Summer of the Sandwich – Challah Pita

A Dessert for Everyone
July 21, 2011
Stressed is desserts spelled backwards
November 1, 2011
At every speaking or baking event I have done over the past year, the question I hear over and over is “why are you not obese if you make desserts all the time?”  My humorous answer reveals my philosophy of the 3 S’s: sweat, salad and Spanx.  If you want to justify sweets now and then, you really have to exercise.  If you want to keep your weight as it is, you really cannot eat meals dominated by carbs and then overindulge on desserts.  And finally, if you want to look like you do not eat any desserts, well, Spanx will do the trick.

The reality of my relationship with food and my weight is much more complicated.  I am blessed with a fast metabolism, yet I still miss my teen years, and then my pregnancy years, when I could freely eat whatever I wanted.    I have a deep and meaningful relationship with vegetables.  But I also adore pasta and my annual milkshake.  In my view, risotto is like edible gold; I savor every bite as if it is a treasure.  I resent the fact that at my age, I have to watch my weight.  The fact that I am reasonably successful at it, or at least skilled at dressing to hide extra pounds ten months of the year, should not obscure my pain at looking at a sandwich and thinking that it is the tipping point that would cause me to gain 10 pounds in the first bite.  I also spent the summer watching Food Network Star, where winner Jeff Mauro made mouthwatering sandwiches every week.  It seemed that I was missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.  A sandwich merges your childhood with your adult life: you combine sophisticated flavors that you get to eat with your hands.

At the beginning of the summer, I reached my weight goal after the Passover Eight invaded my body in April.  Part of it was the kids going away to camp and there was no reason to cook pasta, white rice or the beloved potato.  My summer meals consisted of a lean protein accompanied by four salads or vegetable sides.  The other successful albeit funny weight loss program that worked was competing on the upcoming new Food Network dessert competition show, Sweet Genius.  Want to lose those last five pounds??  Get cast on a food competition show that will be broadcast to millions and you will promptly lose your appetite for a few weeks.  As a home baker, the thought of competing against restaurant chefs was terrifying.  Over the few weeks before the show, I spent time practicing basic skills, thinking about how to best keep my hair out of my face and considering what wacky ingredients could come my way.  By the time we taped in July, my appetite returned and I was excited about challenging myself and just wanted to have fun with it.  It was an experience I will never forget.  Sweet Genius premieres September 22nd at 10:00 EST on Food Network, and my episode airs on October 27th.  After the show taped, I walked out of the set onto the steamy streets of NYC and realized that I was extremely hungry.

Back to the sandwich.  Most weeks, I bake challah on Tuesday and freeze it because I have too many other dishes to prepare on Friday for Shabbat.  Some weeks, the only time I can bake challah is on Friday morning, but then I give myself a treat.  After the first rising, I break off some of the dough and shape it into a ball.  I use a rolling pin to roll it out flat and bake it as pita bread.  At lunchtime, I sit down to a sandwich in my homemade challah pita pocket.  My favorite has arugula, avocado, tomato and cheese.  Life is just too short to live without a sandwich.
One evening at Camp Ramah Palmer this summer, I was taking a walk and came upon a group of Israelis making fresh pita in a pan on a propane burner at a small picnic table.  Israelis fully appreciate the joy of fresh pita.  Now you can too.  Here is the recipe for the challah pita, but you can also make 2 braided challah loaves and 8 pitas instead.  During testing, I tried baking the pitas in a grill pan (too flat), toaster oven (too toasted) and found the oven worked best.  Watch them carefully as they bake.  They are best fresh, but can be rewarmed later. 
Challah Pita
makes 16 6-inch pitas
½ cup canola or vegetable oil, plus one teaspoon for greasing bowl
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
½ cup cold water
2 packages dry yeast (1/2 ounce)
1/3 cup warm water
3 large eggs, plus one yolk
7 cups bread flour
In a measuring cup, dissolve the yeast in 1/3 cup warm water and mix in a teaspoon of sugar.  Let sit until thick and foamy, about 8 minutes.  Pour the oil, salt and sugar into a large bowl.  Mix with a whisk.  Add 1 cup boiling water and whisk to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Add 1/2 cup cold water and mix again. 
Beat the eggs and yolk in a separate, small bowl and add to the oil mixture, reserving 1 tablespoon to brush on top of the loaves.  Add the yeast mixture and stir.  One cup at a time, add six cups of the flour and mix well after each addition.  Place dough on a floured surface and add the last cup of flour, ¼ cup at a time, and knead the flour in until smooth.  You may not use all of the flour.  Place the teaspoon oil in the bowl and rub around.  Return the dough to the bowl, rub your oiled hand on top, and cover with plastic or a damp towel.  Let rise one hour.
To make the pita, preheat the oven to 450°F.  Divide the dough into 16 pieces.  Roll into a ball and then use a rolling pin to roll into a 5 inch pancake.  Place on a cookie sheet.  Bake on the center rack for six minutes, flip over and then bake for another two minutes.  You want the pitas puffed and lightly colored, not browned.
If making challah loaves, braid the dough, place on a parchment-covered baking sheet and let rise 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F.  Brush the top and sides with the reserved egg mixed with a teaspoon of  water.  Bake for 35 minutes or until golden.