When a television series has devolved so far from its original premise that it reaches a kind of nonsensical absurdity, we say it has jumped the shark. That's usually a good time to go back and take a fresh look at what made the original work so well. The culinary equivalent might be something getting used in a fast-food sandwich. And so it's time to get back to basics with focaccia.
I ordered a sandwich at my local lunch counter the other day and the guy asked me what kind of bread I wanted: “White, whole wheat or focaccia,” the latter a flattish white bread topped with what appeared to be sliced tomatoes, onions, cheese and who knows what else.
In going public with these kinds of complaints, there’s always a danger of coming off all Andy Rooney-ish. I’m neither that old nor that perturbed. So I’m going to take the high road, praising true focaccia without stooping to condemn “focaccia bread.” I’ll leave it up to you to decide which you prefer. I know you’ll do the right thing.
Real focaccia is a lot closer to pizza than it is to anything that could be used to make a sandwich. In fact, if you imagine a slightly thicker, crisp-crusted, rectangular pizza with very restrained toppings, you’re just about there.
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But though pizza can stand in for a meal, focaccia is more of a snack, or at most an appetizer. In Italy, it’s a popular walking-around food.
Also, though cold pizza may have a certain raffish charm, focaccia really needs to be eaten when it’s hot to be at its best. It goes stale very quickly. Though I’m enjoying the slice of focaccia topped with Gorgonzola that I’m eating for lunch while writing this, in no way is it nearly as good as it was last night right out of the oven.
Then, I served it with Champagne to start a dinner party. Served warm, the crust was crisp while the interior, rich with olive oil, was tender. The cheese had melted and browned, and the flavor was much more mellow than you might expect from a blue. The whole thing was deeply savory and made a perfect foil served alongside radishes from the garden and some thinly sliced dried sausage.
It was also really easy to make because, thanks to a couple of weeks of focaccia experiments, I had a blob of already-made dough sitting in the freezer. After defrosting, I just stretched it into a well-oiled jellyroll pan (a generous hand with the olive oil gives a crisper crust), then scattered a half pound of crumbled Gorgonzola on top and baked it. That was all there was to it.
Most focaccias aren’t any more complicated than that, because the toppings tend to the austere: thinly sliced onions drizzled with olive oil, pitted olives, cubed pancetta with a scattering of rosemary leaves. To complicate a focaccia topping is to misunderstand its elemental appeal.
But don’t mistake simplicity for lack of flavor. My favorite focaccia is topped with nothing more than good olive oil and coarse salt. Made the Genovese way – with plenty of olive oil and white wine in the crust – it’s so delicious I could eat it all day.
Of the half-dozen recipes I tried, my favorite comes from Carol Field. For those of you who love Italian cooking, that probably will come as no surprise, as her “The Italian Baker,” published more than 25 years ago, is still the definitive book on Italian breads.
This recipe is from a small book she did 15 years ago called simply “Focaccia.” The dough’s easy to make and very silky to work with. Even better, unlike many focaccia recipes, it doesn’t require an overnight rise, so you can knock it together with a minimum of forethought – always a plus at my house, where meal planning tends to go on an hour-by-hour basis.
Ornamenting this focaccia with a topping of some sort would obscure its main pleasures: the crunchy crust and the pure flavors of olive oil, wheat and salt. For focaccia that will be topped, I prefer a plainer dough, such as the one Peter Reinhart includes in his ode to pizza, “American Pie.”
Whereas Field’s book is based in the first wave of artisanal home bread baking, Reinhart’s is right up to the cutting edge. His focaccia is based on one of those “retarded” doughs – refrigerated overnight to slow the fermentation and allow a longer period of enzymatic action, resulting in more complex flavors. He also uses a minimum of handling to keep the dough from deflating. And stylistically his focaccia is thicker and “breadier” than Field’s.
Focaccia doughs in general tend to be fairly fluid – particularly if you’re used to making heartier breads. Bread bakers talk about percentage of hydration – the ratio of water to flour. If you have 10 ounces of flour (about 2 cups) and add 6 ounces of water (weight, not volume – about three-quarters cup), you’ll have 60 percent hydration. Though most bread doughs are around 60 percent, focaccias generally run 70 percent and higher. I even tested one that was more than 100 percent.
Doughs this wet feel almost like batters, but that is the secret to focaccia’s delicious crispness. It also facilitates the shaping. If you’ve struggled stretching out perfect pizza rounds, focaccia will be a welcome relief. Essentially, all you do is spread the dough into a jellyroll pan. If it doesn’t fit perfectly at first, just set it aside for a couple of minutes to let the dough rest and it shouldn’t give you any more trouble.
After it’s stretched, dimple the dough by lightly tapping it all over with your fingertips. Remember, you’re dimpling, not indenting, and certainly not piercing. After a second rise, dimple again and you’re ready to top and bake.
There are a couple of other things that help make a crisper crust. Bake the focaccia on a pizza stone set on a rack in the middle of the oven. And slide a pan of water onto the floor of the oven to help with crispness and improve “oven spring” – that final rise that happens after the bread starts to bake.
The bread is done when it is well-browned on top and on the bottom. If you oiled the pan sufficiently, you should be able to use a spatula to lift a corner of the bread to see. Let it cool for just a couple of minutes, and then cut it into slabs.
Just out of the oven, the crust gives off a warm fragrance of good olive oil. It crunches lightly when you bite into it, but the interior is still tender and just chewy enough to be interesting. The salt adds a sharp contrast.
Eat it as a snack, serve it as an appetizer, however you like. But if you turn it into a sandwich, I don’t want to know about it.
Focaccia From Genoa
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus rising times
Servings: Makes 1 loaf, 10 to 12 servings
For the sponge:
2-1/2 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1 cup (4.9 ounces, or 140 grams) unbleached flour
For the dough and assembly:
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus about 2 tablespoons for drizzling
2-1/2 cups plus 2 teaspoons (12.7 ounces, or 360 grams) unbleached flour plus 1 to 2 tablespoons as needed
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus 3/4 to 1 teaspoon for sprinkling
For the sponge : Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large mixing bowl, stir it in and set aside until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and beat until smooth. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until puffy and bubbling, about 30 minutes.
For the dough and assembly: To the sponge in the large bowl, add the water, wine and one-third cup olive oil, and stir to combine.
If mixing by hand, whisk in 1 cup of flour and 2 teaspoons salt, then beat in the rest of the flour until you have a dough that is very soft and very sticky. Knead on a lightly floured board with the help of a dough scraper and 1 to 2 additional tablespoons of flour until the dough comes together nicely and is silky and shiny, 6 to 8 minutes; it should remain soft but not wet.
If mixing with a mixer, using the paddle attachment beat together the water, wine, one-third cup olive oil and sponge. Add the flour and 2 teaspoons salt and mix until the dough comes together (it will be very soft). Change to the dough hook and knead for 3 minutes at medium speed, stopping once or twice to press the dough into a ball to aid in the kneading. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead by hand using the 1 to 2 additional tablespoons of flour to finish, 6 to 8 turns at most. It should remain soft but not wet.
Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled container, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and set aside until doubled, about 1 hour.
The dough should be soft and full of air bubbles and should stretch easily. Press it into a well-oiled (17-by-12-inch) jelly roll pan, dimple it well with your fingertips or knuckles, cover with a towel and let rise until puffy and doubled, about 45 minutes. If the dough springs back before it is completely stretched, set it aside to “relax” the dough for a few minutes, then stretch again; the dough will stretch more easily after it is rested.
At least 30 minutes before you plan to bake, heat the oven to 425 degrees with a baking stone inside on the lowest shelf. Once again, dimple the top of the dough with your fingertips or knuckles, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil so it pools in the little indentations and sprinkle with the remaining salt.
Place the pan directly on the stone and immediately reduce the temperature to 400 degrees. Place a shallow metal container of water on the floor of the oven to make steam.
Bake until the focaccia is golden (lift the bread to check underneath as well), 25 to 30 minutes. Immediately remove from the oven and cool briefly on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Each of 12 servings: 231 calories; 5 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 0 sugar; 420 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from “Focaccia” by Carol Field.
Total time: 1 hour, plus overnight rising and proofing times
Servings: Makes 1 loaf, 10 to 12 servings
5-3/4 cups (26 ounces) unbleached bread flour, more if needed
2 teaspoons salt
2-1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
2-1/2 cups ice-cold water
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for brushing
1/2 pound crumbled Gorgonzola or other blue cheese
With a large metal spoon, stir together the flour, salt, yeast and water in a 4-quart bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer until combined.
If using a mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed until all the ingredients are hydrated and begin to form a wet ball of dough, about 2 minutes. Set the dough aside to rest for 5 minutes. Switch to the dough hook, add one-fourth cup olive oil and resume mixing on medium-low speed until all of the oil is incorporated and the dough is sticky, supple and smooth; it should clear the sides of the bowl and stick just a little to the bottom. This will take 3 to 4 minutes. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful.
If mixing by hand, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the spoon into cold water and use it much like a dough hook, working the dough vigorously as you rotate the bowl with your other hand. As all the flour is incorporated and the dough becomes a wet ball, after about 3 minutes, stop mixing and set the dough aside to rest for 5 minutes. Then add the olive oil, dip your hand or spoon again in the water and continue to work the dough for 3 to 4 more minutes. The dough should be very sticky, but it should also have some texture and structure. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful.
Form the dough into a ball and place it in a bowl brushed with olive oil. Turn the dough to coat it with the oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and immediately refrigerate it overnight. The next day the dough should have nearly doubled in size. Allow it to come to room temperature, about 2 hours, before making the focaccia.
To bake, line a 12-by-17-inch jellyroll pan with parchment or a silicone liner and oil well. Wet your hands and gently scrape the dough from the bowl onto the pan; be gentle with the dough to deflate it as little as possible.
Using only your fingertips, press down on the dough, creating dimples and pockets all over the surface. Do not press the dough outward toward the edges of the pan; instead, simply press downward at only a slight angle toward the edges. The dough will spread on its own; any attempt to force it toward the pan edges will tear it and cause uneven sections. The dough will probably fill the pan a little more than half full before it begins to become elastic and spring back toward the center. When this occurs, stop pressing, cover loosely with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, and set aside for the dough to relax at room temperature, about 15 minutes.
Repeat the dimpling process, beginning at the center and gradually working out toward the edges of the pan. This time the dough will nearly fill the pan. Try to keep the dough somewhat even across the top. Again, cover and set the dough aside to relax at room temperature for about 15 minutes.
Repeat the dimpling. This time the dough should fill the entire pan (if it does not quite fill the corners, don’t worry, it will when it rises). Do not deflate the dough any more than necessary as you spread it to fill the pan. Set aside to rise again until it fills the pan, about 2 to 3 hours.
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Just before baking, sprinkle the Gorgonzola over the top of the dough. Place the pan on the middle shelf of the oven, lower the temperature to 450 degrees and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan and continue baking until the top and underside are golden brown and slightly crisp, 10 to 20 minutes longer.
Using a metal spatula or pastry blade, loosen the focaccia from the sides of the pan. Slip the spatula between the focaccia and the parchment or baking liner and lift the edge of the focaccia. Then jiggle the focaccia out of the pan onto a rack, leaving the liner in the pan. Pour any oil left in the pan over the top of the focaccia. Cool the focaccia briefly before cutting and serving.
Each of 12 servings: 330 calories; 12 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 17 mg cholesterol; 0 sugar; 650 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from “American Pie” by Peter Reinhart.