I still vividly remember the first time our baking instructor at culinary school made pita bread, shortly after dawn in a brightly lit Pasadena baking lab many years ago. She made a batch of bread dough, rolled it out into rounds the size of small Frisbees and deftly slid the discs onto the hot floor of a deck oven.
Then she stood back, folding her arms over her white chef’s jacket, somehow utterly flourless, and told us to watch. Only a few minutes later, the breads each began to lift from the stone, inflating like pale balloons. It was like a magic trick.
We pulled the pitas from the oven with peels, tore them apart — the steam like breath, the earthy aroma of wheat filling the air — and greedily ate them with our hands. Then we went back to our stations, spilling flour across the boards like a dusting of snow, rolled out the dough and duplicated the magic trick again and again, eager and hungry as children.
You do not, of course, have to go to culinary school to make your own pitas. They’re remarkably simple to bake at home, as you’ll need just four of the most basic ingredients (flour, salt, water, yeast), plus a baking stone and a little patience.
Given the current renaissance of Middle Eastern cuisine, it seems a good time to master the bread that is the traditional accompaniment to so much of that food. Because if you’re going to make or source all the excellent stuff that you put inside a pita, it seems a bit mournful to use the store-bought bread — often stale and tasteless as cardboard — when it’s so easy to make it yourself.
Alex Phaneuf and Or Amsalam remember when they first started making pita bread at Lodge Bread, their 2½-year-old artisanal bakery in Culver City.
“Or just shaped some pizza dough really small,” says Phaneuf now, his heavily tattooed hands restlessly moving between a plate of whole grain pastries and a mug of coffee at the crowded bakery.
He and Amsalam had baked that first pita in their wood-burning oven, and ended up making more , eating it as soon as it came out of the fire.
These days, they turn out about 1,600 pitas a week, making and proofing the dough at Lodge and firing it at Hasiba, their newly opened hummus restaurant on Pico Boulevard. At Hasiba, you can get your pita stuffed with roasted sweet potatoes, tahina and chermoula, among many other things — all vegetable-based and kosher.
This is not the anemic double wafer of flatbread that you find in bags at stores, or even in baskets at the many restaurants where the pre-made stuff comes with your dinner. This is bread that tastes like, well, bread — built with a percentage of whole grain flour and left to proof overnight.
It has flavor and structure and heft and can hold up to the glories packed inside. It’s also great doused with just some good olive oil and a little salt, or eaten straight from the oven like we did in school.
At Lodge, they use natural levain, or sourdough, for all their breads and pastries but have altered that recipe for home bakers who may not have the time or inclination to play with sourdough. The difference, and it’s a crucial one, is that they let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator, where it slowly builds structure and flavor. There’s no olive oil in the dough — splash some on after you bake the pitas instead — and you don’t knead it, just mix it up, let the mixture rest a few times in the bowl, portion the dough into pieces and put them into the refrigerator overnight. Hence the need for patience.
(A note about sourdough: If you have starter, replace the commercial yeast in this recipe with 150 grams of active starter and proceed as directed. And if you don’t have starter, why not give it a try? It’s basically a bowl of fermented flour and water, and the patience and tending that it requires will amply reward you in flavor.)
The pita dough can be formed into pizzas or made into other kinds of flatbread: Dock the dough or prick it with a fork to keep it from puffing. Or instead of dividing the dough into portions, halve the recipe and make two loaves of bread.
Another advantage of the overnight proof is that you can get up in the morning or come home from work and have your pitas ready as soon as your oven is. Just crank your oven, roll out the pitas and slide them onto a baker’s stone (if you don’t have one of these, they’re worth it, not just for pita but also for pizza and other breads; they also keep your oven at a more consistent temperature, so it’s worth keeping in your oven even when not baking).
The heat of the stone steams the water in the dough, which separates into two layers and thus forms the pita’s distinctive pocket. In culinary school we were told not to let the breads color, but dough that’s proofed overnight has more structure, thus you can get more color to these pitas — and a bit of speckled char gives them more flavor too.
And watching the pitas rise in the oven, a few minutes worth of culinary magic, is a trick that never gets old.