Focaccia brings back bad memories of suburban sandwich shops: dry, flat squares of bread, topped with desiccated bits of herbs and with a dense crumb. Or dry, thick-bottomed things, smothered in greasy ‘Italianate’ toppings like ham and cheese.
Nancy Silverton’s quip about bad focaccia sums it up well:
Here in Los Angeles, those dense, cake-like squares of dry, flavorless bread, topped with rosemary if you were lucky, always seemed like a bad cliché — something Italian American restaurants offered for their bread service as a way to appear authentic or simply to stick with a theme.
Since then, I’ve encountered another kind of focaccia from real bakeries: thinner, simpler, with deeper uneven dents made by the baker’s fingers (or the apprentice’s).
I began this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) focaccia wondering which type of focaccia will come out of the oven. I needn’t have worried. This recipe and I are going to be good friends; actually, my friends and this recipe have become good friends.
After the initial kneading, and during the 36 hour rest, the dough ballooned and coyly promised fabulous thing. Fresh from the oven, it delivered on that promise: we inhaled lightly crusty, pillowy, chewy bread.
Since I can’t help tweaking recipes, I tried a few sweet and savoury toppings. Each one worked well and showed off the bread’s versatility.
Doin’ your dough
There are almost as many variations for focaccia dough as there are toppings. This dough was different from recipes that use a starter dough or poolish (like Nancy Silverton’s), though the long proving time probably achieves a similar depth of flavour as bread made with a basic starter.
To make the dough, mix the yeast with a little warm water. Add flour, more warm water, salt, oil, and knead the mixture until you get a very pliable dough that forms a ‘window pane’ – when the dough can be pulled into a thin membrane that allows the light to come through (see photos here or here).
A few TWD bakers had trouble with the instructions for kneading the dough in a food mixer. It seems some KitchenAids are not designed to knead dough on a high setting or for 10 minutes at a time.
With these dire warnings in mind, I kneaded the dough by hand while watching TV. About halfway through an episode of Myth Busters, the dough was ready for proving. By bed time, the dough was ready to rest in the fridge. 36 hours later, on a Saturday morning, I was ready to pull freshly baked bread out of the oven for lunch guests.
Toppings are tops
If hand kneading dough was the fun part, deciding on toppings was the creative part. With the following three sets of toppings, the focaccia (loaves? rounds?) became a filling Saturday lunch.
one: salt, rosemary, roasted garlic, onions, olive oil
This is the basic focaccia, or schiacciata (in Tuscan). I roasted single bulb garlic until caramelised, squeezed some garlic pulp onto the dough, alongside thinly sliced red onions, rosemary, Maldon salt crystals, and a generous drizzle of olive oil.
This was a set of toppings that add just enough flavours to show off the springy crusty bread.
two: baby tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, salt, brown sugar
This was unexpected good.
I pushed some baby tomatoes deep into the dough after the final stages of proving, sprinkled some sea salt, a tiny pinch of sugar, thyme and rosemary, and also brushed with some olive oil. The tomatoes’ flavours intensified as a result of baking, and added a real piquancy that contrasted with the mild bread. (The focaccia could have had an extra 5 minutes in the oven to brown the crust, but this didn’t affect the general flavour)
three: caramel, apple, blueberries
The focaccia got a little fancy.
I wanted to make a caramel apple tart for the last TWD post. Since then, apple and caramel have been hovering on my mind, and prompted me to try a caramel, apple and blueberry topping (see ideas here and here). The salt, butter and sugar melted together to form a salty-caramel flavoured crust, while the apples and blueberries formed juice puddles of sweetness where they were pushed into the dough.
In the evening, I mixed some caramel with blueberries, and drizzled the sauce over the sweet focaccia. It was a fun and quick dessert. I think it will also make a great bread and butter pudding.
Final notes and recipe links
I baked on a pizza stone rather than in a baking tray, and so had freeform, aka, rustic, focaccia. I love a crusty bread, but wasn’t willing to pour a large amount of oil into the baking pan as Nancy Silverton instructs. Instead, the pizza stone’s radiant heat produced a decent crust on the bottom of the focaccia.
As you can tell, I loved this bread. No flashbacks to those suburban sandwich shops!