What I love about bread making is that it’s an exact science. There’s flour, yeast, water and salt. You knead them together, like every bit of your life is dependent on it. You tuck in the kneaded dough like a baby and let it sleep, not just rest but sleep; you don’t poke and prod it midway, you don’t take a peek at it every once in a while. And then the magic begins.
There are about hundreds of species of yeast but as bakers we only know and care about a single type of yeast which comes in a little packet as brown granules. Left alone, yeast has no value, for bread making I mean. It’s as good as dead. But when yeast is combined with warm water and is added to the dough, it feeds off the sugars in the flour and produces carbon dioxide, making the dough rise to this billowy, beautiful bread. Like I said, exact science.
Every country has bread staples; Armenian lavash, Finnish pulla, French baguette and here in India we have rotis (which don’t require yeast) and naan. Almost all of these breads contain the same ingredients, some type of flour, water, yeast and salt, but it’s phenomenal how every bread is different, with a distinct flavour, smell and appearance.
Every time a recipe calls for several minutes of kneading, there’s only one reason behind it – you need to work the gluten in the dough for it to stretch and become as elastic as possible, otherwise your bread won’t turn out to be, well, bread.
That’s your science lesson on yeast and bread making for today but I think it’s time we move on to the bread of the hour. Every time I go to a Greek restaurant, I fill up my stomach with so many pitas that by the time my order comes I can’t eat anymore. You can’t really blame me, pita with hummus, tzatziki and some olives is an utterly delicious meal by itself.
If you really knew how easy it is to make pita, you would stop buying it from a shop and make it yourself. Especially, if you are good at making rotis (which I am not), half your battle is won. Dinner last night for us was a dozen of pita breads, some hummus, tzatziki and grilled bell peppers, zucchini and mushrooms; one of the best homemade dinners we’ve had thus far.
- 325 g (2 ½ cups) wheat flour
- 2 ½ cups lukewarm water
- 1 tsp fast action dry yeast
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 325 g – 425 g (2 ½ to 3 ½ cups) plain flour
Makes 16 large pitas
- In a bowl, combine yeast and water. Let the yeast bloom for about a couple of minutes. Add the wheat flour, a cup at a time and keep stirring using a wooden ladle in one single motion. You should finish a hundred stirs by the time the flour is combined with the yeast-water mixture. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside to prove for a minimum of 30 minutes or up to 8 hours. The longer the proving, the better your bread.
- Take out the risen sponge, sprinkle salt and olive oil and gently stir to combine. Now, add plain flour, 1 cup at time, while continuously stirring till you can’t stir with the wooden ladle anymore. Once the dough becomes difficult to stir, stop adding the flour.
- Tip the dough in a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough for 10 minutes until elastic.
- Shape the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film and let it prove for 2-3 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume. Place a baking stone in the oven. Preheat the oven to 230 C when the proving time is coming to an end.
- Once risen, gently tip the dough into a floured work surface. Using a dough scrapper, divide the dough into two equal halves. Cover one half with a tea towel while you are working with the other.
- Divide one half into 4 equal portions. Divide each portion further into 2 halves. You should have 8 pieces of dough in front of you now. Using your palm, cover each piece completely and rotate it in a fast motion so that you form a little bun (see pic). Repeat for all pieces.
- Flatten each piece and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into 7 inch circle, like you would roll a small chapathi.
- Place the rolled pieces on the baking stone, in the oven and bake for 5 minutes until the pitas inflate.
- Serve the pitas warm with a dip of your choice.