Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Baking Class: Foccacia

Let's take a minute to talk about Focaccia.  Focaccia was one of the first things I made when I started working with yeasted doughs, but once I started making pizza it fell by the wayside.  It is similar to pizza dough in process, taste and texture, so I forgot about it once I felt that I had mastered the art of pizza.  And once I had moved on to bagels, sweet rolls, and other yeasted goodies, I had little reason to go back to it.

But there have been times when I have wanted bread but had neither the time nor the inclination to mix the sponge, let it rise, let it rise again, shape it, let it rise, bake it and cool it.  While I still love to make bread and make it often, it's a weekend project and I have to plan for it.  Crackers and bagels are easier and take less time to make than bread, but they are still somewhat labor intensive and I have to plan ahead if I want to make them on a weeknight.

Focaccia, on the other hand, takes little effort and less time than the other yeasted breads I have been making, and what time it does take does not involve a lot of hands-on work.  I mix the dough in a food processor, let it rise, shape it, let it rise again, then bake it, and it can be ready to eat in about two and a half hours.  And that can be easily managed on a weeknight.

This bread has turned out to be my mainstay.  It works as breakfast toast, peanut butter delivery system for lunch or snacktime, and can be served at dinnertime with soup or salad.  I have used it as the base for pimento cheese and for tuna salad, and it is quite good on its own.

The first time I made it I used a recipe I found in Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook.  Once I corrected for the typo that said to add half a cup of water instead of one-and-a-half cups it was decent, but I was not particularly tempted to try it again.  I later found a recipe in Micol Negrin's Rustico, a beautifully written and photographed tour of regional dishes that goes beyond the known specialties of each region and offers lesser-known gems.

As I mentioned above, this dough is mixed in a food processor so it comes together in minutes. The original recipe filled a half sheet and made a batch that was 18 x 13, which yielded 16 pieces.  While that is a great amount for a large group, it was more than I could handle at a time so I adjusted the recipe to fit a quarter sheet and I get 8 pieces per batch, which is just about perfect.

Here is a batch fresh out of the oven on a cooling rack.  You can eat it hot, warm, or at room temperature.  It is delicious any of those ways.

I should mention that it goes soft quickly, and gets stale after a day or two.  If I am being honest, it is only truly fresh and crispy right after it is made.  After that, it works better toasted.  Toasting it crisps up the outside, but the inside stays soft so it is really more that it is refreshing the bread than toasting it.  The slices were too wide for my 20-year-old toaster, but for about twenty dollars I found a toaster with wide slots that does the job.

The original recipe uses quite a bit more olive oil than I do.  If you want a more authentic version, mix 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 tablespoons of room temperature water and spread that over the dough before letting it rise.

This recipe truly is fast, easy and delicious.  I make it just about once a week.

Other than the occasional specialty loaf, I have not bought bread in about four years.

Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

Makes 8 servings

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp dry active yeast
1-1/2 tsp salt, divided
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided, plus extra for the bowl and pan
Approximately 3/4 cup water at 110-115 deg. F., divided
1 tsp water at room temperature

Combine the flour, yeast, and a teaspoon of the salt in a food processor with the blade attachment.  Let it pulse a few times to combine the dry ingredients.  With the motor running, add about 1/4 cup of the warm water followed by 1 tablespoon of oil, and then enough of the warm water to create a soft dough that forms a ball.  Let the dough process for 45 seconds, then remove it from the processor and shape it into a ball.  Put it top side down in an oiled medium-sized mixing bowl and turn it over to ensure that the whole surface of the dough has been oiled.  Cover the bowl and let it rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

Generously oil a quarter-size rimmed baking sheet.  Place the dough top-side down into the oiled sheet and press it out evenly.  If the dough resists, let it rest for 5 minutes so that it can relax.  Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the surface of the dough with your fingers, and then sprinkle a few drops of water on the dough and spread it around over the oil

Let the dough rise for 15 minutes.  Sprinkle about 1/2 a teaspoon of the salt over the dough.  Using the pads of your fingers, make dimples evenly across the top.

Preheat the oven to 475 deg. F. and let the dough rise for another 30 minutes.  Bake the focaccia on the bottom rack of the oven for 20 minutes, or until crisp and golden on the top.  It can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature.

recipe adapted from Rustico:  Regional Italian Country Cooking, by Micol Negrin (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2002)

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