Focaccia, finally

June 24, 2010

I’ve had designs on starting a blog like this for a while. “I have lots of free time to cook,” I thought, “and I’ve got enough time to write about it.” I also have a stack of cookbooks and a tendency to make extensive lists and tables, so at one point I intended to become yet another Julie-&-Julia knockoff, checking off individual recipes from a huge Google spreadsheet containing tables of contents for all of my books. But then it turned out that

(1) I didn’t have nearly as much free time as I thought, and

(2) I still suffer from the same chronic laziness I suffered from in college.

Hence my extravagant promises of a Tuesday post that never materialized. Better late than never, though! Let’s make some focaccia.

Although I love Marcella Hazan’s Essentials, my go-to bread book is and probably always will be Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Good baking starts with good preparation, and that means measuring everything out by weight. I actually had enough patience to measure salt and yeast by weight this time. (I also love this digital scale.)

The standard ratio for a lean hearth bread is 5 parts flour to 3 parts water (by weight). Focaccia demands significantly more water, and the dough is spiked with olive oil from the beginning; that olive oil gives the final product a good deal of its characteristic texture and flavor.

Olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, has a lot of room for connoisseurs. If you do some side-by-side tastings, you start to appreciate the differences between different brands of oils: this one is well-rounded; that one has a bitter finish; this one is much fruitier than the others. You can then intelligently pair oils with particular dishes for maximum effect. Or you can be like me and just use whatever you’ve got on hand–but if you go that route, it still helps to try a few different brands until you settle on one you like.

Because this dough has lots of oil and water, it’s relatively slack and sticky. Here I’ve caught the dough working its way back down from the dough hook into the bowl.

One of the things I like about Reinhart’s book is that he gives you tactile cues that tell you when your dough is the proper consistency. Hearth breads should be tacky to the touch, but shouldn’t stick to your hands; this dough should be sticky, but when you mix it, it should only stick to the sides of the bowl, not the bottom. Dough too sticky? Firm it up with extra flour. Dough not coming together? Add some water. Hapless blogger who never gets this right on the first try? Alternately add flour and water until you blunder your way into a dough with the proper consistency.

It took me a little while to get this one right.

The finished dough will still be sticky to handle, but your first act once it comes off the mixer is to shove it into a pile of flour to make it easier to handle. Not being a hearth bread, I didn’t subject this dough to the windowpane test, but here it’s appropriately stretchy and, once floured, relatively easy to handle.

The next step is to wait. And wait. And wait some more, periodically stretching and folding the dough before shaping it.

Reinhart likes to use olive oil infused with garlic and herbs to impart flavor to the finished product. I took a swing at this, but I didn’t get a whole lot of herby or garlicky flavor out of the finished product. I’ve made this bread with plain olive oil in the past and had good results, so I’m likely to abandon the herb oil in the future–especially for bread with lots of flavorful toppings.

I made a half-cup of herb oil, and that was way too much. More on this in a minute.

After a few stretches and folds, I panned the focaccia in a plain old rimmed baking sheet and topped it with some of the herb oil. Here, I think, is where this formula usually comes off the rails a bit, at least in my experience. Reinhart encourages his readers to use herb oil liberally, promising that the dough will absorb the excess. In my experience, the dough has done anything but until it’s baked, and this leads to bread that can be almost greasy on the tongue. I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong or misunderstanding the recipe somehow, but I should probably make a note to scale back on the oil topping until I figure this one out.

Anyway, this dough rests in the refrigerator overnight to develop flavor.

When you get the dough back out, you get to add the rest of the oil and top it. Here I’m using just a little bit of excess rosemary; I’ve added it at the beginning of proofing so that the dough will proof around the herbs and help keep them from burning when the bread bakes.

You can top this stuff with just about anything. My fondest memories of this formula are two focaccias I made for a dinner party a year ago, one topped with rosemary, kosher salt, and lots of caramelized onions, the other topped with blue cheese and walnuts. The caramelized onion focaccia, in particular, recalls the focaccia my mom made when I was in high school and college–plenty of herbs and onions, thin and crispy, hard not to eat five pieces at a time. I was actually going to do a caramelized onion focaccia for this post, but my chronic laziness kicked in before I could get a pile of onions sliced and caramelized. Maybe next time.

CAUTION: YEAST AT WORK

(A minor technical note. I just realized that I’ve been uploading the full-sized pictures instead of the reduced-size ones, which is why you get pictures in all their 3000-by-2000-pixel glory when you click through the thumbnails. I’m still working the kinks out on this–don’t expect such high-resolution yeasty action shots in the future.)

It’s go time.

There we go. All done. Operation Proof-The-Dough-Around-The-Rosemary did not work exactly as planned, but that’s okay. The flavor and texture on this bread were pretty good, even though it did feel a little bit oily. It was good enough that I tore through it for breakfast and snacks this week. You could probably make a decent panino out of this stuff. If I didn’t think it’d clash with the rosemary and olive oil, I’d try a grilled cheese with some of the extra-sharp white cheddar I’ve got in the fridge.

One big plus of making focaccia is that I don’t have to feel bad when I don’t get absolutely giant holes in the cross-section. (I’ll do some posts on hearth bread in the future, I’m sure–I’m always looking to improve my French bread and have actually made some really good progress on it in the past couple of months.) This is actually a relatively thick bread–I haven’t measured, but it’s definitely a little more than an inch high. One neat variation on this might be to reduce the overall amount of dough and to stretch it thin when panning it. Crisp focaccia doesn’t make great sandwich bread, and I can’t speak to its authenticity (or possible lack thereof), but it’s a great treat to have around the house.

On our next episode, I’ll tackle a northern Italian staple and get thirty minutes of vigorous exercise, all in the space of one blog post! See you then!


Inauguration: Nice Pete’s fried chicken

June 19, 2010

Some weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Patrick Alan Coleman’s adventure into testicle cookery with Chris Onstad, the creator of Achewood. Although I think I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to culinary pleasures, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to start cooking with yak balls. It was thus something of a relief to see that the article included a copy of a recipe for fried chicken from the upcoming Achewood cookbook. There are myriad reasons why I think this recipe is awesome: Fried chicken is very much my speed; I’m a sucker for anything Achewood-related; I haven’t yet finished cataloging the recipes in the cookbooks I own, so I feel guilty when I make one of them anyway; and if I screwed it up, I could always run over to the KFC across the street.

Since western Washington has warmed up enough to drag me away from my usual repertoire of soups and stews, I figured I’d go ahead and give this a whirl.

Nice Pete’s Fried Chicken (courtesy Chris Onstad and Achewood)

Raw materials

Nice Pete’s fried chicken is pretty straightforward, calling for only four ingredients: chicken thighs, flour, oil, and Lawry’s seasoned salt. Already we’re off to a great start. I love chicken thighs. I’ve found that boneless skinless chicken breast is too easy to overcook, too difficult to flavor, and–most importantly, if you’re a notorious tightwad like me–costs twice as much as comparable chicken meat simply because it takes less work to begin overcooking it. BSCBs are not my style. Chicken thighs, rather, have been loyal to me and earned my loyalty. If I need chicken for a gumbo (and I did two weeks ago), I’m getting chicken thighs; you guys can have your boneless skinless meat product at $7 a pound.

In the back is a bowl of kale. I felt a little guilty this morning when I realized I hadn’t eaten enough greens this week. I also love dark leafy greens, for the same reasons I love chicken thighs and pork shoulders: they’re tremendously flavorful, but few people quite know what to do with them, so they’re also very economical. My go-to preparation for kale (and many other green vegetables) is to steam or blanch it, then sauté it in olive oil with garlic and crushed red pepper. It requires almost no thought and is invariably delicious.

Chicken thighs meet Lawry's

Buying a seasoned salt was a bit odd. I tend to roll my own when I cook. Fresh, warm French bread requires a scale, a few hours of your time (most of which you can spend doing other things, like writing blog posts), and an oven, and the result is just as good as the breads-of-La-Brea-bakery stuff you can get at the front of QFC for $1.09 per mini-loaf. I would have been perfectly willing to throw a spice blend together, but Lawry’s seemed to be the key ingredient here, so I went along with it. Honestly, the stuff looks like it’d make a great topping for buttered popcorn. I’d give that a shot right now if I weren’t already way over my calorie intake for the day.

I tried not to go too heavy on the salt, but I didn’t really get a lot of it out of the finished product, so I would consider going a little heavier than the recipe’s “light hail” the next time I make this.

Dredgin' like there's no tomorrow

The cooking method is pretty straightforward: skin side down for 5 minutes, then up for 15 minutes, then down again for another 5 minutes to get a little extra color. Here we’ve got the first of the six victims ready to go into the oil.

After the first 5 minutes

After the first fry you’re supposed to get some color on the order of “tortilla chip.” I’ve made enough migas this week to have a pretty good idea of what that color looks like (more on migas in a future post, I’m sure), so it looks like we’re on track here.

It took like five tries to take this shot. I ended up having to put the chicken near this wire rack so that I could use the rack to stabilize my camera, because I get tremendously shaky hands when trying to take pictures one-handed. I probably should have had a beer open while I was making this.

So happy together

After the first five minutes and the turn, I had time to chop up the garlic for the kale. Memo to the QFC on 160th in Redmond: Stop selling such crappy garlic. I had to surgically excise a bunch of brown spots from the garlic I bought just this afternoon before I felt comfortable using it. And while you’re at it, quit selling garlic by weight. When I buy garlic from you by weight, it’s something like 77 cents a head instead of 50 cents, and I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.

Thanks in advance! ^_^

(p.s. please continue to sell six-packs of Deschutes Twilight Ale for $7.49 each)

Finished!

Right about here I hit the Recipe Photography Wall: things were happening so fast that I had neither the time nor the presence of mind needed to take any pictures. Between the previous picture and this one, I took the kale and boiled/steamed it in some shallow water, drained it, put some olive oil in the same pan, and cooked garlic and a liberal amount of crushed red pepper in the oil until some of the garlic was somewhere between ‘golden’ and ‘nut brown’–more complex than merely sweet sautéed garlic, but not dark enough to be bitter. Once the garlic and red pepper are ready, the par-cooked kale goes back in with them to finish cooking.

This, meanwhile, was the finished fried chicken, removed to cool somewhat (I don’t like it piping hot–it’s easier to appreciate when it’s had some time to rest).

CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES.

For reference, here’s what was going on with the kale.

And here’s the finished plate, with a little bit of leftover brown rice for fiber and character. (I’m not exactly a grandmaster when it comes to producing pretty plates.)

The biggest plus of this recipe was that I had some fried chicken with lots of crispy bits and crispy skin, which very nearly made it all worth it. But I’m not sure I thought the end result was particularly fantastic. Even for chicken thighs, 25+ minutes of cooking was too much; the chicken had the characteristic “stringiness” of overcooked chicken, something you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever tried to cook a boneless skinless chicken breast. I also thought the meat was kind of underseasoned, though I certainly tried to err on the underseasoned side. Nice Pete writes off brining and buttermilk in the recipe, but I do kind of wonder what buttermilk would have done for these guys.

This recipe merits another shot, but I have some other things in the queue first. If I get really ambitious, I might even blog about making from-scratch lasagna! (I do like doing things from scratch…)