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

strawberry sour plum pie | jarareng pie

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

We're right at the tail end of jarareng season, also known as green sour plums or gojeh sabz. In the next couple weeks, they will start ripening and will lose their crunch, turning into an entirely different fruit. When we see these in the market in May, we joke about the first time my mom tried them.

She traveled from Baghdad to her mom's family's farm in north-eastern Syria when she was three years old, and her uncle, Badel, gave her a freshly-picked jarareng from their orchard. She absolutely loved it and asked if she could have some more, but Badel didn't want her stomach to get upset so he said no. But my mom insisted that if he didn't give her another, she would tell her mom not to be his sister anymore.

Jarareng / Sour Plums / Green Plums

Perhaps this can be chalked up to toddlers being toddlers, but anyone who has ever tried jarareng can empathize with this intense obsession. There's something poignant about the scarcity of seasonal produce, beyond the mere fact that we're always left wanting more. Rare and fleeting fruits and vegetables can transport us back to a specific time and place, when more ubiquitous foods cannot.

So when I first I thought to post about jarareng, I wanted to share that experience by encouraging people to seek them out and try eating them plain, with a little salt, along with some other fruit. And while you should definitely do this (now! before it's too late! Seriously, stop reading, go to the store, buy some, and then come back and finish reading this), I hope you'll allow me to also make a much less traditional suggestion. If you've never tried baking with jarareng, if you (somehow!) have a surplus that's sitting around and slowly losing their tart crunchiness, it's time to bake a pie before it's too late.

strawberries
Jarareng / Sour Plums / Green Plums

Jarareng strawberry pie is a lot like strawberry rhubarb pie, and, as you might expect, a bit different. It's got the same sour and sweet flavor profile, but it's got a personality all its own, since plums are an entirely different fruit. Essentially, this is an equally tart, but even fruitier version of strawberry rhubarb pie. The flavor of the jarareng definitely comes through, but the fruits soften and meld with the strawberries to create something else altogether. It's not the jarareng you've come to know and love, but it's both familiar and new.

The one difficult thing about baking with jarareng, other than finding somewhere to buy it (see recipe note), is figuring out a way to pry the flesh from the pits. Unlike ripe plums, which you can slice, twist, and pit with a spoon, these unripe plums cling extremely tightly to their pits. This isn't a problem when you're just snacking on them, but it makes it a little tricky to bake with them. But follow the advice below to safely pit and slice them.

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie
slicing jarareng
Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

You simply slice all the way round, like an avocado, then slice all the way around perpendicularly. Then you place the knife in one of the long slashes, and carefully twist the knife away from the hand you're using to steady the plum, in order to slice through the first quarter. And then it's pretty easy from there.

Just make sure that you use a sharp paring knife and always cut away from yourself. Never ever put pressure on the plum toward the hand you're using to stabilize it. And maybe don't try this recipe right away if you're very new to cooking. This knife skill is somewhat intermediate, for someone who's been practicing safe knife techniques for a long time and never ever accidentally injures themselves. This pie is good, but not worth blood loss. * (Instead, try another impressive dessert recipe for now).

The other tricky thing about this recipe is making the lattice top. It's a lot easier than it looks, and I've provided written directions in the recipe, but I suspect that it would be easiest to use these photos as a guide:

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie
Strawberry Sour Plum Pie
Jarareng Pie
Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

For some reason, I seem to have all the wrong intuitions when it comes to pastry, so I've always found baking pie to be really difficult, until I learned a few simple tricks. I included everything you need to know in the recipe, but here are a few general principles:

1) Keep the pie dough chilled at (almost) all times. Chill every single ingredient. Chill them after you've mixed them together with your hot hands. Chill the dough before and after you've rolled it out. Chill the pie for a few minutes before you pop it in the oven. All the (perhaps tedious) chilling in the recipe is there to make sure the crust has the perfect flaky and crisp, yet tender texture. The one exception is that you don't want the strips of dough to be too, too rigid when you're doing the lattice, or it'll crack when you bend it. But you also don't want it to be warm, or it'll fall apart and start to melt. I have to learn everything the hard way, so I didn't realize how important chilling was until about my 20th pie, even though I had been told this direction by countless recipes and concerned friends. Don't be like me.

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

2) Don't overwork the dough, which means no food processor. I use cooking machinery just about any chance I get (I almost never knead bread by hand, I never shred anything with a box grater, and I only use my mortar and pestle when I want to take extra fancy photos of spice blending). But there are some times when slower really is better, and this is one of those times. Working the butter into the flour with your hands will leave a few irregular chunks, something I've never managed in the food processor, and this makes the pie flaky and tender. You can totally use a food processor if you really want to—for that matter, you can use store-bought crust and skip all the hassle—but every extra step you take will lead to even better pie.

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

3) Do not rush anything. Pie is not something you should make on a busy day when you have errands to run and things to do. It's the kind of thing you should make when you're spending a relaxing day hanging out at home with your partner or family. Leave time for chilling, time for doing things by hand, and, last but not least, time for cooling after the pie comes out of the oven. If you serve your pie warm, soon after it comes out of the oven, it's going to ooze everywhere. The tapioca thickens the macerated syrup, but it only sets once it cools to room temperature.

And, during all that hard work, just remember that this is what you get when you follow the recipe carefully:

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie

active time: 1 hour
total time: 3 hours 45 minutes
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PDF to print

For the crust

  • 2 1/4 cups flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 2 teaspoons sugar

  • 2 sticks chilled unsalted butter (16 tablespoons, or 1 cup)

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons chilled sour cream

  1. Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl and place the bowl in the freezer for 30 minutes.

  2. Cut the butter into small pieces (half tablespoons) and then add it to the chilled flour mixture. Work the butter into the flour by rubbing the butter and flour between your fingers. Continue until the largest chunks of butter are no larger than Tic Tacs. Put the bowl in the freezer for about 10 minutes before you continue.

  3. Add 1/2 cup of the sour cream to the flour mixture and combine. If the mixture does not come together into a ball, add a tablespoon more at a time until it does.** Once you can squeeze the dough into a ball that doesn't crumble apart, you've added enough.

  4. Once you're happy with the dough's consistency, divide it in half and shape each half into a disc. Wrap each disc separately in plastic and place them in the refrigerator for an hour.

For the pie

  • 3 cups pitted and quartered sour green plums *** (about 25 plums)

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • 3 cups hulled and quartered strawberries  (about 16 strawberries)

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon quick cooking minute tapioca

  • Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons whole milk

  1. While the dough is chilling, prep and measure the ingredients (see above video for plum prepping instructions) and toss the plums in lemon juice to keep them from browning.

  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the plums, strawberries, sugar, salt, and tapioca, and let it sit for at least 15 minutes, up to 35 minutes.

  3. Pre-heat the oven to 400° F.

  4. Roll out one of the pie crusts and place it in a 6 cup/10 inch ceramic pie pan. The dough should slightly hang over the edge of the pan. Place this in the refrigerator while you continue to work.

  5. Roll out the second crust and then cut it into long strips, about 1/2 to 3/4 inches wide. If the strips become too soft, place them on a sheet pan in the freezer for a few minutes to firm slightly.

  6. Fill the chilled pie shell with the fruit filling, gently pressing it down with the back of a spoon to get rid of any gaps.

  7. If the dough strips are too rigid to bend without breaking, let them sit at room temperature for a couple minutes. Assemble the lattice top (refer to the images above): First, place half the strips going in one direction all along the pie, with narrow gaps in between them. Then slightly lift back every other strip and place another strip perpendicular to them at the edge of the pie. Drape the lifted strips back over the perpendicular strip. Repeat, alternating which of the parallel strips are lifted, adding the next perpendicular strip each time, until the whole pie is covered.

  8. Once the pie is covered, crimp the edges by pinching them and use a sharp knife to trim any excess dough. Place the pie in the freezer for about 5 to 10 minutes.

  9. Once the lattice top feels firm, brush the pie's surface with the egg wash and then bake for 15 minutes at 400° F.

  10. After 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350° F and bake for another 40 to 45 minutes. If the edges of the crust brown too quickly, make a crown of foil.

  11. Place the pie on a cooling rack for at least 2 hours, until it comes to room temperature.

* As always, use common sense and be safe!
** You will almost certainly use the full 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons of sour cream, but you must add it gradually to avoid adding too much.
*** Also known as jarareng, gojeh sabz, ume, méi, or erik, these plums are available in early to mid spring in Middle Eastern and Asian markets and some farmers' markets or supermarkets in Asian and Middle Eastern communities. In the United States, they are easiest to find in the Southwest. Alternatively, you can substitute rhubarb to turn this into a strawberry rhubarb pie.

Strawberry Sour Plum Pie