“You must try my pita,” she told me. “I make 20 kilos a week, and that makes 120 pitas, about enough for my family!”
We were standing in the spacious office of Shaked Bakery in Karmiel, a medium-sized town in the north of Israel. I was there to consult with the bakery on producing American-style Passover macaroons and other Passover cookies, the macaroons for the U.S. market and the cookies to be sold in Israel.
I was speaking with a vivacious, 50-ish Arab-Israeli woman named Kalthoum Titi, who works as the housekeeper for the factory. She speaks excellent English and we chatted easily about her life in Karmiel, where she’s lived for many years with her husband and her five children, mostly teens.
“I am blessed,” she said. “All my children are very motivated and are excellent in their studies. They all want to go to the university and make a life for themselves.”
She glows with pride. I ask where her house is and again she kvells: “Oh, it’s not far. And I have a new oven! You should see it! Would you like to come see my oven?”
I was a little puzzled for a moment, thinking of my double oven at home — nice, but nothing to invite someone over to appreciate. Then I made the connection: pita breads, baked on the sides and bottom of a brick or heavy steel oven. A new oven to do the weekly baking. Wow!
“Is it outside?” I asked. “Does it use wood?”
“Of course, outside,” she gestured to an invisible space. This is Israel, after all; even in the north just about everything in life can be done outside. “And not wood, gas — much easier. And it’s very strong, round, made of steel,” again the gesture shaping a form about six or seven feet tall. “We just finished it, and the pitas are beautiful. I brought, for my lunch! You must try it! Come with me.”
This was not an invitation exactly, more like a happy command, as she took me immediately by the hand and went to find the plastic bag holding her lunch.
“Here, here! I’ll make it for you.”
She brought out a large, perfect pale wheat pita about eight inches in diameter, a tomato, a bit of feta, a small container of very dark green olive oil, and a little plastic tub of a fragrant, dry herb.
“You know this?” she asked. “I do it myself. I go and pick the leaves and then dry them and rub, rub, rub the leaves between my palms.”
I can see the green powder showering down as she crushes the za’atar leaves and prepares them for the daily seasoning of her family’s food. Za’atar, a wild thyme, is an almost ubiquitous seasoning in these lands, often used in a traditional mix, peculiar to each family, made from the sour dried and ground berries of sumac, sesame seeds, salt, and sometimes aromatics like cassia bark (a spicy cinnamon-like spice) or ground allspice.
Kalthoum’s za’atar is made only of her lovingly rubbed leaves, and she now mixes it with a tablespoon or so of the rich green olive oil that smells like green pears and earth. She cuts the pita in half and opens up one side, slices and salts the tomato and spreads the za’atar inside the pita. Talking all the time and describing what she’s doing, she slips in some tomato slices and the feta and says, “Here, this is for you. Is it enough?”
I protest that I’m already being offered half her lunch, but she insists I cannot try her pita any other way. Later, after I have said good-bye, lamenting that I am leaving for home right away and can’t come see her oven and learn how to make her pitas, I promise that I will definitely come to her house when I come back and we will cook together.
I am sure that I could learn more from her than I could ever offer to teach, although cooking has been my profession for nearly 30 years. I took the pita with me, wrapped in a plastic bag, and ate it on the plane on the way home, remembering the remarkably gnarled trunks of the centuries old olive trees in groves running along Karmiel’s hillsides, near where Kalthoum’s family lives.
Although few of us have a big, domed oven in our backyard, I believe the following recipe for pita, more than dozens of others I’ve seen, will allow you to make pita breads approximating the freshness and flavor of Kalthoum’s in Karmiel. Be sure to read the recipe through a couple of times before beginning.
The za’atar mix, made from thyme, Greek oregano and marjoram, isn’t as sweet as any of these, but they can be used as substitutes with the success of a good reminiscence of the regional Israeli staple.
2 cups warm water (105-115 degrees)
1 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. active dry yeast (1 pkg)
About 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
About 3 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
First, make a sponge with about half the flour. In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let the yeast dissolve and begin to foam (about 15 minutes).
Stir in the all-purpose flour and beat with a wooden spoon (or with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer) about 75 times, ‘til the batter is smooth and about the thickness of thick pancake batter.
Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let sit two hours to overnight in a draft-free spot.
Add the salt and enough flour to make a dough that’s a little stiff, but one you can easily knead by hand. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding only enough flour to keep it from sticking to the board or your hands.
Let rest on the board, covered, for about 15 minutes to let the gluten in the dough relax.
Preheat the oven to 500˚—it must be very hot. If you’re using a baking stone (great time to use it!) position it on the bottom of the oven or on the lowest shelf.
Cut the dough into eight equal pieces. Flatten each piece with your hand, then roll with a floured rolling pin on a lightly floured surface. (should not stick! Add flour as needed). Roll each piece into a circle about six inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick.
Sprinkle baking sheets with flour or fine cornmeal and place two circles on each (you may rotate sheets if you only have one or two; roll the pita as you put them on the sheet).
Let the dough circles rest about 15 minutes.
Place the baking sheet on the oven bottom, or if that isn’t possible, on the lowest rack. If you’re using a baking stone, transfer the pitas to the stone with a large spatula.
Close the oven door and keep it shut for one minute.
Don’t peek or the pocket may not form. It’s this initially fast, hot searing of the outside dough of the pita that makes it separate from the dough on the inside. The carbon dioxide gas created by the yeast expands inside and accentuates the separation until the pita blows up like a balloon and the pocket is created.
At the end of the minute, place the sheet on a rack higher in the oven and continue baking anywhere from three to seven minutes, until the pitas have blown into balloons and are lightly brown. If the pitas are baked right on the stone, after the initial minute transfer them to a baking sheet which is already in place on a higher oven rack for the second part of their baking.
When they’re done, remove the baking sheet from the oven, slide the pitas off and let them cool. They will deflate somewhat after cooling. Once they’re thoroughly cool you can press more air out of them so the take up less storage room.
Makes 8 pitas
King Arthur Flour and traditional sources.
1/4 cup dried oregano and/or thyme leaves, crumbled and rubbed till very fine
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
2 to 3 Tbs. dried ground sumac
Kosher salt to taste
Mix all together and store tightly sealed.
Try sprinkled on yogurt with salt and a
rich olive oil, or on a salad of tomatoes
Makes about 2/3 cup
Joan Nathan and traditional recipes