I noticed taramasalata and hummus on special offer at a Greek stall in the farmer’s market last week and had my arm twisted. I normally make my own hummus from chickpeas, but taramasalata requires fish roe, which is harder to come by. I thought about buying pita bread to go with the dips but realised I had fresh yeast to use up and (at last) some white and wholemeal bread flour in the cupboard. I knew instinctively, with regard to bread making, pita would be easy.
Pita bread is ancient and relates to prehistoric flatbreads made 14,500 years ago in the Middle East, baked on hot stones around a fire. People in Jordan first cultivated wild wheat and barley – the earliest records of bread making from Mesopotamian (4,000 years ago) document a pita like bread cooked in a tinûru or tandoor oven. The word pita comes from Modern Greek, via Byzantine Greek (pitta, cake, bread, pie) and possibly from the Ancient Greek pikte (fermented pastry). This may also be the origin of the Latin word pizza!
Pita bread dough recipe (makes 6):
125g white bread flour
125g strong wholemeal flour
20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet of dried yeast)
1 dessertspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 heaped teaspoon salt
180ml lukewarm water
Pita bread is incredibly easy to make – it’s recommended to use bread flour because there’s extra gluten in it, which helps to make the pita puff up while cooking. Combine fresh or packet yeast with warm water for up to ten minutes beforehand in order to get the yeast active. Don’t use hot water, it will kill the yeast! Combine all the ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. I use an ancient food processor with a dough hook – it does a fantastic job and makes it easy. If the dough looks too wet add a little flour or too dry add a little water. The end result should be smooth but slightly sticky. Make a ball of the dough and allow it to rest. Dry yeast will work a lot quicker than fresh yeast. I don’t usually add sugar to dough, but it does make the yeast act faster – if you wish, a teaspoon of honey with the water and yeast would be in keeping with pita bread of the ancients. I left my dough in a warm place for 2 hours, at which point it had doubled in size and had lots of air bubbles.
Get the oven on full – as hot as it gets! I use a pizza stone for baking – if you have one, put it into the oven cold, if not, when the oven gets hot, put a metal oven tray onto the middle rack for 5 minutes to preheat. Knock the dough back – push the air out with the back of your hand and knead into a new dough ball.
Separate the dough into 6.
Roll out 2 pitas at a time. Using a floured oven tray slide the pitas onto the baking stone or hot tray inside the oven. Bake for about 5 minutes, or until they have puffed up and taken a little colour.
Pita bread is best served warm and on the day of baking. Stack the pitas inside a clean cloth (to keep them warm) until you are ready to eat. Pita bread can also be “baked” in a skillet.
Serve pita bread with the following…
Hummus – an ancient Middle Eastern dip, popular throughout the Mediterranean, made of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon and olive oil. The hummus above is sprinkled with pimentón de la Vera dulce (sweet smoked paprika).
Feta – this is probably the best know Greek cheese internationally. Feta is made with goat and sheep’s milk (and sometimes cow’s) – it is a curd cheese, pickled in brine. It has a salty, tangy, nutty taste. Sprinkle with oregano or thyme.
Taramasalata – is a rich and creamy Greek meze made from salted, cured cod roe (also carp or grey mullet), olive oil, bread or potatoes and lemon juice. The colour of taramasalata depends on the fish eggs used. The supermarket versions are generally bright pink, coloured with beetroot. Taramasalata is surprisingly hard to find in Spain, which is odd because the Spanish love eating cured fish eggs (Bottarga), though it’s quite common in neighbouring France. The only place I could find taramasalata in America was in Greek Town, Detroit. It was relatively easy to find in Melbourne, Australia, which has the largest Greek speaking population outside of Greece.
I recommend drinking Retsina with the above mezes – it’s a distinct and 2000 year old Greek wine flavoured with pine resin. Apparently, the Ancient Greeks stored their wine in amphora lined and sealed with Aleppo Pine resin to preserve it and then developed a taste for pine infused wine. Retsina is available as a white or roza (rosé) wine.
I’ve since tried cooking pita in a hot, dry skillet with excellent results – it could be better than cooking in the oven.