Pita Problems

The other day I was cruising through food videos on Youtube and came across a Chef John who made pita bread  in a cast iron pan on the stove. Folksy and chatty, he made it look so easy to prepare the Middle Eastern staple. After the dough rose and was formed eight dessert-plate-sized circles, he cavalierly tossed them into a hot, lightly oiled pan. After a minute or maybe two, magic: the center of the dough started to puff up and in a few seconds, there was a balloon-shaped, perfectly grilled pita that collapsed on itself when taken off the heat. Houston, we have pocket bread!

Ah. A miracle of physics and just the answer to my need to work with flour, yeast and water. If you know me, you’ll understand. If you don’t, know that making bread — and eating good bread — is one of my favorite things.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a working oven right now. BUT, I have a four-burner stove and a fabulous new carbon steel pan that John gave me for my birthday. Stove-top bread? Why not!?

Out of the gate, the recipe and I were winners. In five out of eight cases, the pita puffed right up. Fresh, homemade bread was now on our menu!

Perfectly puffed pita bread in the carbon steel pan on the stovetop. Yum!
Perfectly puffed pita bread in the carbon steel pan on the stovetop. Yum!

The pitas that morning were delicious stuffed with scrambled eggs and a scattering of cheddar cheese. John kept his breakfast sandwich at that, but I added more to mine — sour cream and sautéed tomatoes, onions, and corn. It channeled both Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine because…delicious. I treated the three pouchless pitas like flatbread in the subsequent days. Despite their age, they still were really, really good. I scooped up yogurt, homemade hummus, and guacamole one day — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! — for breakfast. I also made fattoush salad with toasted and torn up pita, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, feta cheese, za’atar spice blend, and a lemon-olive oil-pomegranate molasses dressing. (I made the pomegranate molasses myself and you should too.)

When I ran out of pita, I knew I had to make more. After all, it was so easy the first time. What could go wrong?

Turns out that, unlike the sun, the pita doesn’t always rise.

I re-read the recipe, to make sure I had the process right. I followed all the instructions exactly. I set my timer for proofing the yeast. I let the dough rise for two hours until doubled. I formed eight proto-pita dough balls and let them rest, too. I rolled out the dough and let it rest for five minutes, as instructed. I heated the steel skillet and wiped olive oil across its surface.

I carefully laid the dough in the pan and then…

Nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. The pita browned very nicely on the first side. I flipped the dough and waited for the pita to fill up with hot air like Professor Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs‘s balloon before it accidentally floated up to leave Dorothy seemingly trapped in the Land of Oz.

Just a first try, I told myself. No harm done. It is a great, fragrant flatbread anyway.

The second try will definitely work. I’ll adjust. I’ll let the pan heat up a bit more.

Nada.

Houston, I think we have a problem.

And now, my friend, you ask if third time was the charm?

Not on your life.

Maybe I was letting the pita rest TOO long? Maybe I was rolling it out too thin? Or too thick? Maybe the pan still wasn’t hot enough?

I cast a jaundiced eye on the fourth flat disc. It looked right. It hadn’t been sitting for too long. Maybe, maybe, this time…?

I held my breath and placed the dough in the pan and — VOILA! — we suddenly had puffage! Oh, happy day! I cracked the problem!

Well, not quite. If this was a blockbuster movie, I would have had perfect pockets for the rest of the cooking session.

The sad truth of that day’s pita production is that only one — yes, ONE — inflated correctly.

Don’t despair. The flat pitas won’t go to waste. I’ll find more ways to enjoy them.

I won’t give up trying to achieve maximum puffiness, though. It just may take a few more times. The first time may have been beginner’s luck but the next times will be informed by experience and using Dr. Google to diagnose the flaws in technique and get tips from more pros. Or, maybe I’ll just have to try making them again, and again, and again.

In the end, I’m eventually get the hang of this ancient food staple. I’m determined.

A successful first-round pile of pocket-containing pita bread.
A successful first-round pile of pocket-containing pita bread.

Last night, we hung out with our Lansdowne friends Marty and Elliot in the amazing countryside near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe spent time painting and creating (including food!) at her home on Ghost Ranch.

The four of us sat under the bright stars and cloudy milky way and had a snacky supper. We tore the failed pita…um, I mean, the successful flatbread into pieces and scooped up various combinations of hummus, red pepper sauce, olives, feta cheese, and slices of turkey or ham cold cuts that Marty and Elliot provided. The pita bread was delicious and perfect even after being stored in a plastic bag (at room temp) for a few days.

Even though the three of them caught sight of shooting stars that night, I didn’t. Still, I kept looking to the stars and thanked my lucky ones that we were able to share a meal with friends under the amazing heavens while enjoying the earthly delights of food nurtured by the sun, water and the soil.

Life is good.