We had our friend T in town for a night this past week. His presence at our dinner table was a good excuse to get back on the baking. I turned to an old standby, pita bread. Homemade pita – with a pocket and everything – is so much better that store bought pita does not make it on my shopping list anymore. Pita is also less time-consuming than loaves, and pretty easy for dilletante bakers such as myself to get great results.
Here’s my recipe:
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 1/4 cups flour (I used 1/3 white flour, 2/3 whole wheat flour from Fairhaven Mills co-op)
1 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar (I usually don’t add the sugar, but supposedly it makes them brown more quickly and gives more food to the yeast)
2 1/2 teaspoons (1 packet) yeast
I primed the yeast by putting it in the water, adding just 1 cup of flour, and letting that sit about 30 minutes till it was bubbly on top and puffy. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix it up and give it a quick knead and let it rise for about 45 minutes. Then divide the dough into 4 equal parts and form it into balls. Let the dough balls rise for about 10 more minutes, then press them into 8-inch rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Bake on the bottom rack of a 450 deg. oven for 5 minutes; you definitely don’t want to overdo it. The pitas will puff up while baking (if you’ve got kids, the puffing will be quite a treat to watch), taking on their signature “pocket” form, and may get slightly brown when they’re done, but don’t wait for them to get brown before you pull them out of the oven – you want them to stay pliable.
The whole wheat dough made for a pita that had more flavor, but was grainier and not quite as decadently divine as the standard white flour pita. I kind of forgot that with whole wheat you need more water / less flour which probably would have improved the results. They were still better than store-bought, especially when piled with homemade babaghanoush and falafel and veggies. We never made it out of the kitchen, preferring to stand and nosh and catch up as other friends dropped in to say hi to T.
In the middle east, pitas are made in 800-degree brick ovens like pizza (in fact, pizza itself, and the word pizza may have evolved from pita, which basically means bread or flatbread in several languages). The very high temperatures are what cause the puffing. The yeast goes into shock somehow and aids in the puffing, along with steam. In searching online after the fact (here for a whole wheat pita recipe and check out the comments here for lots of useful tips), higher oven temperatures – 500 degrees – and a bit of misting in the oven with a spray bottle are recommended to encourage puffiness.
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