Food & Wine

Taking time for fresh, fluffy pita bread

Pita Bread
Courtesy of Blanche Shaheen
Pair homemade pita bread with labne, za’atar and olives.

If there is one consistent item that has been missing from supermarket shelves during the lockdown, it’s yeast.

People have been buying yeast like never before, and social media has been saturated with home cooks posting warm and fuzzy photos of baguettes, pizzas and banana bread baked from scratch.

These longer baking projects have the extra bonus of permeating the home with beautiful scents and tapping into fond childhood memories.

This is the life many of our ancestors led before modern schedules became jammed with longer work hours, rush-hour traffic and after-school activities.

With this year’s less congested schedules, slow food has made a comeback. I feel lucky to have witnessed special slow food traditions as a child through my Great-Auntie Bahieh, who lived to be 96 years old. In particular, memories of her fresh, fluffy pita bread transport me back to simpler times.

Auntie Bahieh had one ritual she maintained until she died: baking her own pita bread. She would bake enough loaves to last a month and freeze most of them for later meals. She never purchased supermarket bread in all of her decades living in the United States. I loved coming over in the middle of her baking frenzy, flour dust all over the counters, the smell of yeast, and the pillowy loaves of pita bread stacked on the counter under her hand-embroidered blankets. She would always give me a taste of her warm bread right out of the oven, either wrapped around some freshly grilled lamb or brushed with some sweet and tart quince jam she cooked herself.

Making the actual dough is an easy process, but the patience to let the bread rise between each step is essential to making a fluffy yet chewy bread. The effort is worth it, as bread from scratch puts commercial breads to shame. Store-bought pita bread tends to be especially abysmal, with many brands having a cardboard texture.

Below I share the recipe Aunt Bahieh shared with me before her passing. I hope you create beautiful baking memories with these warm loaves as well.

I also have included a recipe for za’atar pita chips, which are great to repurpose any stale bread you have left over. These chips taste phenomenal with hummus, Syrian muhammara (red pepper walnut dip) or baba ghanoush.

For a similar dish, manakeesh, combine olive oil and za’atar spice (recipe below), spread them over your pita bread and bake another 10 minutes, until crispy.

If you don’t have time to bake but still yearn for the taste of homemade bread, there are markets with pita brands in Silicon Valley that rival any home recipe. Buying freshly baked bread from restaurants is another great way to keep these businesses afloat despite the shelter-in-place restrictions.

One of my favorite store-bought pita brands is Aroma’s Hamati bread. Its commercial kitchen in San Bruno churns out the best fresh pita bread in the Bay Area. These puffy disks are thick and sturdy, great for shawarma sandwiches and even miniature pizzas. Fortunately, Mountain View’s Rose Market always has them stocked on its shelves.

Oasis Bakery pita bread is extremely popular among the Middle Eastern population in the Bay Area. People who prefer their pita rounds on the thinner side favor Oasis, especially with their eggs in the morning or with hummus at lunch. You can find Oasis pitas in Middle Eastern markets and Grocery Outlet.

Cafe Baklava in Mountain View features fresh pita bread baked from scratch, lightly toasted and served at the table to nosh on with an olive oil and tomato dipping sauce before ordering your food.

Saaj Mediterranean, also in Mountain View, has tender loaves as well as addictive crispy za’atar pita chips. The word “Saaj” in Arabic means “bread cooked on a domed griddle.”

Los Altos resident Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the YouTube cooking show “Feast in the Middle East” and cookbook author. For more recipes and to purchase her new cookbook, “Feast in the Middle East: A Personal Journey of Family and Cuisine,” visit FeastInTheMiddleEast.com.

Homemade Pita Bread

• 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1 envelope yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water with 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup safflower or any other vegetable oil
• 1 cup warm water

Dissolve yeast with sugar into 1/4 cup warm water (make sure water is not too hot) and combine until dissolved. Mix salt into flour in large bowl and make a well in center. Pour oil into well and using fingers rub oil into flour to combine. Add dissolved yeast, then 1 cup of water and combine. Knead to make ball of dough. If you don’t like to get your hands doughy, add ingredients to food processor or mixer and combine until stiff dough results. Otherwise, knead dough by hand 3 minutes. Let dough sit 15 minutes, then knead some more.

Let dough rise in covered bowl in warm place for approximately 2 hours. Preheat oven to 475 F. Punch down dough, cut into 10 pieces and roll into balls. Place on floured surface and let rise another 45 minutes. Roll out each ball of dough to 6-7 inches in diameter, adding flour to work surface if it gets too sticky. Try to shape them into perfectly rounded disks.

Place dough rounds on oiled pan and cover with towel. Let dough rest another 15 minutes. Brush cookie sheet with oil and bake 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Za’atar Pita Chips

Za’atar:
  • 4 tablespoons ground thyme or savory
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
  • 4 teaspoons ground sumac
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt

Combine spices and store in cool, dry place. Use within two months.

Pita chips:
• 1 round pita bread
• Olive oil for brushing
• 1 tablespoon za’atar spice mix
• 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
• Dash of salt

Preheat oven to 400 F. Brush both sides of pita bread with olive oil. Sprinkle with za’atar, garlic powder and dash of salt. Place on baking sheet and bake 10-12 minutes or until browned.

Flip over and bake 5 minutes more if you like them extra crispy.

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