Saturday, January 30, 2016

Averting a Pita Panic

My first attempt at making sourdough pita bread was so successful that I decided to invite the whole family over for a BBQ, where I would impress them with my baking skills. What I didn't count on was getting different results every time I tried making pita bread since then.

Rescue Mission #1: Pita Chips

To prepare for the gathering, I tried a recipe which required less sourdough starter, and used a mix of wholemeal and white flour. I impatiently started baking without waiting for the dough to fully double in size, and also pulled the rounds out of the oven after a shorter amount of time to stop the bread getting dry.

Smaller bubbles that did not join into a pocket.

Not surprisingly, these "pitas" did not rise much, and I wasn't entirely sure whether they were fully cooked.

Not much rising going on here, and the colour didn't look right.

Before giving up altogether, I rolled the final dough ball thinner than usual, let the oven heat for longer, and managed to make a large pita pocket. This would be a good option for someone wanting a lower carb pita sandwich, but the thinner bread did go stale more quickly that the thicker ones I made earlier.

In this batch of dough, thinness worked better.

I sliced up the rest of the bread into triangles, brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled salt and pepper over them, and baked them until golden.

Pita chips made from bread that did not rise well.

These pita chips were a great accompaniment to my homemade hummus!

Pita chips with homemade hummus, garnished with olive oil and sumac.

Rescue Mission #2: Manakish Za'atar or Pizza

Although my bread did not puff up into what I would consider pita, I suspected that I just didn't let the dough rise enough. The results weren't really that bad, and I was sure I could get it right next time. I set about trying to produce more sourdough starter quickly, taking it out of the fridge and letting it sit on the kitchen counter. Unfortunately, I left my starter out too long (well over a day), and after making plenty of bubbles, it seemed to have been taken over by some other organisms. After feeding it a couple of times in blind optimism, it turned into a runny goo with no elasticity, which also didn't smell quite right. It was not going to recover in time for the BBQ, so I turned to Plan B: using store-bought yeast.

The recipe in the New York Times called for 2 teaspoons of yeast, but I only had just over 1 teaspoon left in the cupboard. I figured that wouldn't be a problem, as long as I let the dough rise long enough. I tried rolling it thinner, since that helped last time, but I still ended up with several air pockets rather than one large one, more like naan than pita.

Naan-like bubbles.

Perhaps it was because I rolled the dough out in plenty of flour, taking away the moisture that's needed so the steam can do its work. Perhaps the pizza stone under the baking sheet simply wasn't hot enough yet. In any case, it wasn't working.

I had mixed up some za'atar as we had too much thyme in the garden (though it's probably not the right kind of thyme to use). I sprinkled it now over the dough discs, after brushing them with olive oil.

Bread topped with olive oil and za'atar.

Fresh bread is always delicious anyway, even when just seasoned and brushed with olive oil, but the manakish za'atar was a tasty and novel option.

My manakish za'atar.

By changing the toppings, you could also make some mini pizzas.

Crispy, thin pizzas from pita dough.

Of course, I went and bought more yeast after this trial run - I still intended to make pita bread for people, after all.

Rescue Mission #3: Flour Tortillas

I prepared a lot of dough for our BBQ, just to be on the safe side. Inevitably, there was more of it than people could eat, and our fridge was already full from all the meats and salads that were left over, so the unused mixture sat at room temperature for more than a day. In hindsight, I should have just baked all of it, and put the leftover pitas in the freezer (they defrost easily in the toaster, and will even puff up again if they did so originally). However, when you are entertaining guests, there are other things you want to do with your time.

The excess batch of dough had risen, then deflated, and now smelt rather alcoholic. It was also quite wet, so I added plenty of flour to bring it back to the right consistency. I rolled balls of dough into thin discs to make something like flour tortillas, and cooked them over a hot, dry, cast iron frying pan.

Small bubbles would develop across each round of dough, which is probably when you want to flip it to cook the other side, then transfer it to a plate covered with a tea towel, simultaneously keeping it warm and moist.

Little bubbles on the flatbread.

If you cook it for longer, the small bubbles may join up into a large bubble, essentially giving you pita bread, but then you run the risk of burning part of it, as I did in the video below (fast forward through and the bubble growth looks like magic):

Thin pita pocket in a pan.

These rounds of bread still tasted a little sour and alcoholic, but if you eat them with some flavourful fillings, it's not going to be a problem!

Flatbread with dips and salads: hummus, toum, baba ghanoush, muhammara, tabbouleh and a tomato salad.
Taquitos with refried beans, grated cheese, avocado and tomato salsa.

Other Ideas

I haven't tried these yet, but I imagine you could also easily turn your dough into gözleme, Chinese spring onion pancakes, and the like. Have fun!

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