think the dough is finished rising, poke a finger in the dough, down to your first knuckle at most. If the dimple fills in quickly, your dough still needs to rise more. If it doesn't fill in, or maybe fills in just a little, and slowly, your dough is ready to go.
To cook the pitas on top of the stove: Preheat a 9-inch or larger griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, lightly grease the surface of the griddle with a little oil.
Meanwhile, gently punch down the dough and divide it in half. Cover one half and divide the other half into 8 pieces. Flatten each piece with well-floured hands, then roll out one at a time into circles less than 1/4 inch thick and 8 to 9 inches in diameter.
I went with the "Alternative" described below, and made twice as many – but smaller – breads.
I also didn't try all that hard to make circles. They tasted fine anyway.
I did, however, roll them out nice and thin.
Oh, and this is right about when Julia decided she wanted to help. Or maybe, now that I think about it, I summoned her to help because she was bothering Alex and all the yelling was getting on my nerves. I gave Julia a small rolling pin and let her vent her frustrations with that and some dough. It always works for me.
Hers were a little thicker than they were supposed to be, but I kept my mouth shut. She still had the rolling pin.
Eventually, like I'd hoped, her good humor was restored. She continued to roll out the small breads while I got some going on the griddle.
Gently put one bread onto the griddle. (Sorry about the poor quality of this next batch – lighting's terrible over my stove.)
Cook for 15 to 20 seconds, then gently turn over. (About now is when you want to summon your kids, spouse, friends, neighbors – anyone you want to wow with your amazing baking skillz…make them watch the breads puff up. They'll be spellbound. Or cynical, like my almost-7-year-old son was. He watched. A bread puffed up. He went back to whatever he'd been doing before.)
Cook for about 1 minute, until big bubbles begin to appear. Turn the bread again to the first side, and cook until the bread balloons fully.
To help the process along, you can press gently with a towel on those areas where the bubbles have already formed, trying to push the air bubble into areas that are still flat. (This is a technique that will quickly improve with practice.)
The breads should take no more than 3 minutes to cook, and, likewise, they shouldn't cook so fast that they begin to burn; adjust the heat until you find a workable temperature.
Wrap the cooked breads in a large kitchen towel to keep them warm and soft while you cook and roll out the rest of the dough in the same way. There is no need to oil the griddle between each bread, but after 4 or 5 breads, you might want to lightly oil the surface again.
Alternatives: You can, of course, make smaller breads by dividing the dough into smaller pieces. The rolling out and cooking method and times remain the same. Children particularly love smaller pocket breads.
Makes approximately 16 pocket breads, 8 to 9 inches in diameter. (Or twice that amount of pocket breads about 4 to 5 inches in diameter.)
Fun, fun, fun – and easy. The pita breads kept for several days just wrapped in the towel. I've got 4 left, and I'll be baking those later til they're nice and crisp, and serving them with guacamole and a wild mushroom pate I'll be posting in the near future.
But for now, go forth, and make pita! Have some fun!