Monday, April 7, 2008

Would Not a Pita by Any Other Name...

Taste so damn good? I think you can guess the answer to that question. We've made homemade pita a few times now, but I've finally been inspired to blog about it because of the various pita incarnations that came out of our most recent batch.

On Friday night we had the pleasure of entertaining two friends who, luckily, don't mind showing up to dinner at the scheduled time to find their hostess covered in flour and furiously rolling out the dough for fresh pitas (pita is something you want to eat straight from the oven, anyway - trust me). We made one of my favorite meals: chicken and lamb marinated in lemon and mint, roasted zucchini and eggplant, a kalamata-studded Greek salad, and of course, fresh whole-wheat pita. To top it all off, Jonathan made a lemony hummus, and I mixed up a bowlful of tahini-yogurt-cucumber dip. Seriously, this is one of the best-tasting meals in the world, and it is perfect for entertaining. Serve everything family style, and dig in.

But back to the pita. There isn't a whole lot of room for experimentation with the dough itself; I picked a recipe from the amazingly entertaining and informative blog Arabic Bites, and did my usual 100% whole wheat thing (I used whole wheat bread flour, to be exact). I mixed and kneaded by hand, then let it rise for about 2 hours, allowing for a long rest because I was using whole wheat flour. Although I did a fair bit of kneading, I am a firm believer in the idea that you can't really mess up a flatbread. Since you end up rolling it out before baking, it doesn't fall prey to the usual problems that come with yeasted breads (and believe me, I've seen them all).

To go with the meat, veggies, and hummus, I made a whole bunch of regular pitas, making sure to roll them out very thinly in order to achieve that magical balloon effect that leaves the bread with the oh-so-convenient pocket. I won't pretend to know why rolling the dough very thinly has this effect on the baked breads, but it does. See?

After some experimentation, I've decided that soft pitas are best for dipping and stuffing, so I take them out of the oven very soon after they've puffed. As they cool, they deflate and develop a light and chewy crumb. They stay soft like this for at least a few hours...maybe more, although they've never stuck around our kitchen long enough for me to know.

But while plain pita is great and all, I used this batch to test out a few other ideas. The first was a Mediterranean-ish flatbread, which turned out to be great pre-dinner snacking food that we consumed while I finished rolling/baking the remaining pitas on Friday evening. I simply rolled out a hunk of dough, brushed it generously with olive oil, and then topped to my heart's content. I made a couple versions, both of which started with a hefty sprinkling of spices. My sister introduced me to authentic za'atar after her recent trip to Israel, so in an attempt to mimic that flavor combination, I dusted the glistening dough rounds with plenty of thyme, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, salt, and pepper. The first flatbread also had olives, feta, and red onion, and on the second bread I substituted the feta for some pine nuts.

Both were quite tasty, especially dunked in hummus and yogurt. Next time I think I'll use more toppings, although I've baked enough heavy-handedly topped pizzas to know that this can cause its own problems...that pizza peel to pizza stone transition can get ugly.

A bit of leftover dough languished in the refrigerator all day on Saturday, which gave it a little extra yeasty tang on Sunday, when we had the opportunity to bake it. My daily food blog perusal turned up the spectacular idea of a breakfast pizza, which I was itching to create myself. This was indeed utterly delicious - perhaps my favorite incarnation of this round of pita. I topped the pizza with spinach, mozzarella, and one egg, which rolled around threateningly as I attempted to move the pizza into the oven. There were no disasters, though, even if the yolk cooked a bit more quickly than I would have liked in the hot oven. The egg white was perfectly soft, though, and melded with the melted mozzarella to form a lovely blanket over the wilted spinach.

In the future this pizza won't be relegated to breakfast - I can easily see an egg atop all sorts of tasty pizza ingredients, and a little runny yolk always makes everything taste better, right? As always, I used my pizza stone (both for the pitas and the flatbreads), and the crust on this pizza was slightly crisp on the outside, but chewy and bubbly on top. Definitely the best brunch food I've made in a while, or at the very least, since the last time I made brunch.

So, while I continue to dream up new ideas for my next batch of pita dough, I'll also encourage you to experiment with some pita of your own. Most recipes I've found are pretty much the same: flour, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and salt. Choose one, heat up your oven as high as it will go, and get rollin'. It is definitely worth the effort.


Emma said...

I love this idea! It actually reminds me a little bit of a meal I had in Israel, made by this crazy Yemenite dude. It wasn't on pita, but it was a flatbread that he cooked in a skillet with red onion, tomatoes, and some spices and herbs. You'll have to find out how to make Yemenite pancake/flatbread-y stuff.

Christine said...

I've never come across anyone making their own pita. How cool is that? I imagine it's just delicious fresh out of the oven.

Katie said...

"...high temperatures (700°F or 370°C), causing the flattened rounds of dough to puff up dramatically. When removed from the oven the layers of baked dough remain separated inside the deflated pita..."

courtesy of Wikipedia- I wonder why the yeast forms just 2 layers??

My personal favorite was the pine nut flatbread with yogurt sauce! Followed by a biscotti, of course. Awesome meal.