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Chef Bill has your pita primer

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The other evening I was scrolling through a few old pics. As you might’ve guessed, these were pictures of food, specifically of dishes I had created and served from my restaurant at the culinary school where I used to teach. One of the plates that caught my attention was an appetizer: preserved lemon falafel in mini pita pockets. Wow! What a cool dish! (I gave you the falafel recipe last week, so you can guess where I’m headed.)

Back in those days, my most difficult chore was finding enough projects to keep my students fully engaged. Imagine running a restaurant that averaged only 30 to 40 covers a day and was only open for lunch two days a week. I usually had a class of 8-12 students, so I designed menus in which everything was produced in-house from scratch. I’m sure this doesn’t sound like much for most people who aren’t industry veterans, since many restaurants—especially chains—toss around the claim “made from scratch daily” like so many dirty napkins. Meanwhile, their prep guy opens two more No. 10 cans of their “made from scratch” product.

My students actually did produce everything in-house. They fabricated meats from subprimal parts. They emulsified eggs and oil to make mayonnaise. They produced all breads required for lunch service. There were no idle hands in my kitchen.

Producing yeast breads in most working restaurant kitchens is a nearly impossible task for two main reasons: lack of space and lack of skilled labor. As a result, bread is much cheaper to purchase than produce. My current restaurant is no different. For example, the volume of pita bread I go through daily is almost overwhelming. While pushing through a big rush, I might use 8 to 10 dozen in an hour.

This shouldn’t dissuade you, an intrepid adventurous home cook, from experiencing the joy of producing homemade (i.e., made in your home) pita or any other yeast bread.

Pita is a typical yeast-risen flatbread with origins in the Middle East and Mediterranean, enjoyed in many ways. It can be a wrapper, like a tortilla; it can be a container holding ingredients within its pouch like a kangaroo; or it can be a scoop for savory dips. At its core, pita consists of wheat flour, yeast, water and salt. These are simply mixed, kneaded and allowed to rise.

The main difference between a pita with a pocket and one without is the cooking method. The trick to creating a pocket is steam. The best way to create steam is to use high temperatures in a hot oven. The other method is to cook the pita on a hot griddle. Either way, the result is fabulous. Give this dough a try and use last week’s falafel recipe to find a little nirvana in your own home.

 

CHEF BILL’S PITA BREAD

Ingredients

• 3 cups all-purpose flour

• 2 tsp. instant yeast

• 1 tsp. baking powder

• 2 tsp. sugar

• 1-1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 cup warm water (90˚F)

• 2 Tbsp. olive oil

 

Directions

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine ingredients, mix with a wooden spoon to form a shaggy/rough dough. Turn out on a floured surface.

2. Knead the dough for about five minutes.

3. Put dough in lightly greased bowl, let rest 1 hour; it’ll become quite puffy, though it may not double in bulk.

4. Turn dough onto lightly oiled work surface; divide into 12 pieces.

5. Roll 2 to 4 pieces into 3- to 4-inch circles.

6. Put circles on lightly greased baking sheet; let rest, uncovered, 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 500°F.

7. Place baking sheet on oven’s lowest rack; bake for 5 minutes; they should puff up.

8. Transfer baking sheet to oven’s middle-to-top rack, bake for an additional 2 minutes or until pitas have browned.

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