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As you already know, about a month ago, I have entered a bread-making phase of my life. I now own more than enough books on bread making than I care to admit, and aside from some fascinating Sitchin’s books, those are now a part of my nightly reading. Having made a bunch of chewy and crusty loaves in the last few weeks, I wanted to try something quick and easy. I watched a few videos on making focaccia, and having selected my book-de-jour to be Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice as a source of a good recipe,I finally decided to make some at home.
This is my first focaccia study, and let me tell you, just the sensory experience alone is a real treat. Delicate bubbly dough is a sheer delight to sink you fingers into, and after a while, when those gorgeous pockets of air start forming in front of your eyes, you know that dough is alive.
As for the topping selections, I followed a strictly scientific planning process called “whatever the heck had been stuck in my fridge for a while”. You can’t really ruin the focaccia, it’s like pizza (or sex), even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty darn good. My topping selections were as follows: a small block of raw goat blue cheese, fresh purple bell peppers, Nicoise olives, a small amount of leftover pesto chicken, Canadian bacon, and in the fresh herbs department I only had dill left.
I decided to go with two different focaccias and combined ham+cheese+dill+pine nuts, and pesto chicken+peppers+olives. Both worked out well. Hubby felt that blue cheese came off a bit too strong, but I feel it’s a matter of personal taste — ham and blue cheese is a classic Chicken Cordon Bleu combo, and I put very little of it on top. I can imagine roasted red peppers, basil and goat cheese would just be divine, but I didn’t have any of those.
The secret to good focaccia, I am told, is to disturb the beautiful bubbles and air pockets as little as humanly possible. Hence, after initial mixing, no kneading, just gentle folding — fold 3-4 times to give the dough extreme elasticity and strength and airiness. Then ferment overnight in the fridge — this kind of deliberate and slow fermentation allows the dough develop additional rich flavor undertones and lose the yeasty dominant taste. You can keep the dough in the fridge for up to three days, how perfect is that for parties? Then you take it out a couple of hours before baking and throw your toppings on it.
As far as the toppings go, you can do whatever you see fit — from nothing at all (ahem, salt and herbs) to full blown house special, where everything goes.
Then comes the awesome part — sinking your fingers in all this glorious puffiness and dimpling it, to make it even more beautiful. The dough feels incredibly tender and velvety, almost like baby skin, only much stretchier. You drizzle it with olive oil and into the oven it goes for, what, 20 minutes tops. If the top seems a bit pale after 15-20 minutes of baking, turn your broiler on to bring the top to beautiful golden color — for one minute, not longer.
Then comes the most difficult part — waiting for the focaccia to cool. I can’t wait to use this as party food, there’s just nothing easier and prettier.
(a recap of Peter Reinhart recipe from Bread Baker’s Apprentice book)
Makes 2 1/2 sheet pan loaves
- 5 cups unbleached bread flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 1-1/2 tsp instant yeast
- 2 cups filtered water at room temperature
- 6 tbsp of olive oil
- toppings, fresh herbs, salt, 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil for brushing.
MIx dry ingredients in a bowl. Add oil and water and stir well to moisten all the flour.
Mix with the dough hook for 5-7 minutes, or longer, until the dough comes off the walls of the bowl. Depending on your flour quality, you may have to add a bit more flour to make the dough separate from the bowl. The dough still should be very sticky and very soft.
Flour the surface of the table liberally. Scrape the dough onto the flour. Dip your hands in flour and stretch and fold the dough like a letter that goes into envelope. Turn 90 degrees, and repeat. Flip the dough over.
Let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Fold again. Another 30 minutes rest. Another fold. Now let the dough rest for 1 hr, until it rises and some air pockets start to form on the surface. The dough will be naturally dimply and airy.
Line two baking sheets with parchment. Drizzle some olive oil onto the parchment.
Divide the dough into two halves, trying to preserve the air bubbles as much as possible. Transfer the dough onto baking sheets. Pour generous amount of oil on top of each loaf, and using your fingers, gently dimple the dough, simultaneously stretching it in all directions. Try to preserve the rectangular shape as much as possible, but don’t flatten it. Save the bubbles! If you are unable to fill all the corners of the sheet, don’t worry about it — the dough will spread out and fill them.
When the dough is stretched enough, cover it loosely with plastic and refrigerate overnight, or up to 3 days.
Remove the dough from the fridge about 3 hours before baking. It will warm up and rise about 3 times its thickness. About 1 hour before baking, add the toppings of your choice. Drizzle some more olive oil over the toppings.
Preheat the oven to 500F or even higher, if your oven allows. Bake the focaccia for 10-12 minutes and check for doneness — it should be golden brown around the edges and on the bottom. If necessary, bake a little longer. If the bottom and sides are done, but the top looks a bit pale, switch to broiler and brown for 1 minute, not longer. Let focaccia rest for 10 minutes, then remove from parchment, divide with pizza cutter into rectangles and serve.