pita bread

Pita Bread

When I first started baking bread about ten years ago, any flatbread I tried to make turned into pita. As it first started to bake, my naan always looked like it was making those perfect little air bubbles, until they all joined together into one monstrous bubble, which lifted the flat disc of dough into a perfectly spherical orb, balancing on a single point on the pizza stone. I eventually learned how to make all sorts of other kinds of flatbreads (including naan!), but I still feel like pita bread comes naturally. And the thing is, pita bread is really easy if you know a few tricks and use a good recipe.

Pita Bread Dough

While I had the opposite problem with baking other flatbreads, the biggest challenge with making homemade pita bread is getting it to form those huge pockets. But remember that if your pita doesn't pocket or looks weirdly lopsided, you've still got a really tasty flatbread! But if you really want to master the pocketed pita, all you have to do is use the right amount of water in the dough, knead it to form enough gluten, roll your dough to the right thinness, and let your pizza stone preheat in the oven.

Most pita recipes say that you should roll your dough out to about 1/4 inch, but this is the completely wrong thickness for pita bread. If you roll your dough to 1/4 inch thickness, you will end up with really adorably puffy, flat little loaves of bread (trust me, I measured). And if you roll your dough way too thin, it will quickly turn into something similar to lawash as it bakes. It turns out, 1/8 of an inch is the perfect thickness for pita. But if you don't get the right thickness, it isn't a tragedy—the bread will still be delicious. Use the crackers in fattoush, and simply slice the puffy breads in half once they cool. It's almost like a pocket!

Baking Pita Bread

You also want to make sure that you use a pizza stone, placed on the oven floor. Let it preheat in the oven, set to 500° F, until it's nice and hot. The instant heat from the pizza stone will help the pita start to puff up before it's cooked through. At 1 minute, it will have formed little bubbles, and by 2 minutes, the tiny bubbles will have joined together, forming one giant bubble throughout the whole loaf, before the bread starts to set and bake. You then continue to cook it for another 2 minutes, until it's cooked through, but still moist and chewy. If you don't have a pizza stone, you can just use a sheet pan in its place, or a cast iron skillet; the cast iron skillet will work better than the sheet pan, although you will have to bake one pita at a time. Just let the sheet pan or skillet preheat as if it were a stone, and throw the pita rounds directly onto it.

Pita Dough Discs

Finally, make sure that you use the right amount of flour and water. Since steam builds up and pushes the dough apart from itself while it bakes, if you don't the right amount of water, your pita will not pocket. That essentially means that you should use a sensible combination of following the recipe and your own intuition. Since different brands of flours are going to absorb water slightly differently, I ask you to start with 1 1/2 cups of water and then add 1/2 tablespoon at a time until your dough reaches the right consistency. When I make this recipe, I usually use only about 1/2 to 1 tablespoon more in addition to the 1 1/2 cups.

So what is the "right consistency"? The dough should be tacky, but not soupy. It should come together in a cohesive ball, but the surface shouldn't feel dry. Think: slightly tackier than a soft piece of gum 20 seconds after you start chewing it, rather than that same piece of gum an hour and a half later (i.e., a rubber ball). And again, if you get the proportions wrong, you'll still have homemade bread at the end of the day, and no one will ever judge you for that. Even if the bread dries out too much while it bakes, you can always use it in fattoushie (that's what happened to the one below and to the left). And speaking of consistency, make sure you work your dough until it becomes smooth and elastic. Forming enough gluten is another important part of pocket formation. All of this is in the recipe below, so if you follow it, you should be able to make perfect pita with ease.

Pocketed Pita

pita bread 

yield: 8 pitas
active time: 40 minutes
total time: 3 hours
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  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water

  • 15 ounces (approx. 3 cups) white flour

  • 3 ounces (approx. 2/3 c) wheat flour

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  1. Proof the active dry yeast with the sugar and 1 1/2 cups of the water until the water looks a little foamy on top (about 5-10 minutes).

  2. Add the white flour, wheat flour, salt, and olive oil to a bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer, if you plan to knead by machine).

  3. Stir in the water/yeast/sugar mixture until the dough starts to come together. If the dough looks a little dry, gradually add a little more water, about 1/2 tablespoon at a time. The dough ball should not be too soupy or dry (somewhere in between is best). It should look a lot like store-bought pizza dough, but just a little stickier. If the dough is too wet, add a little more flour to compensate (about 2 tablespoons at a time).

  4. Knead until the dough ball passes the window pane test. It should come together into an elastic ball that has a smooth surface (see dough photo above). Kneading should take about 5-15 minutes by machine with a dough hook, or 10-20 minutes by hand. Pay more attention to the dough's consistency than the time you've spent kneading.

  5. Place the dough in a bowl, cover it, and let it rise at room temperature for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. It will rise noticeably. If it's a little chilly in your kitchen (e.g., below 67° F), you might need to let it rise for about 15 minutes longer.

  6. Place a pizza stone (or sheet pan) on the oven floor, move the oven racks up and out of the way, so you can very easily access the pizza stone, and pre-heat the oven to 500° F (or its hottest setting).

  7. Lightly flour a clean, food-safe work surface, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces, and shape each chunk into a round ball with a smooth surface.

  8. Roll out each dough ball into a circle, about 7 or 8 inches in diameter, dusting the surface with more flour as needed. They should be 1/8 inch thick, which is very thin, but not paper-thin (see above photos). By the time you are done rolling the last disc, the first one will be ready to bake. They can be held at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

  9. The oven will be ready to bake once it has reached 500° F and stayed there for about 5 to 10 minutes. This gives the pizza stone a chance to get really hot.

  10. Throw 2 to 3 of the rolled-out discs onto the baking stone. Make sure they lay flat and are not touching. Bake for about 4 minutes. They'll puff up and slightly brown. Remove and cool (they'll start to deflate at room temperature). Repeat until all pitas are cooked.

Stack of Pita Bread

middle eastern pizzas | lahm bi ajeen

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My cousin, Kris, spends all of his time creating beautiful things. He is a talented computer programmer and graphic designer, and he spends a lot of his free time making delicious food for the people he cares about. Kris' cooking is equal parts improvisation and precision; he uses his knowledge of food science and technique, but he's also an inventive and spontaneous cook. He's the type of person who can take random leftover ingredients from the refrigerator and make something new and delicious, but he's also always working on and perfecting his favorite dishes, like his recipe for lahm bi ajeen. He taught me how to make it a few weeks ago, and was kind enough to let me share his recipe with you.

Lahm bi ajeen (also transliterated as laham b’ajeen or called lahmajun or lahmajoun) is usually described as Middle Eastern meat pizza, but there are some ways that the comparison doesn't begin to do justice to lahm bi ajeen's unique flavor. Sure, each dish is thinly rolled dough baked with toppings on a hot stone, but instead of layering dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings, you mix the tomato sauce in with the meat, you skip the cheese altogether, and you add a bunch of intensely flavorful ingredients, like pomegranate molasses/paste, parsley, and peppers. Pomegranate molasses is unbearably tart and cloying on its own, but it adds a really lovely sweet and sour flavor to ground beef. It's the true star of the recipe and simply can't be substituted.

You'll rarely (although not never!) find pomegranate molasses in the average American supermarket, but it's a staple of Middle Eastern grocery stores. It's also very easy to make yourself, if you can't find it near you, and as an added bonus, it makes the house smell dreamy while it reduces down. When I've made pomegranate molasses at home, it has never turned out quite as tangy as the stuff from the store, but it has its own interesting, subtle flavor. If all else fails, you can very easily find it online.

If you're worried about investing in a specialty ingredient that you'll only use one time for this one recipe, then I'm here to tell you that this has literally never been a problem anyone has ever had in the history of pomegranate molasses. There are a lot of traditional dishes that call for it, but it's also the kind of thing you can just throw in with your favorite recipe to make it a little extra-special. For instance, it's a wonderful simple syrup substitute in cocktails and mocktails, it works fabulously as part of a marinade for meat or veggies, and you can spoon it over or swirl it into just about any dessert. Any time you want some sweetness and tartness, it's the perfect thing.

Lahm Bi Ajeen

Yield: 8 small pies
Total time: between 4 and 26 hours (mostly letting the dough rise)

The dough

Kris' dough recipe is phenomenal, but if you don't have time and still want to make this recipe, feel free to use store-bought pizza dough. It won't be quite the same, but it'll still be delicious.

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups room temperature water, divided into 1 cup and 1/2 cup
12 ounces (2 cups) all purpose flour
5 ounces (1 cup) 00 flour (or substitute additional all purpose flour)
3/4 teaspoon salt

  • Proof the active dry yeast with the sugar and 1 cup of the water until the water looks a little foamy on top (about 5-10 minutes).

  • Add the all purpose flour, 00 flour, and salt to a bowl (the bowl of a stand mixer, if you plan to knead by machine).

  • Add the water/yeast/sugar mixture and stir until the dough starts to come together into a dry, shaggy mess.

  • Gradually add a little of the remaining 1/2 cup of water at a time, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the whole thing comes into a dough ball. Do not use all of the water, unless you need it. If you use too much water, compensate with a little more flour; likewise, if the dough looks too dry, add a little more water and let it sit for a few minutes to absorb. The dough ball should not be too sticky or dry (somewhere in between is best). It should look a tiny bit firmer than store-bought pizza dough.

  • Knead until the dough ball passes the window pane test. It should come together into an elastic ball that has a smooth surface. Kneading should take about 5-15 minutes by machine with a dough hook, or 10-20 minutes by hand. Pay more attention to the dough's consistency than the time you've spent kneading.

  • Place the dough in a bowl, cover it, and let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes, and then in the refrigerator overnight. If you don't have time to wait overnight, you can let it rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (resting it in the refrigerator will help it develop a better flavor and texture).

The meat

1 pound 5 ounces lean, ground beef
2 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate paste/molasses (see ingredient note above the recipe)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 banana pepper, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley, loosely packed
1/2 small onion, minced
3/4 teaspoon salt (plus more to taste, if you prefer)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • Combine all ingredients, being careful not to over-mix.

Baking the pies

Additional flour, for sprinkling
Semolina or cornmeal, for sprinkling
Ground meat mixture
Risen dough
Finishing salt

  • Lightly flour a clean, food-safe work surface, use a knife or bench scraper to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces, and shape each chunk into a round ball.

  • Place a pizza stone (or sheet pan) on the oven floor, move the oven racks up and out of the way, so you can easily access the pizza stone, and pre-heat the oven to 500° F.

  • Roll each dough ball into a circle, about 1/8 inch thick. This is very thin, but not paper-thin (see above photos). To keep the round shape, rotate the disc about 90 degrees after each time you roll it out, and be sure to re-flour the surface every so often. Separate the discs with wax paper and let them rise for about 25 minutes.

  • Divide the ground meat mixture into about 8 equal pieces.

  • Sprinkle a pizza peel (or rimless sheet pan) with a tablespoon or two of semolina or cornmeal.

  • Place a rolled-out disc of dough on the semolina/cornmeal.

  • Put one of the pieces of meat on top of the dough disc. Work the meat into a thin, even layer over the dough, so that it doesn’t separate from the crust and shrink to the center as it cooks. Sprinkle with a little additional salt, if you'd like.

  • Once the oven has preheated, use a quick motion to move the pie from the pizza peel onto the pizza stone. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the meat starts to brown and the bread is cooked through and starting to char. The dough should be crispy and chewy, like really good brick oven pizza.

  • Repeat with the remaining 7 pies.