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Black mark to Ottolenghi - or was it me - or maybe it was God?

"An invocation to God is murmured before kneading the dough, another before placing it in the oven."

Claudia Roden - A Book of Middle-Eastern Food

To accompany Saturday's burnt offerings, I made pita bread from Ottolenghi's Shelf Love. This is what they were supposed to look like. Alas I did not take a photograph of my dreadful failures. And believe me they were, although my family were too polite and caring to say so. But what did I do wrong? It must have been that lack of an invocation to God, because honestly I followed that very precise recipe absolutely to the letter. Mind you deep inside I was probably sort of praying, particularly after the first two disasters came out of the oven.

According to Claudia pita bread is:

"soft. Even the outer crust is not crisp but soft, while the inside is chewy, and good for absorbing sauces." Claudia Roden - A Book of Middle-Eastern Food

Mine was crisp all the way through, but not crunchy or flaky crisp. It was sort of bendy crisp and, I thought, virtually uneatable. There was also no pocket in the middle into which you could have inserted the burnt offerings, although I did see some of my family valiantly trying, with great difficulty, to bend the bread around the meat. I should have taken a photograph to show you how bad they were, although really you had to try and taste them to really know. My family bravely chewed through them and made nice noises, but that's because they are my family. I wouldn't have minded showing them to you, but I did just forget - also the burnt offerings. Which is sad because either everybody else in the entire world who has tried to make pita bread has succeeded, or they are all too ashamed to show the failures, because I cannot find a picture of a failure on the net. Surely somebody else has failed like me. Or - awful thought - am I the only person in the world who cannot make pita bread?

I chose to make this recipe because the whole book is basically wonderful, there are 'how to' pictures to help you, and - well - it's Ottolenghi. Surely the master of Middle-Eastern food. The Ottolenghi recipe is very precise and I followed it to the letter. Honestly I did. Okay - I may have added a tiny bit too much liquid - but only a tiny bit too much. And if you watch the Bill Granger video below you will see that the dough is indeed a bit wet and sticky. Mine looked a bit like his.

Also I couldn't heat my oven to his 240ºC - mine will only go to 230ºC but:

"as long as you can get your oven to a temperature of 220ºC, you will be able to bake great bread and pizza. If it's any less than that, in all honesty you will struggle." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Originally they were made in a taboon oven - which is one of these, which is why some people make them in those pizza ovens that the with it people have in their gardens these days.

And Ottolenghi himself says that if you can't get 240ºC then just put it at your highest heat.

The dough definitely rose - maybe too much? Did I coat the dough with too much oil - when I took it out of the bowl after proving it was a bit hard in a couple of places. Bill Granger slathered a fair bit over his though. Was the fact that it was a bit hard because I put it to rise in the bowl in very hot water? Did I partially cook it because of that? It seems to work for David's bread though. Maybe I should just use my super oven's proving setting, like my granddaughter does for her various bread making exercises. And honestly I heated the baking tray like he said. Because apparently the two things that are needed are extreme heat and steam:

"Before indoor ovens became the norm, this 'ordinary' dough would be quickly rolled into an oval shape and then either thrown against the very hot inside walls of the outdoor oven or into the ashes of the direct flame itself. The intense heat of the flame, and its rapidly vaporising steam, then does the job that a leavened would otherwise do, creating lots of little air bubbles which cause the dough to quickly rise. It rises quickly and it also cooks really quickly, but, once out of the oven, deflates just as quickly! The speed with which all this rising and deflating happens is what causes the split between the two layers of dough and the empty 'pocket' to remain. It's this pocket which distinguishes pita from other flatbread." Tara Wigley/Sami Tamimi - Falastin

Some people, I now find, say that you should flip your rolled out dough over, when you place it in the oven to achieve this. Others say to use a baking stone - as for pizza, but I suspect that is much the same as a very hot baking tray.

And I did use bread flour because:

"Pitta is a bread that depends on gluten development for its distinctive form; without it, the dough will not be strong enough to puff up in the oven, yielding a simple flatbread, rather than one with a pocket." Felicity Cloake

There does seem to be a bit of disagreement between the various recipes as to whether you should add wholemeal flour or not. I did because Ottolenghi said to do so, but maybe that flour was too old. He also says "not to overwork the pitas at all or they won't puff up." Well you've got to roll them out - right?

I also cooked the breads for around 7 minutes rather than his recommended 4 or 5 because they were neither golden, which he said they should be - although in his photograph they don't look very golden - or puffed up. So maybe that's what I did wrong. They might at least have been soft and chewy if I had taken them out before.

Anyway I have written a big NO at the top of the recipe and will never try it again. But I will have a go with somebody else's recipe.

But whose?

Felicity Cloake, of course, has a go at perfect pitta bread, and I have to say that hers - shown here - look rather more human than Ottolenghi's. She also discusses all the options along the way.

So I started searching for the 'ultimate' recipe, beginning with my other two Middle-Eastern gurus Claudia Roden and Greg Malouf. The Claudia Roden recipe comes from the Cooking Spree website - the original version does not seem to be online. Greg Malouf has Syrian manoushi bread which may not be quite the same thing, although I would be pushed to see the difference either from the photograph or the recipe itself. I guess it depends which country you are in, as to what they are called.

Then I have two lesser-known Middle-Eastern gurus - Sami Tamimi - Ottolenghi's business partner - from his book Falastin. and Michael Rantissi and Kristy Frawley in their book Falafel for Breakfast.

All of the above are pretty traditional, but I did see somebody actually cooked theirs under a grill, others cooked them in a frypan and Bill Granger cooked his in a barbecue. I found his video reassuring because the dough was as moist and sticky as mine, and also his didn't puff up all that much. But then he was doing something slightly different - making something much more like a pizza. It was pretty simple though.

I found heaps of other recipes for all manner of flatbreads, but that's a whole other thing. Interestingly, Jamie, who I was sure would have had a recipe for pita, does not. He has recipes for various flatbreads but not pita. My twelve year-old granddaughter makes a pretty good pita bread, which I know she cooks in a frying pan. Her recipe is from Recipe Tin Eats, and, as I thought, it's actually a recipe for naan which are similar, but richer, because they also - well at least in this version use milk and eggs. Zoe's are also a little thinner than the actual recipe ones, but, as you can see here, they are perfect for folding food into. Not for stuffing though. Maybe the thicker ones on the Recipe Tin Eats website - on the left - could be used as pockets?

Naan are different though, and there are all manner of variations of flatbreads around the world. But not in Europe, which made me wonder why that was. So I had a look to see if I could find an answer. There were all manner of reasons given:

  • flatbreads were first devised in nomad societies which had no ovens

  • flatbreads came from regions where there was not a lot of fuel for ovens

  • there were no natural yeasts in these regions

And I'm sure you can see flaws in all of those arguments. But it is indeed true that flatbreads are everywhere - except in Europe - well northern Europe anyway.

"Specifically: loaf bread is an aberration, not flatbread. You find flatbreads around the world in every society that has access to any kind of grain anywhere. Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, Malaysia, everywhere. Some are raised (yeasted) and some are not. Some are filled and some are not. All grains are used: wheat, barley, millet, rice, lentils, corn, etc." Stack Exchange commenter

Loaf bread seems to be a Northern European thing - and yet the experts think that loaf bread was first made in Egypt. So go figure. Another unanswered question. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also claims that oatcakes are really a kind of flatbread. Well most people see them as a kind of biscuit I think.

I have tried Zoe's naan recipe and it sort of worked, but not very well. I also occasionally make chapatis - also not very well. They are a bit tough. So I am beginning to think I am doomed to failure on the bread front. The entire bread front really, although the No Knead bread lady - who actually has a recipe for pita bread has a recipe for focaccia which I have successfully made. Perhaps it's just me.

"It's a strange, almost imperceptible creeping feeling that the gastronomic pursuit in question is not 'your bag'. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Or perhaps God is just not on my side when it comes to bread.


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