pita pita patter

When I did my experimenting with sourdough (starter and loaf) at the end of last year I became a little obsessed with reading about different kinds of bread; how they are all made, the differences in each process and the origins and stories behind them.

My main question that I desperately needed answered was how pita bread gets the big bubble of air in the middle, that convenient little pocket we all use to stuff in our favourite ingredients.

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Surprisingly it has nothing to do with a cleverly shaped or hollowed out wheel of dough but it actually is all on the way it’s cooked.

Similar to the way a naan bread is speckled with charred air bubbles from the immense heat of the oven they are cooked in, the expansion of a pita bread comes from the heat of the pan or oven they’re cooked in. Essentially, as the active yeast begins to rise, the water within the dough begins evaporating – splitting the dough in half as it tries to escape, forming the helpful hollow we find so useful.

And this is how easy they are to make:

1 cup of warm water
2 teaspoons of instant yeast
2 ½ cups of flour
2 teaspoons of sea salt
2 teaspoons of olive oil

Step one: mix it all together.

Step two: knead I for five minutes.

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Step three: place in a bow, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for an hour.

Step four: divide into eight equally sized discs, a bit like a UFO.

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(Note: step 3.5 should be heat the oven to 240°C with a tray in to heat as well)

Only once the oven is hot enough should you even think about cooking your pita breads, if it isn’t hot enough then they won’t balloon up and you may as well have just made bread rolls.

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Keep an eye on them: they will only need about 3 minutes – oh, the beauty of a hot oven!

They are best served hot, but delicious at room temperature too. I smeared mine with roast pepper hummus and stuffed them with pomegranate meatballs and fresh spinach. But to be completely honest, I would have eaten them plain, that’s how good they are.

 

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the chapter continues: making sourdough

I have always imagined that becoming an artisanal baker would be a rather idyllic and romantic way of living life. That is probably because while my imagination cascaded ideas of kneading dough and eating crusty bread, drenched in olive oil, it also conjured up an image of doing so in a 17th century villa surrounded by fields of sunflowers that doubled as my (currently non-existent) children’s magical forest play land.

I know the reality of that ever happening is slimmer than a slice of biscotti, but it’s nice to have dreams, isn’t it? Maybe I would settle for having a house with a wood fire oven, that way I could make pizza too!

It’s great to have things we want to attain in life, but most of the time we have to start out small; in this case, a small oven – this is how my first attempt at making sourdough went.

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To say it was a dreary morning sounds like the beginning of an unoriginal film noir script, but it was. I only mention that because the drear filled me with dread that I was not in the best of weather conditions for bread making. But I did it anyway – I’m a trooper.

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I measured out two cups of my pungently fresh sourdough starter and swirled through a tablespoon of melted butter and ½ of a cup of warm milk. Next, I sprinkled in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar before sifting in 3 cups of plain white flour.

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The best way to make bread dough is with your hands, though I do suggest loosely combining the mixture with a wooden spoon before taking to it with fist one and fist two. Tip the dough (and any particles that haven’t stuck together) onto a floured surface and knead with the heel of both hands for about 5 minutes. You will probably definitely need to add a touch more flour.

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Using your fingertips, roll the dough into a big, flat oval and roll up like you would if you were making a cinnamon roll. Knit the edges together between thumb and forefinger, place on a tray and leave to rise for about 3 hours.

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If you’re a little bit phobic about it not reaching the optimal rising temperature like me, try putting it in a warm oven for the time it takes to rise.

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Remove the loaf from the oven and heat to 190°C. Bake the bread at this temperature for 10 minutes before turning the temperature down to 175°C and baking for further 40 minutes.

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It is ready to eat at soon as you pull it out of the oven. Dense and zingy, it is perfect just smeared with a layer of butter, but it also makes a great accompaniment for dinner because it is so flavoursome and savoury. Serve on the side of a stew or top with left over tamarillo salsa!

a chapter on baking: sourdough starter

They say a holiday has been successful once you start missing reality; once you have reached your capacity of relaxation and have exhausted your to-do list of enjoyable activities. In the meantime, it is helpful to use this new found free time constructively as well as lying about lazily, curled up with a book and a glass of wine.

I spent the last week doing just that at my parents’ house in the countryside. The fresh air, the warm breeze, nature, paddocks and orchards as far as the eye can see; the perfect environment for making a sourdough starter.

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Sourdough uses wild yeast as a rising agent, so there is something ancient and traditional in the process; very at one with the earth if you don’t mind my hippy frame of reference. Catching nature’s own yeast particles from the rolling spring breeze is what gives the bread its unique and zingy flavour, a palate that will be specific only to that ball of dough – an imprint of the landscape in bread form, if you will.

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Like most things medieval, the process takes several days and is far from methodical. Begin with ½ a cup of flour and mix with an equal amount of water. You can use any flour; because the dough will have no commercial grade yeast, it will be denser than a loaf we would expect to buy today – so fluffy, refined white flour isn’t a bad choice. I used a bag of organic flour I found in the cupboard. A shade of mousy brown, I can only assume that it was wholegrain, bran or rye, but I really have no idea – all part of the mystery I say!

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Cover the bowl with cling film or (preferably) a tea towel and leave somewhere warm – near the fireplace or oven, and ideally somewhere near an open window and leave the yeast to work its magic.

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The following day, add another ½ cup of water and flour, combine well and leave to grow.

Repeat again on day three, the yeast should be becoming quite strong by now, and the mixture should smell of old beer. Bubbles should be forming on the surface as small bursts of carbon dioxide begin to form.

The next day, after the fourth addition of flour, the mixture should have the consistency of thick custard and the aroma of sulphur. Like me, your first thought will probably be that it’s all gone terribly wrong and you have somehow created a bucketful of caramel coloured toxic waste; don’t panic, it’s meant to smell like that. You may want to add a little less water than flour on the last day if it looks a little watery.

Based on how much wild yeast has inoculated and environmental factors such as temperature, your starter may need a fifth day with an additional dose of flour. But if it’s nice and bubbly, and perfuming the room like the Heineken Brewery, you know it’s ready to rock and roll!

Tune in next time for my recipe on how to make the dough!