There are many places I return to whenever I visit Aleppo. I go at least once to have ful medammes at Hajj Abdo. I stay at Yasmeen d’Alep, and if I am not, I make a point of going there to sit in their peaceful courtyard and have a chat with the lovely owners Badeeh & Hannadi Qudsi; and I always walk up to Sahet el Hatab in Jdaydeh at around 9 am to watch the pita bread being made and then spread right on the pavement to cool before being packed. The process, as you can see from my not so great clip, is fully automated, from kneading the dough, to dividing it, to rolling it out (first into ovals, then into perfect circles), to putting it in the oven, to taking it out of the oven and sending it to the sales window or the packing floor, with the loaves going from one place to the other on a conveyor belt. The only thing that is not automated is placing the dough into the dividing machine and then packing the bread.
The breads are normally spread on mats right on the pavement outside the bakery and I always thought that the mats were no-go areas for people to step on but I was there the other week and saw everyone, including the bakery employees, step onto the mats with their dirty shoes then spread the bread right where they had stepped. Now this could be one of the explanation as to why so many people get tummy ache when they visit the country! It would be just as effective and far more hygenic if they cooled their breads on benches like the man in the picture below.
Home-made pita bread is quite different from that made in commercial bakeries. There are several reasons for that. The flour used in commercial bakeries is milled from hard wheat and has a little bran left in it. Also the process of making the bread (as you see in the clip at the top) is almost completely automated, resulting in perfect loaves.
You can successfully replicate some elements of this production. You can knead the dough in a machine instead of by hand as I do, and you can use a pasta machine to roll out the dough instead of a rolling pin – this will ensure a more evenly flattened out dough although I am not sure it will result in a perfect circle. But you will still come to the final stumbling block, which is the baking. However good your oven is, it will never produce the fierce heat of commercial ovens, some of which are still wood-fired, which causes the dough to puff up in seconds and the layers to separate equally.
This is not to say that homemade pita is not good. In fact, I love taking the puffed balls of bread out of the oven and watching them deflate, oddly enough never as quickly as in commercial bakeries, perhaps because the layers are not so thin. The only country where commercially produced pita is quite close to that made at home is Egypt. Their pita is smaller and thicker than that made in Lebanon or Syria and it is called aysh baladi when made with wholewheat flour. Makes 10 individual pitas
500 g unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra if needed
heaping teaspoon (1/2 package) easy bake yeast
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center. Add the oil to the well and, using the tips of your fingers, rub the oil into the flour until well incorporated.
Gradually add another 1 1/4 cup warm water, bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead until you have a rough, rather sticky ball of dough
Sprinkle your work surface with flour. Remove the dough onto it and sprinkle with a little more flour. Knead for 2-3 minutes, sprinkling with more flour if the dough sticks. Invert the bowl over the dough and let rest for 15 minutes. Knead for a few more minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic and rather soft. Shape the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning it to coat all over with oil. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2 hours. Fold after the first hour.
Remove the dough onto your work surface. Divide in 10 equal parts, each weighing just under 3 ounces. Roll each piece of dough into a ball. Cover with a wet, although not dripping towel and return to rise for 45 minutes.
Roll out each ball of dough to about 6-7 inch disks, flouring your work surface and the dough every now and then and making sure you form even circles – a good way to achieve this is to give the disk a quarter turn between each rolling out. You can also use a pasta machine to roll out the breads. Cover the disks of dough with a floured couche (baker’s linen). Let rest for 15-20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, or to its highest setting.
Bake in the preheated oven for 6-8 minutes, or until well puffed and very lightly golden. The baking time will vary depending on how hot your oven is. I suggest you start checking the breads after 5 minutes. You may have to bake them in separate batches if your oven is not large enough. These are best served immediately or at least still warm. Alternatively, you can let them cool on a wire rack and freeze them for later use. When you are ready to serve them, simply defrost them in the bag and reheat in a warm oven.
Ps. to make manaqish bil-za’tar, mix 6 tablesppons za’tar (a mix of dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds which you can buy in Middle Eastern stores) with 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and spread some of it on each of the disks of dough then bake. when spread with za’tar or any other topping, the dough will not puff up the way it does when left plain but it will bubble up around the edges like pizza.
©anissa helou from Savory Baking from the Mediterranean