For home cooks, pita is a great entry into the world of flatbreads, even into baking in general. Its formula is simple and the dough is easy to handle. The loaves’ thickness and relatively small diameter doesn’t demand any daredevil dough-stretching skills. You don’t need anything fancy in terms of equipment; because pita may be small, you can get away with using a 10-inch cast-iron frying pan. The dough can be held over in the fridge for a day before baking, helping it fit conveniently into a busy schedule. A bagful of pita in the freezer is like gold at lunch-making time. I find the griddle method irresistibly fun, but if you’d rather, you may bake the prepared pita in a hot wood-fired oven.
1. Mix the flours and water in a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer if you’d like to use one. Stir the mixture with a fork just until well combined with no dry patches; add a touch more water if necessary. Let stand at room temperature, covered airtight, for 30 minutes.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well for a few minutes, by hand or with a dough hook. Scrape into a nice ball and cover airtight.
3. Ferment at warm room temperature 90 minutes, scraping the dough out onto a floured surface every 30 minutes to stretch and fold it — pull it into a rough oblong, then fold it in thirds like a letter, once on one axis, and once on the other. Incorporate as little new flour as possible. (If you would like to retard the dough overnight, place it in an airtight container into the fridge directly after the second stretch-and-fold exercise.)
4. When you are ready to bake, prepare your fire setup, griddle, and fuel as described on page 95. Divide the dough into sixteen 2 1/2-ounce balls, and preshape them evenly round. (Dough will make only 14 portions of that size if you omit leaven.) Keep covered to keep them from drying out while they rest 15 to 30 minutes.
5. Preheat your griddle over a moderate flame. Use a short rolling pin to roll one of the balls out to an even circle about 6 inches in diameter. Place it gingerly on the griddle. Start rolling out the next one, while another part of your brain slowly counts to 15. Flip the bread. If the heat is right, the side that was down should be just beginning to set up but not brown. Return to your rolling pin and finish rolling out the second pita.
6. Peek under the pita on the griddle. If it looks baked and is flecked with brown, flip it over again. (Take a second to check your fire; does it seem steady? Should you add more twigs or whatever?) By now your pita may be puffing up. If it just bubbles a bit and then stops, take action to help it: holding a towel bunched up to protect your fingertips, press down gently on one of the bubbles. This almost always has the effect of spreading the steam out between the upper and lower “crusts” of the pita and forcing the pocket to open. If nothing happens, flip it over and try the other side; on rare occasions you’ll have a dud, in which case you’ll have to eat it.
7. Remove the pita from the griddle soon after it has puffed. If it bakes too long it will be undesirably crisp; pita should remain soft. Place the pita on a cloth and cover lightly; it’s fine to stack them as you go along.
8. Once you figure out your rhythm, you may find you can add another griddle (or cook two pitas side-by-side on an oblong cast-iron griddle).
Note: You may use a saj or other convex griddle to bake this dough into larger, flatter breads that are decent for wrapping falafel or other fillings. Divide the dough into twelve 4-ounce portions, preshape, and roll out into 9-inch circles. Bake on the preheated saj, turning once.
Flatbread Variations, Ancient and Modern
In its most authentic form, shrak is baked on a hearth of river pebbles in a tabun. A similar Persian bread, sangak, is baked on a bed of blazing hot pebbles in a very large wood-fired oven, even when commercially produced. Very good versions of this wonderful bread, however, are also made on the saj, the large convex griddle.
Archaeologists have turned up shards of large perforated clay griddles on Iron Age sites in the Levant. These griddles seem to have been installed in hearths and were certainly the predecessor of the saj. It’s impossible to say, based on the current research, what sorts of breads were baked on these clay griddles, and why they would be used in one place and tabuns in another not so far away.
Diffused during the Ottoman Empire, the brass, and then steel, saj has played a part in Middle Eastern baking for centuries. It is relatively portable and very efficient on fuel if well used.
Excerpted from Cooking with Fire (c) Paula Marcoux. Photography by (c) Keller + Keller. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
Darra Goldstein is editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an 888-page reference guide to all things sweet. "The book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain," she says.