Week Five: Breads for Parties
As much undying love as I hold in my heart for a good baguette, I’ll be the first to admit that there are times when that type of bread just won’t do. Crazy, I know; but I’ve got one word for you: hummus. Can you really enjoy hummus without something like pita bread? And what kind of life is it that doesn’t include hummus? Not one I’d like to live, I’ll tell you right now.
Pita bread is another of those fabulously indispensable party foods. There are simply some things for which a cracker or chip is just too crispy, and for which any other bread just isn’t quite right. But cut a pita into wedges and toast them, and you’ll find no better match for a caramelized onion dip, a roasted eggplant purée, a spicy black bean dip, or that creamy wonder, hummus. They have lately become de rigueur on menus for cocktail parties, and for good reason. Pita wedges, soft and warm, provide a welcome change in texture and flavor from the standard box of crackers, and they are hearty enough to help soak up any excesses that may be indulged in!
Originally from the Middle East, pitas have a natural affinity for flavors from that area of the world, and are served there with just about every dish, often in lieu of utensils. There’s a reason you’ll find one tucked inside your Greek or Lebanese takeaway; it’s practically a requirement, aside from being delicious. I think it might just be illegal in some jurisdictions to serve a gyro without a pita; and I might raise some cain if I were served falafel without one.
Of course, pitas aren’t just for parties or for when you order food in; they’re an incredibly versatile bread to have around. Even if they’re frozen, they can thaw quickly in a toaster, and you’ll have bread to eat with dinner. If you often make a “kitchen sink stir-fry”, like I do (you know, where you take various leftovers, mix with fresh or frozen vegetables, maybe add an egg, and serve over rice, or just plain), there’s no better partner than a good flatbread. Pitas also make excellent crusts for individual pizzas – no arguments over toppings! Ever served a veggie burger inside a pita? Easy, fast, nutritious, and tasty – you can’t beat it. Even with plain old deli meat and lettuce, pitas make wonderful sandwiches, easy to wrap in foil and throw in your bag to bring for lunch. They’ve become immensely popular in recent years. And bread manufacturers have noticed – you’ll even find pitas in grocery stores where you’re lucky to find extra-virgin olive oil, or a decent piece of produce.
So with the widespread availability of packaged, ready-to-go pita bread, why on earth would you make your own? Well, have you ever tried pita bread fresh from your oven, steamy and warm? You’d understand why, if you had. It’s worlds away from the stuff you find in the bags, slumped in front of the deli counter. This recipe produces a bread with an ever-so-slightly sour tang from the long fermentation, a perfectly tender interior with a subtle crunch on the outside, and more pocket inside than you know what to do with. It’s so good, it’s almost enlightening: you finally understand what all those impostor pitas were trying to taste like! This version is especially good, as it’s a whole-wheat recipe. Many whole-wheat pitas in the store end up tasting rather like cardboard (especially when stale), but these are nutty and delicious.
So the next time you have everyone over for Margaritas (all the time, right?), why not try your hand at these? They are a bit more work than simply running out to the store, I won’t lie; but they really are simple, and I promise you they’re definitely worth it. The rolling out is the hardest part, though, so if you can handle that, you can handle these pitas! When you’ve made them, cut them into 12-16 wedges per round, then toast again in a 350º oven. If you like, brush them with olive oil, then sprinkle with any number of spices, like cumin, celery seed, curry powder, paprika, or just salt and pepper. To accompany, find some good hummus that can match up to your bready efforts, either at a restaurant, or a better grocery store (hey, I never said everything has to be homemade!). Or simply stick a couple cans of rinsed black beans in your food processor (or mash by hand) with some chopped red onion, cilantro, cumin, and a bit of olive oil to make it creamy, top with sour cream or thick yogurt and lime wedges, and you’ve got yourself a party!
Whole-Wheat Pita Bread
From Gourmet Magazine
Makes eight 7-inch rounds
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/4 cups warm water (105–115°F)
2 cups bread flour or high-gluten flour, plus additional for kneading
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Cornmeal for sprinkling baking sheets
1. Stir together yeast, honey, and 1/2 cup warm water in a large bowl, then let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
2. While yeast mixture stands, stir together flours in another bowl. Whisk 1/2 cup flour mixture into yeast mixture until smooth, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Stir in oil, salt, remaining 3/4 cup warm water, and remaining 2 1/2 cups flour mixture until a dough forms.
3. Turn out dough onto a floured surface and knead, working in just enough additional flour to keep dough from sticking, until dough is smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and put in an oiled large bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
4. Punch down dough and cut into 8 pieces. Form each piece into a ball. Flatten 1 ball, then roll out into a 6 1/2- to 7-inch round on floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Transfer round to 1 of 2 baking sheets lightly sprinkled with cornmeal. Make 7 more rounds in same manner, arranging them on baking sheets. Loosely cover pitas with 2 clean kitchen towels (not terry cloth) and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
5. Set oven rack in lower third of oven and remove other racks. Preheat oven to 500°F.
6. Transfer 4 pitas, 1 at a time, directly onto oven rack. Bake until just puffed and pale golden, about 2 minutes. Turn over with tongs and bake 1 minute more. Cool pitas on a cooling rack 2 minutes, then stack and wrap loosely in a kitchen towel to keep pitas warm. Bake remaining 4 pitas in same manner. Serve warm.
1. Pitas, like most breads, freeze beautifully, wrapped in foil in a sealed plastic bag. To reheat, keep wrapped in foil and bake for 10-15 minutes in a 350°F oven.
2. The pocket in this bread comes from cooking at such a high heat. If your oven doesn’t go to 500º, just turn it as high as it goes. Your bread may not develop as much of a pocket, but it’ll still be delicious!
3. Be careful not to puncture the breads when you’re turning them. The steam will give you a nasty burn, and they won’t really have as much of a pocket when they cool.
4. I added about 3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to my dough (added at the same time as the salt and oil, etc.). I love the nutty flavor it gives and the grainy chew of it, not to mention that it’s ridiculously good for you. You could also add some wheat or oat bran or germ, or rolled oats, or any other random grain you’ve got sitting around. I also misread the recipe and used 1 tablespoon of honey (instead of 1 teaspoon), but they tasted fabulous, not sweet at all.
5. I baked mine four at a time, on parchment paper on a baking stone. They puffed up like crazy, and took maybe 1 minute longer to cook. Use your judgement!
6. The cornmeal isn’t really necessary to use, but it certainly gives the crust a lovely crunchiness; but more importantly, it absolutely helps move the dough around. Think of it as tiny edible ball bearings under your dough, letting it slide around easily.