Up until the age of eleven I took a packed lunch to school every day. My primary school was pretty small and didn’t have a kitchen to cook up school dinners on a daily basis. While it sometimes seemed a shame that we didn’t get to eat anything hot at lunchtime, given that this was well before Jamie Oliver waved his magic wand over what we’re allowed to serve to kids in this country, it was probably quite a good thing.
I’ve talked before on this blog about how important healthy food was to my Mum when we were growing up. This is the woman who would offer little packets of Sunmaid raisins to trick-or-treaters come Halloween while the other mums were doling out chocolate and sweets, so you can imagine the contents of my packed lunch were always pretty virtuous.
Once, to my complete mortification, my Mum included carrots with their leafy tops still intact. I think half the lunch room was stunned into silence having never seen a carrot complete with its greenery and not in a packet before, but the rest of my friends found it absolutely hilarious and choruses of Bugs Bunny’s ‘What’s Up Doc?’ followed me around for at least a week after the incident.
I obviously wasn’t completely traumatized by this experience as I still enjoy eating carrots as a snack well into my twenties. Another thing that was often included in my school packed lunch and that I still eat on a regular basis is wholemeal pitta bread. Having been brought up on brown bread from an early age, I’ll almost always opt for the nutty, more toothsome texture of wholegrain loaves and rolls over white (although, actually, I’m also easily tempted by a salty focaccia or crusty French baguette), and I’m always looking for new ways to incorporate whole grains into my daily baking.
Surprisingly, for someone who eats quite a lot of the things, I’ve never made my own pitta bread. Maybe the technical aspect of creating perfect pockets put me off or, more likely, the fact that you can buy them in just about every corner shop across the UK, but it wasn’t until I received a copy of Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake that I decided it was time to give them a go.
Homemade pitta bread is a revelation (as is any homemade bread really, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize this about pittas in particular). Compared to the dense, chewy, slightly stodgy bread you get in those sealed plastic packets, these are soft, fluffy pillows of perfection. They’re also insanely easy to make: ten minutes kneading and mixing the dough, an hour to prove, then roll them out, throw them on a baking stone and in around five minutes you have the most amazing freshly baked pitta bread.
Because of my love of all things wholemeal, I’ve adapted Paul’s recipe ever so slightly, converting the 100% plain flour recipe into a 70:30 ratio of wholemeal to white. If you want to make yours as he originally intended you’ll just need to watch the amount of water, erring at the lower end of what is suggested below. But if you’re unsure about baking with wholemeal flour because you think the results will be dense or heavy or dry or any of those other things people associate with the healthy qualities of wholemeal, please give my version a try, I promise you’ll be surprised.
Serve these pittas warm with homemade hummus (as in the photo above). Stuff them full of falafel, spiced lamb kofte charred on the barbecue and just the right side of greasy or, as we did on Monday, with succulent slices of Ottolenghi’s chicken shawarma, grilled courgettes, tahini sauce and a red onion salad. They’re also perfect for packed lunches. Green fronded carrots and a packet of Sunmaid raisins optional.
Wholemeal Pitta Bread (very closely adapted from How to Bake)
(makes 8 medium sized pitta breads)
175g strong wholemeal bread flour plus extra for dusting
75g strong white bread flour
7g instant yeast
140 – 165ml cool water
2 tsp olive oil
Combine both flours in a large mixing bowl. Add the salt to one side and yeast to the other. Add 140ml of water and the olive oil and turn the mixture round with your fingers, picking up all the flour from the sides of the bowl. You’re aiming for a soft but not soggy dough, so add a little more of the water if necessary. If you’re using all white flour you may not need all the water.
Tip the dough onto your work surface (coating with a little oil if you’re worried about it sticking) and knead for 5 – 10 minutes until the dough starts to form a soft, smooth skin.
When the dough is smooth and silky, shape it into a round a place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 – 2 hours, preferably in a warm place. One hour is probably the minimum amount of time it will take to double in size, but you can leave it anything up to three.
Put a baking stone or tray in the oven and heat it to 220 degrees C.
Dust the work surface with wholemeal flour. Tip your risen dough onto the work surface and gently fold it inwards on itself until all the air is knocked out and the dough is smooth. Divide your dough into eight equal sized pieces and shape each piece into a ball, keeping them covered with a tea towel as you work.
With a rolling pin, roll each piece of dough into an oval approx. 3mm thick, keeping it generously dusted with flour.
Scatter your hot baking stone or tray with flour then lay as many pitta breads as will fit without touching onto it. Bake for 5 – 10 minutes (mine took closer to 5 minutes), removing the pittas from the oven as soon as they show any sign of colour. This will ensure they are beautifully soft.
Allow the pittas to cool under a tea towel – the trapped steam will keep them soft. These pittas are best eaten within 24 hours of making but they also freeze beautifully – you can defrost them in the oven or straight into the toaster.