Focaccia, finally

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!

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