Whenever I open a bag of sunflower seeds at the cabin, I am reminded of the many times I watched my father open flour sacks for Mom. She bought flour in 25-pound sacks and Dad pulled out the stitching and dumped the flour into the bin built into the kitchen cabinets under the counter.
Sometimes I got the job of shaking out the flour dust in the back yard before the sack went into the laundry. Once laundered, those flour sacks became dish towels, pillow cases, and dresses for my younger sisters.
As you might suppose, Mom used a lot of flour. She made two double batches of bread every week plus cakes, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, pie crusts, rolls, dumplings and doughnuts. One thing she did not make, however, was pita bread.
I was introduced to pita bread by a girlfriend at Madison. She called it pocket bread and we ate it with hummus, another food new to me at the time. The bread came from a bakery located near the university and we bought the hummus, as I recall, from a shop in the same neighborhood that also sold tea, teapots and sandals.
Today we still eat pita bread with hummus but we also cut the loaves in half and stuff the pockets with scrambled eggs or other goodies or cut the loaves in small wedges and dip them in olive oil. And thanks to a little cookbook we bought nearly 40 years ago we make our own pita bread.
In 1973 James Beard published Beard on Bread, and we bought our copy that year. That book is really why I bake so many different kinds of bread today. Mom inspired me, but Beard was my bread baking teacher. One of the things he taught me was how to make pita bread.
If you have ever eaten pita or pocket bread, you may be nervous about trying to bake it in your kitchen. How can you make a bread that splits into a pocket when you cut it in half? It may seem like magic, but it’s really just that pita bread is all crust.
If you look at a loaf of bread, you will see that it has a top and a bottom crust separated by the soft inner part called the crumb. The crumb is filled with air holes caused by the carbon dioxide from the yeast and steam from the water in the dough released as the bread bakes. The carbon dioxide and steam push the crust up into a nice round top.
To make pita bread you roll the dough very thin. This gives you a tough outer layer that becomes the crust. The carbon dioxide and steam push the crusts apart but there is very little crumb in the thin circle of dough. Without the crumb to hold the crust up, it collapses like a balloon with a slow leak and you end up with a bread that makes a pocket when you cut it in half. Simple, but it still seems a little like magic.
This is James Beard’s recipe for pita bread with some changes reflecting what I have found works best for me.
Here is how he introduces his recipe:
“Pita bread is that flat, round, softish bread called, among other names, Syrian bread, Armenian bread, and Middle Eastern bread. Its two layers are almost separated in the baking, and one can split it very easily to use with shish kebab and even with hamburgers, as well as all kinds of other sandwiches. It is also extremely good buttered, cut into strips, and baked in a slow oven to get quite crisp, to be served like Melba toast with soup or salads or cold fish dishes. It can be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator or frozen successfully.
“Pita bread must not be allowed to get crisp when it comes freshly baked from the oven but should be wrapped in foil or plastic to keep the bread loose and soft after the puffing up that occurs during baking. Although it can be made with all-purpose flour, it’s much better made with hard-wheat bread flour, which gives a better texture and rises better. Pita loaves are great fun to make.”
The ingredients below will make 10 to 14 circular loaves, depending on how large you make them.
3 heaping teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups warm water (100° to 115°, approximately)
1/4 cup olive oil plus a scant teaspoon in a bowl to coat the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
6 – 7 cups bread flour
Warm the water to about 110 degrees. Put a half cup of the water into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar and yeast and allow it to proof. When the yeast has started to foam in the bowl, add the remaining water along with the salt and oil.
Stir in the flour one cup at a time until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Let it rest in the bowl for three or four minutes, then turn it out on a well-floured board. Use a spatula to scrape the dough off the sides of the bowl as much as possible and to turn the dough on the floured board to begin the kneading. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, adding flour to your hands and the board as necessary. This will take eight to ten minutes.
Coat the inside of the bowl with olive oil. Shape the dough into a ball, place it in the bowl, and turn it so it is coated with oil on all sides. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place for about two hours or until it has doubled in bulk.
Punch down the dough, turn it out on a floured board and press it gently into a long log. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes. With a baker’s scraper or large knife, cut slices of dough to make 10 to 14 pieces. The easiest way to do this evenly is to cut the log in half, then cut each half into five to seven slices.
Shape each piece into a ball by rolling it in your hands. Dust the balls with flour if they are too sticky and place them on a floured surface. Cover them with a damp cloth and let them rest for 30 minutes.
Flatten each ball with your hand, turning the dough to flour both sides. With a well-floured rolling pin, roll each ball to 1/8 to 3/16 inch thickness in approximately 6 to 8 inch circles. Dust baking sheets with cornmeal, place circles on each sheet, cover them with a damp cloth, and let them rest again for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 500°.
Leave the remaining circles on a lightly floured working surface and transfer them to the baking sheets, dusted again with cornmeal, when the first ones are baked.
Put one large or two smaller baking sheets on the lowest rack of the oven for 5 minutes. Beard emphasizes this next step. “Do not open the oven door until the 5 minutes are up! Transfer the sheet(s) to the middle shelf and continue baking 3 to 5 minutes longer until the loaves are puffed like balloons and just very lightly browned.”
Repeat the procedure with the remaining circles. Slide the finished loaves onto waxed paper and allow them to cool for five or six minutes Put the loaves into plastic bags when they are still slightly warm to prevent a crisp crust from forming and to ensure the familiar spongy pita texture. The loaves should deflate on cooling. You can help by gently pressing on them.
NOTES: The more uniform you make the balls of dough, the better your finished pita loaves will look. Keep rolling the dough between your palms until you have a smooth round ball.
Beard on Bread is still in print, so you can buy a hard copy from your local bookseller or on line or download a digital copy to read on your iPad. In fewer than 240 pages, Beard gives you a fine introduction to the art of bread making.