Steamed on a skillet, pita comes out perfectly poufy
KEN FITZGERALD is fascinated with flatbread. He comes by it naturally.
Born in Jordan, the Seattle naval engineer’s earliest memories involve flatbread baked in an ancient wood-fired oven.
As the son of medical missionaries, FitzGerald recalls running with a pack of kids to the village bakery, standing wide-eyed before a cranky old baker and trading coins for khubz — steaming rounds of Arabic bread.
These days the Shilshole Marina live-aboard makes his own flatbread on a cast-iron skillet in the galley of his 40-foot sailing vessel, Bint al Khamseen — Daughter of the Desert Wind.
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His is a recipe perfected out of necessity. And a perfect recipe for anyone who loves pita and would like to try making it at home.
“We were going places where bread was inaccessible,” my friend recalls of a two-year voyage that had him and his wife, Susan, breaking bread on the high seas as they crossed the Pacific.
With a small oven — and times spent in climes that made the thought of turning it on unbearable — FitzGerald came up with the idea of steaming the bread on the stovetop in a covered cast-iron pan. Worked like a charm.
Ironically, he says, while sailing 19,500 nautical miles, he taught the craft along the way, schooling Lebanese sailors who later passed the recipe on to admiring Fijians.
FitzGerald’s khubz is a favorite in my house, where we start a batch in the morning, roll it out in the evening and down a half-dozen rounds with dinner. The dough is forgiving, as is the rise time. The proportion of white-to-whole-wheat flour can be fiddled with to suit your fancy. We’ve even had success blending white flour with rye.
Practice this enough, and you, too, can make perfectly poufy pitas. And if they don’t pouf properly, fear not, says FitzGerald: That’s why they call it flatbread.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ cup whole wheat flour
1 package active dry yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ¼ cup water
1. In a large mixing bowl combine the flours, yeast, salt and sugar. Make a depression in the center and add water. Using a dinner knife, “cut” the dough until the water is incorporated and the dough looks shaggy. With your hands, combine the dough until it forms a smooth ball. Cover and place in a warm spot to rise until doubled (about 2 hours).
2. Turn the dough onto a heavily floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Roll into a 12-inch log. Cut into 6 equal sections and form into balls. Cover with a clean towel and let rise for 30 minutes.
3. On a well-floured surface, use a rolling pin to flatten each ball to a quarter-inch thickness, flipping frequently while rolling. Lightly flour and stack them on a large plate. (Parchment paper will help keep them from sticking.) Cover and let rise another 30 minutes.
4. Preheat a large (ungreased) cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, slap a single round into the pan. Cover with a lid to provide a steam chamber. (A glass lid helps greatly.) Gently flip with a spatula at the first sign of bubbles (this should take about 30 seconds) then cover and continue cooking. Use your nose to tell if the bread is burning and adjust the heat if necessary. Repeat the process, wiping the pan with a damp paper towel to remove flour if need be. Each round should take about 3 minutes to cook.