Pita bread was something I always bought in the supermarket, on the rare occasions when I needed it to serve with hummus or other dips for entertaining. I never really appreciated it until my recent trip to Israel, when I stayed with the family of a friend and every morning someone walked to the local market or bakery and brought home just-baked, thick pita rounds that were still warm as we ate breakfast. This bread was different – thick and chewy and able to stand alone and not just as a holder for spreads. My breakfasts at my friend's house that week in Israel consisted of some combination of freshly-cut vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers), leben (Israeli-style yoghurt), hard-boiled eggs, and hummus, always with a round or two of pita that I tore into pieces and ate in-between bites of the other items. The pita was not just an accompaniment, but an important and integral part of the meal, and, in fact, of every meal I had at this home and in other homes and restaurants throughout my time in Israel. When I got home, I tried to recreate the Israeli pita that I had eaten, but none of the recipes were good enough, and most produced the thin type of pita. Here is the recipe I finally adapted from others to create the pita I was looking for. As they came out of the oven, even my youngest son gobbled up several and said they were great – a high compliment from the boy who likes salty, sugary, syrupy foods and was now praising this humblest of breads.
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 package active dry yeast
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
In a large bowl or in the bowl of a Kitchenaid mixer, dissolve the sugar and the lukewarm water. Sprinkle the yeast over the top and let this sit for about 5-6 minutes, until it looks like the yeast is dissolved and the mixture is starting to sponge up. Meanwhile, mix the flour and salt together.
Gently stir the yeast mixture. Sift the dry ingredients into the yeast mixture, stirring well. Transfer the dough to a floured board to knead, or knead in the Kitchenaid mixture (with the kneading attachment approximately 7-8 minutes on speed 2), until the dough is soft and elastic and not too sticky. Divide the dough into 20 balls and place on a lightly floured clean dish towel. (I used a sharp knife to divide up the dough, and then folded each piece under itself several times to form a small smooth ball.) Cover with another dish towel and let stand to rise for 1/2 hour.
On a well-floured board, roll out the balls into rounds about 4 inches in diameter. This will produce a thicker, chewier pita. If you prefer the thin type, roll into rounds about 5-6 inches in diameter. Place these rounds on ungreased cookie sheets, cover with a dish towel, and let rise again for 1/2 hour. Preheat the oven (or two ovens if you have them) to 500 degrees.
Place the cookie sheets, one at a time, in the middle of the oven, and bake for 3-4 minutes. If you can turn on the oven light and look at the breads, you will see that they will puff up. Sometimes they do not, especially if you have cracks in the rounds or have folded pieces of the dough over while rolling and have seamed or thicker sections. It may take some practice to get all your rounds to rise properly, but the bread will still taste good.
Once the pitas are puffed, remove from the oven. The bottoms should be ever so slightly browned, but if they are not, it is okay. Serve the pita breads hot or at room temperature or rewarm before serving if desired. You can also briefly broil or grill the pita to brown them or produce a slightly charred flavor that some people like. Once completely cool, you can store the pita in plastic bags.
This recipe yields 20 pita rounds. If you want the thicker type that are larger than 4 inches in diameter, then only form 10 balls from the dough and roll them out to about 6 inches in diameter. I have not done this, so I'm not sure if they will take longer to bake, but the sign that they are ready is when they are puffed up.
Jamie Stolper is the Food Editor of ShalomBoston.com. She was thrilled to visit Israel in April 2007 with her good friend Karen Balulu and honored to be part of the extended Balulu family in Israel for ten days.