Who does not love pizza? I am appalled when crusts sans the rest of the pizza, is left lying neglected on a plate. To me, the best part of the pizza is the crust. Why Am I talking about a pizza in a focaccia post? Simply because, when I discovered the focaccia, I realised, that I was getting my favourite part of the pizza–the crust. I know the purists are probably horrified with my comparison, but to me, the focaccia gives me all the flavour of the crusty pizza with out the mess of the sauce.
I love the ease with which you can whip up this fantastic bread. You can dress it up any way that you choose. Keep it simple and flavourful to work as an appetizer or accompany a soup and a salad. Or you could get real fancy and top it up with some caramalized onions, olives, sun dried tomatoes or just a sprinkling of cheese. However you may choose to serve your focaccia, this is one bread that is going leave you asking for more.
I first had it plain with just a touch of sea salt, with a topping of herbs cooked to a crisp. The animated waiter in Rome, insisted we taste the focaccia even though I was trying very hard to him that I was a vegetarian. “It is vegetarian” he insisted waving his hands in an animated fashion that Italians have managed to master. “Scusami?” I said in my broken Italian just to hear him repeat himself in that adorable accent.
Almost as soon as I agreed to taste the focaccia, it appeared at my table. The golden crust, still glistening with olive oil, I could see little crystals of salt and an assortment of herbs, I hardly knew the names of. The rustic bread was cut up into little chunks and along side was a little dish with a herb infused olive oil. “Dip your bread in” the waiter gesticulated. With my eyes still on the waiter (I later found out his name was Marco) I tore off a little piece of the crusty bread and dipped the edge into the fragrant oil. As I popped the morsel into my mouth, my taste buds went into overdrive. I could taste so many different flavours in my mouth. I forgot about Marco and the focaccia had my undivided attention.
Yes, I could recognize rosemary, a hint of basil, and then there was the parsley in the background and maybe thyme (?) I could not be sure. The one thing I was sure of was, that I loved this bread. The fruity oil added a flavour that at once transported you to the sunny Italian slopes shaded by the somewhat dwarf olive trees. The crust of the bread was crisp because of the generous dose of the olive oil and the insides, porous, ready to soak up more of the oil, should you choose to dip your bread in it. (you would be crazy not to).
That little European holiday was filled with focaccias plain and with toppings. I carried back a little bottle of roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes hoping that the flavours would inspire me to cook myself an Italian meal.. Today, I make my own roasted peppers and sun-dry my tomatoes when there are plenty.. But somehow the sweet flavours of the Italian peppers and tomatoes are hard to replicate.
I had almost forgotten how delightful a focaccia could be, till I started baking my own bread. This was one of the first things I baked soon after I managed a decent white bread. I used a super simple recipe, spent an extravagant amount of money of olive oil, and tried to hide my disappointment when I had to use dried herbs. In the recipe below do try to use fresh herbs if you can. They do add an extra special taste. I love to pick the crunchy herbs off the top of the bread and pop them into my mouth.(the way I did the first time I got to taste it)
The dough can get a bit sticky, so I usually follow the stretch and fold method. You could, if you own a stand mixer, go ahead and knead the dough in it. This hydration is going to produce the lovely holes in the crumb. The best part is that you don’t really have to bother about a perfect shape when you finally try to stretch the dough. The focaccia is after all a rustic bread.
After a quick look at my pantry and getting confused by the array of ingredients that I could use as a topping for my focaccia, I decided to get back to the basics and keep it simple. I would use some of the fresh Rosemary and the Mediterranean sea salt that I had. I also wanted a burst of flavour with the oil I was using. So what I did was to infuse the oil with some of the dried herbs I had and some chilli pepper flakes for that extra kick. I looked at the oil and decided it needed a clove of crushed garlic as well. A quick stir and the oil was left to absorb the herby goodness.
I had just managed to get hold of some bread flour ( I usually wind up having to use all-purpose flour mixed in with gluten) and I was excited to use it. I would finally find out how the dough was actually supposed to feel. I kept breaking off bits of dough to see how it would stretch. I must admit, that the dough made from bread flour felt a lot stronger and more elastic. I already had a bunch of eager faces peering down at the dough. “How long before it is ready to eat?” they asked as sticky fingers were dipped into the oil just for a taste. “Soon” I said slapping away their hands.
As the bread baked, almost as if sensing the riot of herbs on the bread, Simon and Garfunkle crooned “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. . . ” Out of the oven as the bread cooled, I could see Marco in my mind’s eye, telling me to try one bite. My guests needed no such urging. We were all very dignified though, as we portioned out the bread, making sure that all of us got an equal share. As we dipped the bread into more of the flavoured oil, I could hear soft groans. For almost five minutes nobody said a word. All you could hear was the crunch of the bread and the slurping sounds which we could not help. Finally, when it was all finished, the first sentence spoken was “When are you making the next batch?” followed by ” Could you top it with sun-dried tomatoes and olives?” I silently thanked Marco. Grazie, Marco. Spero di rivederti Presto.
2 1/4 cups Bread Flour (You can use 1 1/2 Tbs of vital gluten to all-purpose flour)
1 cup of Water
1 1/2 tsp Instant Yeast
4 Tbs Olive Oil
1 tsp Salt
1 Tbs Sugar
Sea Salt to sprinkle
A few sprigs of Fresh Rosemary
For the Infused Oil
1/4 cup or more of olive oil ( you can always use the left over later)
Mixed herbs of your choice
1 pod of garlic crushed
1/2 tsp crushed Chilli Pepper (Go ahead and use more if you feel like. There are no rules here)
A pinch of salt
Mix all the ingredients for the infused oil together and allow at least a day to infuse.
1. Mix all the ingredients for the focaccia together.
2. Knead well till you get a supple and somewhat sticky dough.
3. If you find it difficult to knead the dough, place it in an oiled bowl once it is well mixed. Cover and set aside for about 10 minutes. Perform a series of folds. (a total of 3 folds with a 10 minutes gap between) If you are not sure about how to do this check the Baguette post.
4. Roll the dough in oil and set in a covered bowl until doubled.
5.Gently degas the dough and plop it on to a cookie sheet drizzled with some olive oil.
6. Gently try to stretch the dough out to fit the tray. Usually you will find that the dough springs back. Cover the tray and set aside for about 5 to 10 minutes till the gluten relaxes. Continue this till the dough can be stretched to fill the tray.
7. Cover and set aside for about 10 minutes. Now dimple the dough with your fingers (These dents are going to hold all the lovely oil you have been infusing)
8. Tuck in little sprigs of rosemary (now smell your fingers. Don’t they smell wonderful. You will need no better perfume!)
9. Sprinkle a little sea salt on the surface of the focaccia and drizzle with the herb infused oil.
10. Pre-heat your oven to 200 C and slip in your focaccia to bake for about 20 minutes. Now potter around the kitchen enjoying the smell of the focaccia baking.
11. Once it is out, you can brush with more of your oil or simply save it if you are going to offer it for dipping..
12. Now all you need to do is share your focaccia and enjoy.
Feel free to add toppings of your choice. Just don’t over do it. The bread is the hero out here.. If you plan to add cheese, pull your bread out 5 minutes before the end time and sprinkle your cheese. If you do it right at the beginning, you will be left with burnt cheese. I don’t like my focaccia super thick. You can go ahead and make it as thick or thin as you choose. If you still have some of the infused oil left, save it in a bottle. It is great to drizzle on a salad or soup. Try some on a pasta and you will be amazed how great it can taste. Infuse oils with flavours of your choice and stock them in your pantry. It is always great to have a bottle or two of this deliciousness.