Ode to the Cuisine of Israel: Pita Bread

I was able to take an amazing trip to the Holy Land with my husband several years ago–an experience I will never forget.   I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the food, but I was oh, SO WRONG.  Five-star desserts weren’t the norm, aside from this one:

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But, the food was truly outstanding.  I attribute this mainly to the use of local, fresh produce.  People all over the country still buy their produce from local farmers and at local “stands.”  Keep in mind, this was the selection in the dead-winter of January.

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IMG_0914IMG_0925The variety of salads and vegetable preparations was something I have never seen in America.  I have since read in several cookbooks and on numerous food blogs dedicated to this region that no Arab woman was likely to be taken as a bride unless she could prepare eggplant in seven (the number varies depending upon the account) different ways.  I believe it.  I saw vegetables prepared in so many ways I cannot even begin to remember many of them.  I met few I didn’t love.

In fact, our favorite, deceptively simple, staple cabbage salad originated from this trip.  That recipe will have to keep for a winter’s day, however.  Today, we are going to talk about something more traditional to the cuisine of Israel: pita sandwiches.

Flat breads are the staple for cultures with ancient beginnings (think unleavened bread and manna of the Old Testament).  Whether opened up and stuffed, torn into wedges and used as a vehicle for hummus or other dips, or simply folded up into a taco shape with something delicious inside, pitas are delightful.  What child’s interest doesn’t spark when you tell them lunch will be “pocket sandwiches?”

My pita dough uses a sourdough starter, which I know just caused some people to stop reading and click elsewhere, but bear with my while I explain.  More traditional yeast bread methods always used a long soaking time and a natural yeast (sourdough) starter for leavening.  There is some indication that these historic methods actually changed the digestibility of the grains and are therefore healthier for our digestive systems.  I am not saying I’ve found a cure for Celiac or anything (that would be ridiculous, since I am no scientist) only that when I am able, I like to use the old-school method both for assumed health benefits as well as a slower, more traditional experience and final product.  If you’d rather make pita without the sourdough, I have included a second recipe below that omits it.  I am unabashedly partial to the sourdough version.  Once your pitas are done, stuff them with hummus, grilled veggies and more (don’t worry we’ll get into that later in the week).

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Pita Bread – Whole Wheat, Sourdough
Adapted from: http://bintrhodaskitchen.blogspot.com

Yield:  15-20 rounds
4 cups whole wheat flour (can use all white or half white and half wheat)
1 Tbsp Real kosher salt
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups whole milk
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup sourdough starter, freshly fed and bubbly, (freshly fed will give less of a sour taste to the final bread)

To Make Dough:
Mix together 3 cups of flour and salt in a mixing bowl (if kneading by hand) or bowl of a stand mixer.

Add honey, milk, oil and starter. Knead for several minutes and then add the extra flour a little at a time until dough is tacky, not sticky.

Form dough into a round, place in an oiled bowl and cover.  Allow to raise until double in size, about 4-6 hours.

To Form and Bake:
Divide the dough into lemon sized balls and use either a tortilla press or a rolling pin (or a combination of both) to roll them out rather thin, but not too thin or they won’t hold up to stuffing.  Children are ideal helpers during this step.

Place the loaves on a well-floured surface so that they do not stick and cover with a damp towel.  Allow to rest 5-10 minutes while you work on the other rounds.  They won’t rise noticeably.

Preheat either a cast iron skillet or a pizza stone in the oven.  Carefully place rounds onto hot surface and cook until they puff completely, about 2-3 minutes.  Flip and cook 1-2 minutes on the other side.  Repeat with remaining rounds.  Store finished pita in a tortilla warmer to keep warm and soft until you are ready to eat them.

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Pita Bread, Instant Yeast
Adapted from: The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan

1 Tbsp instant yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour (or a combo of wheat and white), approximately

1. Combine yeast and warm water in bowl of BOSCH mixer. Stir until yeast is dissolved; add olive oil, and salt. With motor on speed 1, add enough flour to form a firm, elastic dough.

2. Form dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with saran wrap and let rise until doubled.

3. Turn dough out onto floured surface and cut into 12 equal pieces. Using your hands, form each section into a ball about the size of a lemon. Cover with a towel and set aside for 5 minutes.

4. Lightly flour the worksurface and roll each ball to a 6-inch disk. The dough will be very elastic, so roll firmly, adding a little more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Repeat with remaining balls of dough. Cover and let rest 15 minutes

5. Meanwhile, preheat oven with a baking stone (alternately, a baking sheet pan) to 500°, or use a cast iron pan on the stovetop.  Using a peel, transfer 2 rounds to the baking stone or pan and bake 3 minutes. Remove withtongs or spatula and repeat with all remaining rounds.

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Categories: Bread, Ethnic, Flatbreads/Crackers, Israeli

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