• Extra: Basic Pita Dough
The always-easy pita fits Americans’ grab-and-run lifestyle as well as it did that of the Middle Eastern nomadic tribes who invented the flat bread thousands of years ago. Puffed with a pocket perfect for stuffing, it provides a portable, edible container for a vast array of fillings. It’s sturdy enough for picnics and take-out food, but it’s not too rough-hewn to accompany fancier fare. Even its blandness is a bonus, complementing all manner of flavorful ingredients.
Fill pitas with deli meats, herbs, and vegetables; ignore the pocket and top them with tomato sauce, cheese, and herb sauce and bake them as you would focaccia; or cut them into triangles to dip into savory sauces. You’ll find that the possibilities for using pitas are unlimited.
Bread has been a food staple for thousands of years. Paintings in Egyptian tombs depict the growing, harvesting, and milling of grain for bread. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Hittites, and other ancient civilizations depended on bread for much of their nourishment, and the breads they baked were flat loaves, ancestors of today’s pita. Eventually fermented or leavened bread was discovered, but this was reserved for the rich, while flat breads served the needs of commoners.
Middle Eastern and North African countries still use flat breads to hold meat fillings or dip into hummus (garbanzo puree) and baba ghanouj (eggplant puree). The Turkish, Lebanese, and Syrians all have their own flat-bread versions, but it’s the pita, or “pocket bread,” that is most recognizable in North America, where it is a popular alternative to traditional sliced bread.
The Middle Eastern flat breads eaten today are made with yeast and range in diameter from 4 to 10 inches. Some have pockets, others don’t. Some are baked to be thin and dry; others are softer and thicker for folding around fillings. Some are filled before baking. On the Islamic holiday Ramadan, a flat bread flavored with cumin, poppy, fennel, and nigella seeds and then stuffed with herbs, honey, nuts, and dried fruit is eaten during the feasts that take place after sunset.
Nearly all flat breads are variations on the basic pita dough recipe given on page 48. You can buy pita bread at most grocery stores, but for the freshest and tastiest pitas you might prefer to set aside a few hours, roll up your sleeves, and take part in a process that is as old as bread itself.
Pita Dough is used as the base for dozens of other flat breads. It is the pocket that differentiates pita from the other flat breads, at least to Americans. The most difficult aspect of baking your own pita bread is getting it to puff during baking, thereby forming the pocket. The factors that determine a pita’s puff include:
• A very hot oven. Keeping the oven between 500 degrees and 550 degrees is important. A preheated pizza stone is an excellent way to provide the dough with the very hot surface it needs as soon as it goes into the oven.
• Moist, tender dough. Steam makes the dough puff, so add only as much flour as you need. Just kneading it a few more minutes will help the dough lose its stickiness. It should be springy and feel as soft as an earlobe.
• Thickness. The pita dough should be flattened to no thicker than 1/4 inch.
• Heat flow. Bake no more than two small pitas at a time so you don’t crowd the oven.
• Make a basic pita dough.
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