Bread week. So we meet again. I love making bread. I love how simple the ingredients are. I love the process. I love the feeling of dough on my hands. And yet, despite this love for the craft that is bread making, I'm nervous every single time. Is my yeast still alive? Is my water too hot? Did too much salt touch the yeast? Did I knead it enough? Did I knead it too much? Did I knead too much flour in? Has it doubled in size? Was there a draft? Is it baked all the way through? Those are all questions I undoubtedly ask myself while making bread. Every. Single. Time.
I was actually pretty excited to try out focaccia though. I absolutely love focaccia, and actually eat it with my lunch quite often. My favorite part of a good Italian restaurant is fresh focaccia dipped in a good olive oil and a deliciously dark balsamic vinegar.
I have to say though that, like cheesecake, after making focaccia, the food is not quite the same. Cheesecake is amazing, but when you actually put the butter, the sugar, the eggs, and the massive amount of cream cheese into the mixer that it takes to make cheesecake, your stomach turns a little knowing all that is about to go into your body. With focaccia, it's olive oil. Sure 1/2 cup isn't that much over time, but then you realize you use olive oil on your counter and hands to knead, in the bowl to keep it from sticking, and then poured on top of the dough at least two other times to give it more flavor. In the end, it's a lot of olive oil. And it goes without saying then, that using a good olive oil is really in the best interest of your bread (and your taste buds).
I do have to say though that this is one of the more fun doughs to work with, particularly because of the olive oil. It is a sticky dough, for sure, which is normally really frustrating, but I have two pieces of advice: 1) embrace the mess, and 2) use olive oil. Normally when you're kneading bread dough, you dust your surface and hands with flour and go to town. With focaccia however, you oil everything up. This is because focaccia is a wet dough, which is what gives it all the giant bubbles that form. The wetter the dough, the more water in the dough. The more water in the dough, the more evaporation that occurs in baking. The more evaporation that occurs, the bigger the bubbles. Basically.
Because the dough is so wet, kneading in the classic sense is hard, so the special focaccia kneading technique actually makes life a lot easier. You just fold it over itself for a few minutes and let it be for its first rise.
And so, here's a lesson: let your bread rise the first time. Like, really rise.. As you can see, I didn't quite wait long enough for my dough to double in size -- it was shy by about 20 minutes. While it didn't ruin my bread, I could tell after it baked that it wasn't quite as tall and soft as it should have been. It was still delicious, but I like a spongier bread, and this turned out a bit more dense. But still deliciously oily.
I decided to bake my focaccia in one big half-sheet pan because I don't like doing dishes (have I mentioned that before?), but I could see doing this in a few boule-shaped rounds, or in tiny dinner roll-sized shapes. The benefit of one long big sheet though is you get more dimples. According to Paul Hollywood, this is a critical component of make focaccia, and I, though at first thought he was crazy, now agree with him. After using the amount of olive oil I ended up using for this dish, I realized the beauty of this bread as a delivery mechanism for the light and soft, slightly spicy and deliciously nutty flavor of olive oil. These dimples allow your oil to pool and soak deeper into the texture, lending a flavorful moistness to the loaf. Without them, the dough would, I fear, actually be too dry, and require more butter or a deeper dunk in oil upon consumption (not that more butter is a bad thing...).
A note on topping: focaccia tastes best paired with an herb and a big flake salt. I prefer rosemary as my herb, but many people use oregano as their traditional herb, but I find that reminds me too much of cheap pizza, and not enough of delicious focaccia. I ended up using herbes de Provence on this particular loaf because I didn't have rosemary, and I didn't want to walk back up the hill from the grocery store. Plus, cooking is about improvisation, and I'm all for that.
For the salt, I prefer a Maldon large flake sea salt, because it gives you a bit of a bite. If you can find it, buying a box is well worth the $8. You might think that's ridiculously expensive for salt, but I've had one box that lasted me three years, so it's really not that big of an investment, and it adds so much to your baked goods (sprinkled on a chocolate lava cake, on bread, on ice cream) and savory dishes (sprinkled on a steak, pork chops, sautéed vegetables).
The taste of this focaccia was amazing. We had my brother-in-law and his wife over that night and yes, between the four of us we ate the entire loaf. The crumb was tight, as I wrote before, but it retained its moisture and had a delicate softness. It was rich from the oil, but not in a way that made you feel heavy afterwards. And the crust gave the crumb the protection it needs, but wasn't hard or crunchy in any way, shape, or form -- it just added a certain depth. Dipped in a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and I couldn't keep my hands off the bread.
makes one half-sheet pan loaf
500 grams (17 2/3 ounces) (4 1/8 cups) FLOUR
1/2 cup OLIVE OIL (plus more for oiling hands, bowls, surfaces)
1/2 cup WARM WATER
3/4 cup COOL WATER
2 teaspoons SALT
3 teaspoons ACTIVE DRY YEAST
Flaky sea salt (Maldon preferred)
Your choice of herbs (fresh or frozen, rosemary and/or oregano preferred)
1. Mix the YEAST with the WARM WATER and in a bowl and leave to activate -- it should get frothy and bubbly and smell yeasty
2. Mix OIL, FLOUR, SALT and activated yeast and mix until incorporated
3. Add COOL WATER little by little until it all is incorporated -- your dough will be really wet and sticky
4. While still in the bowl, coat your hands with olive oil and fold the dough over on itself about a dozen times
5. Coat a surface and your hands with more olive oil and work the dough by stretching it out and folding it in on itself, occasionally lifting the dough up and slapping it down on your surface with gusto -- if it gets too sticky, add more oil (do not add more flour)
6. Place the dough in an oiled container, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour)
7. When risen, tip dough out of your container onto a parchment-lined and oiled half-sheet pan, and shape and deflate by pressing the dough out to fill the pan
8. Let dough rise for about 1 hour, preheat oven to 425F
9. When ready to bake, use all ten of your fingers to press directly down all over the dough and make dimples (it's okay if you tear some holes, as most of them will fill back up when it bakes)
10. Sprinkle top with large flaked salt (I used Maldon because I'm fancy) and your choice of herb (oregano and rosemary are traditional, all I had was herbes de provence)
11. Bake for 15-25 minutes, until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped on
12. As soon as you take it out of the oven, drip a bit more olive oil over top and let cool
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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