Short and Tweet Challenge 18: Perfect Pita Bread, Simple Bagels and Double-Corn Muffins

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Perfect plain pita pg 76 or the Garlic, thyme and lemon version pg 77; Simple bagels pg 61; or Double-corn bacon muffins pg 533. The opening photograph is from Carla (see below) because, as ever, I’m in awe of her tidiness and am smitten by her kitchen.

I’m not a bagel enthusiast, mostly because I find the supermarket versions to be clammy and dense. For no particularly good reason, such bagels remind me of acres of sun-starved goosepimpled flesh in a park on the first sunny day, slathered with sun-screen or drenched in a tanning oil to accelerate the burn. I was therefore delighted when Dan Lepard gave headnotes on how to tweak his bagel recipe to adjust the chewiness and crumb. @lapindor of Lapin d’Or and More rose to the challenge of: Simple bagels. This is a good, illustrated account of shaping and poaching the dough. I like the summary and concur with the crumb sentiment: “I am no bagel expert so am not sure if I should have retained a bigger hole in the centre and if they should really be a bit flatter in shape…[Inside, you can see that] I have a few big air holes and I suspect a more open crumb than a traditional bagel. No complaints though as they were delicious and I was actually quite proud of them”.

Although she was stricken by a nasty bug, @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked her way through the bagel recipe twice: Short and Tweet: Bagels. Go along for the useful notes and the briefly alarming digression into “poaching beagles”.

Although Bialys aren’t strictly related to bagels, the chew and the crumb are likewise important so I’d point people towards @Zeb_Bakes of Zeb Bakes's post: Bialys for Mellow Bakers. There are some good hints and tips here for additional toppings and serving ideas that might be adapted to this bagel recipe. It is also via the ever-helpful @Zeb_Bakes that I found these How to shape & bake your bagels videos.

Most of us opted for the pita bread challenge, egged on perhaps by the enthusiasm of those of us who’ve made them before (“almost qualified for the title of ‘the easiest bread in the world’”) and been taken aback by the difference between these and what is typically available in supermarkets. There’s also a whiff of kitchen excitement with pita bread. The baker arms-lengths a thin piece of dough into a searingly hot oven, and within a couple of minutes the heat turns the water content to steam, puffing up the dough to the point where nervous watchers suspect that the tension will be too much and it will burst and deflate, only somewhat less spectacularly than a over-stretched balloon. When the bread cools it relaxes and deflates but the pocket remains, waiting to be opened and stuffed.

@Misky of Misk Cooks offers a picture of Elmo Gnome alongside a description and shots of her ideas of how to stuff them: Dan Lepard’s Perfect Plain Pita Bread. There are clever suggestions for how to roll the dough out to the correct depth, how to move the bread with tongs and plenty of enthusiastic appreciation. “So, will I make them again? Yes. In every language recognised by the human ear, I say “Yes!”

Will I ever buy store-made pitas again? Not by the hairs on your chiny-chin-chin.”

There’s interesting discussion in @Misky's comments. I'm one of those who confesses to finding Short & Sweet to be both a remarkable baking resource and a fountain of benign domestic tyranny as the vast difference between home-made versions of items such as pita bread and that which is commonly available means that it’s unlikely one would voluntarily purchase them again.

@BakeCakeCrumbs of Cake, Crumbs and Cooking sent along a well-illustrated account of mixing dough and baking: Perfect Plain Pittas. “Tender and chewy, these are a million miles from the long-life excuse for pitta bread that you find in the supermarkets…[It’s] quite fun to keep seeing them pop out all puffed up! My one regret is that my oven has a solid door so I can’t see the magic happening!”

@Mitchdafish of Mitchadafish blog joined the WI not long ago and used their recently launched flour to bake her delightful breads: Pita.

@tomasi_carla tweeted a very helpful series of photographs and comments about making these pita, griddling them (rather than baking them in an oven) and serving suggestions: Dan Lepard’s Perfect Pita. There are helpful notes about cooking them from frozen. Update: Carla cooks the pita on both sides when she griddles them.

@BakerHay tweeted some pictures and comments about her experience in baking both the plain and garlic, thyme & lemon pita: @BakerHay bakes Dan Lepard’s Perfect Pita Bread.

@Choclette8 of Chocolate Log Blog tweeted her semi-wholemeal pita, baked at 225C. These pita have more colour than those made wholly with white flour and the pattern reminds me of reticulated seed pods.

My Best Beloved baked both the plain pita and, in the sweet flush of success, the double-corn bacon muffins. The pita were a light-crumbed triumph. In a (perhaps) poignant commentary on our lives there was lots of excitement derived from staring through the glass door of the oven to see the pita swell and then suddenly expand (see first photograph).

The Double-corn bacon muffins tasted fine but were a tad claggy in the centre (the empty case shows how damp the muffin mix was even after standing when first removed from the oven). This is possibly because Best Beloved’s reservoirs of patience had been sapped by the keen attention to detail paid to executing the pita bread recipe well so parts of this recipe went awry. Not least, grated aubergine had to substitute for the courgette and a misunderstanding meant that far too much of the aubergine was added. I suspect that the surfeit of aubergine accounted for the muffins being cooked and golden on the outside at the end of the baking time but claggy within: we returned the muffins to the oven for an additional 7 minutes which improved the texture (albeit the centre was heavier & damper than I like) but over-baked the top and darkened the colour.

This week’s challenge recipes are: Mini coffee Paris-Brest pg 418; Rhubarb and custard buns, pg 422; a third option is to use the sweet choux paste as a pie crust, as Dan outlines, pg 525. If you have any sweet choux paste left over, then if you adapt Dan’s recommendation for Soup choux, pg 524, and pipe/bake tiny blobs of it, you might sprinkle them on top of a stewed fruit dish (with or without tossing them in a dipping sugar of, eg, cinnamon and icing sugar). It looks very special and far more complicated than it is: it also offers a good texture contrast. (There are additional notes in the Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge).

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 11 March or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge.

It’s apparent that #shortandtweet search doesn’t always show everyone’s tweets so I apologise if I missed any notifications - please let me know and I’ll update this compilation.

Thank you for sharing your pitas, bagels and muffins. I look forward to our many explorations of choux pastry.

Short and Tweet Challenge: March 2012 Schedule

March 2012 schedule for the #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet. (Read about #shortandtweet challenge and its conditions.)

The dates are those by which I’d like to receive links or photographs: please tweet these @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet or leave links in the comments for the appropriate challenge announcement post. I’ll then collate these into the compendium post for that challenge.

The choices for some of these challenges vary as I realise that some of us have different ingredients available (or want to use up previous special purchases) or may be concerned about exposing ourselves or others to particular temptations. Nonetheless, I hope that it is stretching some of us to experiment with unfamiliar techniques or to tweak our familiar routines or recipes.

4 March Perfect plain pita pg 76 or the Garlic, thyme and lemon version pg 77. These breads are only vaguely related in taste and texture to the ones that are commonly available from supermarkets and are worth trying. Dan says: “Pita needs very little yeast, as the rolling and the very hot oven create the lift. So if your oven doesn’t get hot enough, you’ll have to make them at a friend’s house”. This is true - you will only get the full benefit of this recipe with a suitably hot oven. You will need very good, long tongs or superb oven gloves. You have been warned (but please make them as they are a revelation if you’ve not had fresh pita recently).

Simple bagels pg 61 de-mystified bagels for me and presented a very relaxed way of preparing a recipe that had always seemed fraught with complexity when I’d read about it elsewhere. There are notes to tweak the texture by altering the quantity of water or modifying the length of time for the rise. Again, unless you’re near a very good source for them, it’s remarkably different to make your own and discover that the result is not intrinsically heavy.

For anyone who didn’t bake last month’s North-South cornbread pg 53 or who did bake it and wants to use up some of the polenta or yellow corn meal, then I suggest the Double-corn bacon muffins pg 533. These are an excellent hearty lunch or tea-time item (works well with firm cooked mushrooms for those who don’t want bacon): I’ve heard that they’re good for brunch but I tend to have a punitive attitude to that institution (only within my own household and only if I’m the one responsible for preparing and serving it).

11 March When I was little my parents had a French cookery book that gave full and grisly details of how to cook an eel dish that required fresh eel blood for the sauce (it involved impaling live eels on a hook, a sharp knife and a dish to collect said blood). When it came to pastry, however, it was assumed that one pretty much already knew what was required: “Take a quantity of rough puff pastry” was as detailed as it got. I knew what puff pastry was but the recipe that fired my imagination was Paris Brest. I had no idea what choux pastry was but I instinctively knew that I liked the sound of a praline filling and toasted almonds on top. And I dreamed of the time when I could eat this delight. What made this recipe the more aspirational was the book’s account of how the recipe was developed: allegedly, in honour of the Paris-Brest cycle race (hence the shape).
“[The baker’s] tire-shaped choux pastry was piped full of a huge amount of calorific praline cream, perhaps mimicking the newly invented inner tubes of the day and traditionally baked almonds and icing sugar decorated the cake, imitating the tread of the tyre and dust from the road.” The Hungry Cyclist: Paris Brest – The Breakfast of Champions

Dan Lepard mentions the Paris Brest cycle race as well so this week is choux pastry and variations. For some of us, the stand out recipe is for Mini coffee Paris-Brest pg 418. There is coffee cream custard filling and instructions for drizzling a caramel over the top (this may well be tweaked into a praline that is smashed up and heavily dredged on top: I have a premonition).

For anyone who has their own rhubarb, or is putting up rhubarb this month, there is a delightful choux recipe for Rhubarb and custard buns, pg 422. These are both good and flexible: a friend didn’t make the custard but put together a half yoghurt, half whipped double cream filling which provided a good, slightly acid bite to the buns. The recipe also works well with roasted apples.

The third option is to use the sweet choux paste as a pie crust, as Dan outlines, pg 525. This is a very helpful hint for those of us who have sporadic difficulties in piping that make it difficult to envisage a tidy array of buns or homages to small bicycle wheels.

If you have any sweet choux paste left over, then if you adapt Dan’s recommendation for Soup choux, pg 524, and pipe/bake tiny blobs of it, you might sprinkle them on top of a stewed fruit dish (with or without tossing them in a dipping sugar of, eg, cinnamon and icing sugar). It looks very special and far more complicated than it is: it also offers a good texture contrast.

18 March It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK so I feel obliged to mention that there is a recipe for Saffron peach cake pg 137 which some people baked for an earlier challenge, with good results and some useful tweaks.

Option two “is the ‘Sophia Loren’ of cake: four layers of orange sponge cake filled with a simplified Sicilian cassata mixture and drizzled with a light orange syrup. The sponge alone is a good standby recipe for the lunchbox”. Dan has provided notes for advance preparation on pg 133, specifically for a special occasion. The recipe for Orange cassata cake is pg 132 and the cassata filling is delectable: if you have any Fiori di Sicilia or Panettone essence from other recipes, then that might be another way of flavouring the filling to taste (adjust the vanilla accordingly). It’s a delight even though it reminds me of a post-restaurant romantic clinch and my Best Beloved’s ill-timed burp that gave me the full experience of the apricot cassata that I hadn’t eaten.

Option three is a deep-flavoured Butterscotch banana cake that also makes excellent cupcakes. This is a cake for anyone who has, or whose mother has, fond memories of Banana Split Toffees and would appreciate both a more adult version and less dental jeopardy. There’s also a handy Short & Sweet tip about baking powder, the alkalinity of ripe bananas and its impact on the crumb of a cake.

25 March I propose that we close the month with Light spelt rough puff pastry, pg 497. Dan Lepard notes that, “A smidgeon of baking powder softens the pastry and helps to gently aerate the tender buttery flakes as they bake”. This is a fairly free-form recipe as Dan suggests using it as you would puff pastry (lids for pies, or bases for tarts); as a wrap-around for items such as Pigs in blankets, or simply prepped for nibbles.

However, pp 498-503 have some excellent “ideas for individual savoury tarts”: be sure to read the additional baking notes for First-class tarts pg 498. The tarts can be as small or large as it suits you and the toppings can be simple or sophisticated. They’re flexible and allow a range of toppings to be baked at the same time (useful in families where people rarely agree on a single dish). For smaller households, the pastry freezes well and defrosts without mess for fast pie tops or tarts.