Homemade Wood-Fired Pita for the High Holidays

 

FT&V readers may remember my friend Bruno Francois, who runs the Old Third winery near our Canadian summer lake house in Prince Edward County, Ontario. When he is not busily overseeing his vineyards, which produce some of the continent's best Pinot Noir, he is a passionate -- nay, fanatical -- bread maker.

Or maybe I should call him a bread perfector. Last summer he took my challenge to perfect challah, which he did, in what can only be described as a complete challah smack-down. He slapped and punched and rolled a traditional challah recipe until it gave up its insipid, doughy, bland texture. He then finished it off in a wood-fired pizza oven. I can still taste the results to this day: a warm, seeded, delicately crusty challah loaf with just enough chew to complement the pat of salted Normandy butter Bruno served with it. (Recipe is here.)

This past summer I approached him with a new challenge: pita. Specifically the type of wood-fired pita I'd tasted in Israel that is nothing like the bagged, stale supermarket versions we get here. I told Bruno that I was putting together my Rosh Hashanah and Break Fast menus, and, as always, was looking for interesting alternatives to predictable holiday staples, such as round challah. I suppose you could do a delicious, raisin-studded, wood-fired round challah  -- but my thinking was, Pita can be round too! Since I was planning an Israeli-style menu, it was also more suitable. 

Bruno accepted the challenge instantly. He asked me to send him the best recipe I could find -- which he, of course, would then improve upon. Bruno approaches his bread baking with the precision and critical mind of a scientist. For example, he'd not been especially familiar with challah before he made it so was unaware of what it should taste like when finished. Instead he analyzed the recipe like a formula, spotted the "flaws," and corrected them as he made the dough. He did the same with the pita recipe I sent. 

I told him the Israeli-style wood-fired pita I'd experienced was a bread like no other, especially when combined with Jaffa-inspired homemade hummus.  It should be scorched, airy, thin, and yet sturdy enough to plow through pita. Foldable enough to tear and dip, but with a roughened-up, almost sandy, crust.

Bruno frowned as he reviewed the recipe, oblivious of my paeans to pitas past. "True pita would always be made with a sour dough starter -- not active yeast," he suddenly pronounced. "In ancient times they would not be going out and buying commercial yeast..."

And so it began. Bruno is exactly the sort of baker who keeps a plastic bucket of sourdough starter (read, festering "natural" culture of yeast) that he tends to in a dark cupboard over the course of many months. I'd never imagined a sourdough version of pita, but Bruno was no doubt right about pita-making history. Yet in a rare concession to less-perfectionist cooks, he ended up offering two recipes for pita, including one without the sourdough starter.

Either way, I can vouch that by the time Bruno pulled the charred, soft, smoky rounds of pita from the pizza oven, they transported me back to the hummus dens of old Jaffa. When set down before company -- alongside a huge bowl of hummus I'd made, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with sumac -- the pita lasted precisely as long as my Labradors' breakfast. 

~ Danielle Crittenden Frum

Homemade Wood-Fired Pita, Two Ways

By Bruno Francois 

In the first recipe, I use a sourdough starter as well as commercial yeast. It can be made without sourdough using slightly different measures of water and flour (see the second recipe). It won't taste quite as good, though. The measurements are mostly metric. Convert to cups and ounces -- if so inclined-- except for the flour [Editor's note: we did it for you!]. In the case of bread, accuracy is essential, so stay away from using cups. Weigh it. As the title suggests, this recipe also calls for a wood-fired pizza oven. Conventional ovens don't get hot enough and won't give the bread its smoky flavor. Naturally, if a taboon oven happens to grace your backyard, all the better!

I. Sourdough Version of Dough

1 kg all-purpose flour, unbleached
550 ml (2 1/3 cups) water
100 ml (1/2 cup) water, to prove the yeast
5g (roughly 1 tsp) active dry yeast 
3 tbs olive oil
1 pinch of sugar
200 g sourdough starter (100% hydration)
25 g (roughly 5 tsp) of good sea salt or kosher salt

 

II. Version Without Sourdough 

1 kg all-purpose flour, unbleached
5 g (roughly 1 tsp) active dry yeast 
600 ml (2 1/2 cups) water
100 ml (1/2 cup) water, to prove the yeast
1 pinch of sugar
3 tbs olive oil
25 g (roughly 5 tsp) of good sea salt or kosher salt
 

Prepping:

In a large stainless mixing bowl combine the flour and larger quantity of water. Use your hands until it just comes together. Should take only a few minutes. Pack together and cover with a dishcloth. Let it rest for 45 minutes.

While the flour is absorbing the water, take the smaller quantity of water and heat it to about 35 C (or 95 F). It should feel hot, but not uncomfortably so. Add the pinch of sugar and stir in the yeast. Allow to rest in a warm place for 10 minutes. If active, it will foam nicely.

Kneading and Stretching:

Once the flour has rested sufficiently, it should have a nice pliable texture to it. Now add the sourdough (if you are using this version), yeast, and olive oil; roughly mix it in the bowl.

Scrape the dough onto a good hard work surface and pour the salt on top. Fold the dough out onto itself to cover the salt and begin kneading it. Push down on it with the palm of your hand stretching it out away from you. This will both strengthen the gluten chains and also smooth the mixture. Keep kneading for roughly 7-10 minutes until the dough appears smooth and glossy. 

Place in a large bowl, cover with a dishcloth and allow to rest for 45 minutes. (Do not forget to clean your work surface!)

We now need to give the dough a series of stretch and folds. The process, sometimes called giving the dough "a turn" helps strengthen it while minimizing oxidation. It also helps homogenize the temperature.

After the dough has rested, scrape it out of the bowl back onto your surface. Grab the side of the dough and stretch it out towards you then fold it back onto itself.  Turn it 90 degrees and repeat. Repeat 2 more times until it has made a complete 360-degree turn. 

Place it back in the bowl, cover, and let the dough rest another 45 minutes.

Repeat the this stretch and fold process another 2 times, letting it rest 45 minutes in between each time.  

After the dough has risen, divide it into 16 pieces, and roll into balls. Cover and let rest for a further hour. 

Baking:

Make sure you are using a very hot oven. The wood should have burned down to hot coals generating little smoke. You can judge it to be hot enough when the ceiling of the oven has turned white. 

Take each ball and roll it out very thinly using a little flour until it is 1/8" inch thick. Carefully place it on your palm and flip it onto the oven surface. Straighten out any parts of the dough that has folded over itself. Bake for about a minute then flip over. The pita are ready when charring begins to spot the surface. Do not over bake! The key here is chewy with perhaps a few crispy bits. 

Enjoy immediately with some freshly made hummus drizzled with olive oil!

"Did someone say 'chewy, crispy bits'?"  

Photos of hummus, pita, and Bruno pita-making by Johnny Cy Lam for Fig Tree & Vine. Bottom photo by Danielle Crittenden Frum.

Comments

Is that a handmade Taboon or can a pizza stone for the bbq work?

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