Between not having French teaching or university classes to keep me busy in the past couple days, AND being snowed in with little to no possibility of visiting the grocery store, I’ve been making bread. They’re nice, long projects that consume nearly the entire day, need nothing more elaborate than your basic pantry items, and leave you with a piping-hot loaf/batch of fresh baked bread at the end.
And, of course it’s fun. Especially the bit where you use your hands to combine all the warm, gooey active yeast mixtures with the flour and salt. (On a side note, let’s consider how amazing bread is. Flour, salt, yeast, water. This gives us everything from white loaves to baguettes to bagels. Amazing.) I’ve always found kneading — and yeast-work in general — quite satisfying, which I realize puts me in the minority, since most people (a) regard bread-making as quite daunting and stressful, even though they (b) have never tried it.
At the risk of proselytizing: you absolutely have to throw your reticence to the four winds and give bread making a go. It will fundamentally change how you think about bread, and from there may change your diet, and who knows, it might even change your life. Here in the frozen Midwest, it’s pretty miraculous if one corner of bread can transport you from midwinter blizzard to midsummer Italian terrace. AND hasn’t required you to venture outside.
That said, I’ll concede that this might not be the best recipe to cut your teeth on. It’s not complicated, per se, but it sure is complicated-looking. There’s eleven steps, not including making the poolish (spongy ferment) and herb oil. So if this is your first time working with yeast, consider cranking out some of these heavenly croissants instead, which require no kneading and still deliver several hundred times more than what you put in.
The other thing is that . . . well, I’m just not positive this is THE focaccia recipe. I find it a smidge too heavy and dry, copious olive oil notwithstanding. Even though all my tasting guinea pigs (Billy, twice, and his study group) loved it, I’m not convinced it delivers enough bang to justify all that buck. Does every focaccia require Peter Reinhart-level work and time? I’ll keep you updated as I try others — and if this one does prove itself the best.
From Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”
(NB. I cut the recipe in half, which is why the dough never fills the baking pan in any of my pictures. I also used active dry yeast, rather than instant. It’s fine to substitute, but you need to make two adjustments. One, increase the yeast by about 20% — I just added a dash to both the poolish and focaccia. Two, you need to proof it: put the yeast in a small bowl with about 1/4 cup of warm water, and let it sit until bubbly, about ten minutes. Make sure you subtract that 1/4 cup of water from the total called for, so you end up with the same amount of liquid. It’s an easy step, but very, very necessary.)
For the poolish
- 2 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
- 1/4 tsp instant yeast
For the herb oil
- 1 cups olive oil, gently warmed
- 1/2 cup fresh herbs OR 1/4 cup dried herbs (basil, parsley, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, sage…)
- 1/2 tbsp salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 3 gloves garlic
For the foccacia
- 3 cups poolish
- 2 2/3 cups bread flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp instant yeast
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 3/4 cup water, lukewarm
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup herb oil
To make the poolish
Combine flour, water, and yeast in a mixing bowl until thoroughly combined. The dough should be soft and sticky like very thick pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment at room temperature for three to four hours. The sponge should become bubbly and foamy. At this point, you can refrigerate it for up to three days or use it immediately.
To make the herb oil
Combine the ingredients in a small mixing bowl and allow them to steep in the warm olive oil. Feel free to add your own favorite herb combinations.
To make the focaccia
1. If you refrigerated the poolish, remove it from the fridge an hour before starting to take off the chill.
2. Stir together the flour, salt, and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the poolish, water, and oil. Combine with a spoon until the ingredients form a wet, sticky ball. Repeatedly dip your hand into cold water and work the dough vigorously into a smooth mass while rotating the bowl in a circular motion with the other hand. Repeat the direction a couple times to develop the gluten further. After three to five minutes, the dough should be smooth, sticky, and quite soft.
3. Sprinkle enough dough on the counter to make a 6 x 6 inch square bed. Transfer the dough to the counter, pat it into a rectangle, and let it sit for five minutes.
4. Coat your hands with flour and stretch the dough from each end to twice its size. Fold it, letter style, over itself to create a rectangular shape. Mist the top with spray oil, dust with flour, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rest 30 minutes.
5. Repeat step four (stretch, fold like a letter, mist with oil, dust with flour). Let rest 30 minutes.
6. Repeat step four (stretch, fold like a letter, mist with oil, dust with flour). This time, let it rest an hour. It should swell but not necessarily double in size.
7. Line a 17 x 12 baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and drizzle some olive oil on it. Spread with your hands or a brush. Gently lift the dough from the counter to the baking sheet, maintaining the rectangular shape as much as possible. Spoon half the herb oil over the dough. Use your fingertips to dimple he dough and spread it to fill the pan simultaneously. Try to keep the thickness as uniform as possible across the surface. Use more herb oil as needed to ensure that the entire surface is coated.
8. Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap. Proof at room temperature for two hours. The dough should swell to fill the pan.
9. Drizzle on more herb oil, if desired, and dimple it in. The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick. Let it relax for 15 to 30 minutes before baking. The dough will rise to almost an inch in thickness.
10. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the rack on the middle shelf. Place the pan in the oven and lower the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake ten minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees and continue baking for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the dough begins to turn a light golden brown. Do not overbake.
11. Remove the pan from the oven and immediately transfer the focaccia onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool 20 minutes before slicing and serving.