MY KITCHEN resembled a Middle-Eastern bake-shop yesterday, as I turned flour, water, yeast, salt and olive oil into Pita bread. The recipe I played with, and how I tweaked my oven to get the dough to form a balloon, or “pocket:”
I’ve tried many different pita recipes, and found most of them rather lackluster in taste. But one by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, in their book Flatbreads and Flavors, produces robustly-flavored pitas. Why? Because the little breads begin their careers as a “yeast sponge.” A sponge is a mixture of water, yeast and flour that you let sit for about an hour. During this time, the yeast feeds on the flour, and a deep taste is developed.
If you have kids in your house, I promise you they’ll have fun watching the sponge. For it will twist, turn, bubble and burp, just like something out of a horror movie.
Whole Wheat Pita Bread
Based on a recipe by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and tweaked, quite a bit, by me
Ingredients for about 16 breads, about 8-inches in diameter
One packet (2 tsp) active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups white all-purpose flour
1 Tbs kosher salt
1 Tbs olive oil
Special Equipment: a pizza-stone or cast-iron skillet, approx. 10-inches in diamter; a spray bottle, filled with water; at least 2 kitchen towels
1. Making the sponge – In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir to dissolve. Add 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, and then stir 100 times in the same direction to activate the gluten. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least one hour.
2. Making the Dough – Sprinkle the salt over the sponge; stir. Then stir in the olive oil. Gradually add the all-purpose flour until the dough is too stiff to stir. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes, or until the dough feels smooth and i elastic. Wash out and dry the bowl, then coat it with a little olive oil or spray it with vegetable spray. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until at least double in size, approximately 2 hours.
One hour before baking the pitas, place the pizza stone or cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack of your oven. Then preheat the oven to 450F.
3. Forming the Pitas – Gently punch down the dough. Divide the dough in half, then set half aside, covered, while you work with the rest. Divide the other half into 8 equal pieces and flatten each piece with lightly floured hands. Roll out each piece to a circle 8 inches in diameter and less than 1/4 inch thick.
4. Spritzing the Pitas – Set the rolled out breads on a damp kitchen towel, and spritz tops with water. Then cover with another kitchen towel. Spritz the top towel with water, too. Moist pitas, I find, are more likely to puff than dry ones.
5. Baking – Place one bread on the pizza stone or cast-iron skillet, and let it bake for 3-4 minutes, to see if it balloons. It it balloons, you’re all set. If it doesn’t, move the rack up one level, and increase oven temperature to 500F. These alterations, which are never mentioned in bread-baking books, made all the difference in my own pita-making adventure.
If you plan to eat the pitas right away, keep them warm in a kitchen towel. Otherwise, let them cool. Then stack them in zip-lock bags, and freeze. Frozen pitas will keep for months. To reheat easily, wrap one or two pitas in a paper towel and heat in the microwave for about 30 seconds.
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