Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pitas: Not Such a Pain After All

I have an addiction to pitas. I love that you can use them as a pocket (fun!), a thick tortilla, funny shaped bread, a utensil to shovel humus down your gullet, or even a pizza crust. Basically, they work for whatever I need at the moment, which lets me be an awful lot lazier about what I'm going to make on any given day. Anything that lets me be lazy is tops in my book!
"Failed" pitas? I don't believe they exist

As with most things, it took a few trials for me to feel comfortable making pitas. Since it seemed so complicated, the period between trials consisted of several in I moved multiple times between attempts. I was sure there was a reason that the internet abbreviation for pain in the ass is PITA. I was, happily, wrong about that.

Really, you only need two things – a flat cooking surface (cast iron griddle or pizza stone) and a hot oven. That's the big secret. Not too much to it, really. I had the hot oven, but not the griddle. I had read you could use a heat-proof frying pan or a cookie sheet turned upside down, but neither worked well for me. I had resigned myself to not making pitas...not really much of a loss, I thought. Then came my mom's birthday; we threw her a Greek-food themed party, mostly so she could eat lamb. She loves lamb, but my dad loathes it, so it's a rare treat for her.

All it needs is a little hummus.  Or a lot of hummus.
I couldn't go Greek without hummus and pitas, though, so I had to acquire a griddle. My first attempt was to
just ask my mom to use hers – she has owned a big cast-iron griddle for as long as I can remember. In my mind it will always be the Pancake Griddle (yes, in capital letters). Unfortunately, she forgot to bring it with her the one time we met up before her birthday, so she bought me one of my own as an early birthday present. I love it. It cooks all my tortillas and flatbreads and is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I found a recipe on The Fresh Loaf, which I find is one of the more reliable places for all things bread related. Those people are serious about their breads, let me tell you! It is quite easy – only six ingredients, which I appreciate, and just under three hours start to finish.

They can rest now, while you sip wine
They start the same way most breads start – activating the yeast, then mixing in the other ingredients and kneading. As usual, I use my Kitchen Aid* to do this, so I don't have to put in any more effort than adding flour here and there to prevent sticking. I usually have to add quite a bit at this point, because the recipe I use calls to add more water if the flour isn't absorbing; I don't like adding liquid late in the game, because it always seems to make a mess. I just start with the larger amount and add as much more flour as it needs. Once the dough is a good form, knead it for 10 minutes. It seems like a long time to knead it, but hey – after it's done, you get to walk away for 90 minutes or so while it rises!

Once it's risen, put the griddle in the oven on the middle rack (make sure the other rack is below that) set the oven to pre-heat to 420 degrees, then punch the dough down, divide it up into 8-12 pieces, depending on how large of pitas you want, and then walk away for another 20 minutes to let the gluten relax. I suggest having a glass of wine and relaxing on your glutes as well. Symmetry is key.

This is a large pita
Once your wine, er, dough is done resting, comes the labor-intensive part. Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and roll the dough out to 1/8”-1/4” thick. Put it on griddle and let it cook for three minutes. If you have a large enough griddle, you can cook two at a time. While you wait, roll out another pita (or two, look through the oven door to see if the pita in the oven is puffing as it should – not that you can do anything about it if it's not – and sip some wine while you wait for the timer. Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

If the pitas aren't puffing, it's usually one of two things – they were rolled to thick or the oven isn't hot enough. I get about an 80% puff rate. There are always a few that don't work right, but I just use them for non-pocket purposes.
The Perfect Puff

These freeze really well, much better than most breads, in my opinion. That led me to attempt to make a double batch. While the recipe doubled easily, I didn't like how long I had to stand in the oven cooking pitas. I found that a much more effective way was to start a second batch when the first batch finished rising, so I got a nice break from being in the kitchen. And I got boatloads of pitas. Win-win!

3 cups flour*
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon sugar or honey
1 packet yeast (or, if from bulk, 2 teaspoons yeast)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups water, roughly at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, or shortening

*Can be any combination of flours – I use 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup whole-wheat.

1)If you are using active dry yeast, follow the instructions on the packet to active it (see the note on yeast above). Otherwise, mix the yeast in with the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the olive oil and 1 1/4 cup water and stir together with a wooden spoon. All of the ingredients should form a ball. If some of the flour will not stick to the ball, add more water (I had to add an extra 1/4 cup).

2) Once all of the ingredients form a ball, knead the dough for approximately 10 minutes.

3) When you are done kneading the dough, place it in a bowl that has been lightly coated with oil (I just spray it with cooking spray) Form a ball out of the dough and place it into the bowl, rolling the ball of dough around in the bowl so that it has a light coat of oil on all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and set aside to rise until it has doubled in size, approximately 90 minutes.

4) When it has doubled in size, punch the dough down to release some of the trapped gases and divide it into 8-12 pieces.Eight pieces will result in 8”-10” pitas (as pictured above), while 12 will result in 6”-8” pitas.

5) Roll each piece into a ball, cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel, and let them rest for 20 minutes. This step allows the dough to relax so that it'll be easier to shape.

6) While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 420 degrees. Put the griddle or baking stone in the oven to preheat as well.

7) After the dough has relaxed for 20 minutes, spread a light coating of flour on a work surface and place one of the balls of dough there. Sprinkle a little bit of flour on top of the dough and use a rolling pin or your hands to stretch and flatten the dough. You should be able to roll it out to between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. If the dough does not stretch sufficiently you can cover it with the damp towel and let it rest 5 to 10 minutes before trying again.

8) Open the oven and place as many pitas as you can fit on the hot baking surface. They should be baked through and puffy after three minutes.
Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

*Just after Christmas, we found a deal on a more powerful KitchenAid and pounced – it's big and shiny and way more powerful. The kneading hook seems to be much more effective at stretching the dough too. I adore it.
Look how pretty and red and shiny it is!

1 comment:

  1. Damn. Now I want some tzatziki and lemon rice soup. YUM.