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Pita Bread

by Corby Kummer

March 1995

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid are, to say the least, intrepid. I've several times been mesmerized by Jeffrey's slides of Tibet, Afghanistan, and various Asian hinterlands where he has hitched rides on donkeys or even less convenient modes of transport. Modest, a respectful and engaged listener, Jeffrey always seems to be invited to a meal and to find his way to the cook's side at the crucial moment. Frequently he is joined by Naomi, his wife, a former lawyer who gave in to her wanderlust and helped gather the experiences and recipes for Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas, which will be published this month by Morrow.

Flatbreads are literally the base of the peasant dishes that fill their wonderful new book, both a travelogue and a cookbook that shows a vanishing cuisine and the life that went with it. This recipe for pita bread is about twice or three times as long as the other recipes in the book, which are for rustic spreads and sauces and stews.

Pita deserves the space, because it's a universal in the food they document, and once mastered it's easy. At Fetzer Vineyard's Eden-like organic vegetable and flower garden, in the Sonoma Valley, I once helped Jeffrey roll out dozens and dozens of whole-wheat pitas for over a hundred cooks and farmers from all over the country who had gathered to discuss sustainable agriculture. When I first offered to help, Jeffrey shrewdly implied that I would be better off manning the griddle: the light but firm touch required for each round didn't come quickly to just anybody, he warned.

His management strategy worked. Naturally, I wasn't going to leave the makeshift table of plywood on sawhorses until I could roll the eight-inch breads so that they required only a sprinkling of flour (I began by dousing the carefully risen dough with flour, which will guarantee a leaden result, leading Jeffrey to kindly offer me another task) and seemed to glide off the little wooden dowel we were using as a rolling pin.

I made bread for two hours. And loved snitching fresh-baked ones off the griddle--I didn't even need any sauce, made from red peppers picked that afternoon, so satisfyingly steamy and nutty were the lightly puffed rounds.


PITA

From Flatbreads & Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (William Morrow & Co . ;1995. $30.00 hardcover)

khubz, baladi - Eastern Mediterranean

Pita, commonly referred to in Arabic as khubz ("bread"), is the most widely available bread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, in these days of mass production, even there the khubz that makes its way to restaurant tables is often the same ubiquitous too-quick-to-go-stale white pita served in restaurants in North America This is not true in Egypt, however, where the local pita--called loalarli--is made from 100 percent whole wheat flour and freshly baked several times a day in neighborhood bakeries. To a visitor, bread can seem unbelievably cheap, because it is subsidized by the government. The quality of the baladi, as well as its price, is strictly controlled by the government; bread is an important political issue, just as it is in many other places all around the world.

As for homemade pita, cast away any thought of those white cardboard like supermarket breads. Fresh homemade whole wheat pitas, or those made with half white, half whole wheat, are quick and delicious. They are most easily made on quarry tiles or baking sheets in the oven, but they can also be baked on a griddle or in a cast iron skillet on the stove.

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

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

You will need a large bread bowl, unglazed quarry tiles (see page 20) to fit on a rack in your oven or several baking sheets, or a cast iron or other heavy griddle or skillet at least 9 inches in diameter, and a rolling pin.

In a large bread bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir to dissolve. Stir in 3 cups 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.

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.

To save the dough in the refrigerator for baking later, gently punch it down. Wrap it in a plastic bag that is at least three times as large as the dough, and secure it just at the opening of the bag; this will give the dough room to expand while it is in the refrigerator. Then, from day to day, simply cut off the amount of dough you need and keep the rest in the refrigerator. After a few days, the dough will smell increasingly fermented, but the fermentation actually improves the taste of the bread, especially if baked on quarry tiles. The dough should always be brought to room temperature before baking.)

If baking the breads: Place unglazed quarry tiles, or two small baking sheets, on the bottom rack of your oven, leaving a 1-inch gap all around between the tiles or sheets and the oven walls to allow heat to circulate. Preheat the oven to 450 F.

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 to 9 inches in diameter and less than 1/4 inch thick. Keep the rolled-out breads covered until ready to bake, but do not stack.

Place 2 breads, or more if your oven is large enough, on the quarry tiles or baking sheets, and bake for 2 to 3 minutes, or until each bread has gone into a full "balloon." If there are seams or dry bits of dough, or for a variety of other reasons--e.g., your quarry tiles are not sufficiently preheated--the breads may not balloon properly. But don't worry, they will still taste great. The more you bake pitas, the more you will become familiar with all the little tricks and possible pitfalls, and your breads will more consistently balloon. Wrap the baked breads together in a large kitchen towel to keep them warm and soft while you bake the remaining rolled out breads. Then repeat with the rest of the dough.

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.

Gently put one bread onto the griddle. Cook for 15 to 20 seconds, then gently turn over. 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 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.

Serve with any Central Asian or western Asian meal. Always have stacks of fresh pita on the mezze table (see page 203), whole or cut in wedges, and wrapped to keep soft and warm.


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Copyright © 1995, Corby Kummer. Recipe Copyright © 1995, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. From Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas. Published by William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.
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