For me, there’s only one thing that can instantly transform a house into a home – freshly baked bread. Bread is the ultimate embodiment of “Welcome Home.” No amount of unpacking, painting or sofa loafing can pull me into that mental space as easily as bread.
It’s about the ritual, the hand to counter pounding and the puffs of flour over my head like fairy dust. And of course, the ever evolving smells as the yeast wakes with a subtle yawn, matures into a slightly sour temperament and finally reaches full potential in airy interiors and crunchy golden crust.
At 22 years old, I decided that all I wanted for Christmas was my mother’s bread bowl. An ovenware monstrosity striped in beige, baby blue and sweet pink, all the doughs of my memory start in that bowl. As a kid, I would watch in amazement as what began as a tiny, unremarkable softball became something alien, more akin to an old horror film I watched secretly one night, than a bit of flour, yeast and water. Forget recipes, technique and training, I was convinced that the secret to perfect bread could be found in that bowl.
I went on to take classes, work in a bakery and realize that there is more to bread baking than one magical bowl. But even with its cracks and cumbersome shape that can make storage a challenge, it’s been to five different new homes with me. Tested recipes and a bit of baking know-how can certainly a technically good baker make but the bowl gives my bread soul.
So despite the chaotic conditions of Zach and I’s new little house, a visit from his family and a home improvement project on the schedule, I found a scrap of time this weekend to pull together this focaccia. Chosen because it’s a pretty low maintenance bread, can be mixed and kneaded easily by hand and is almost impossible to screw up, it was exactly what my awkward and tiny new-to-me kitchen needed to feel like mine.
Adapted from The Italian Baker by Carol Field
For authentic recipes and useful at-home baking techniques, not many books beat Carol Field. Another hand me down from my mom, the toppings for this recipe can easily be customized. I chose a simpler sea salt version and a spicy calamata/black pepper combo to accompany a batch of soup. Get as creative as you like with the toppings but avoid over doing it or you risk turning it into more of a pizza. The star here is the bread – the toppings should be the supporting actors. Makes 2 rectangular or 3 round focaccia.
2 1/2 tsp instant yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 cups plus 1 Tb water, at room temperature
2 Tbs olive oil
6-7 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tb salt
5-6 Tbs olive oil
2-3 tsps coarse sea salt
1 cup Greek or Italian black/calamata olives, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
In a very large bowl, combine the yeast and 1/4 cup of warm water. Let the mixture stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in 2 1/4 cups plus 1 Tb of room temperature water and then whisk in 2 cups of flour and the salt until smooth. With a spatula, stir in the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time until a rough dough comes together.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Dough will begin sticky, but continue to add flour to the work surface until a smooth and slightly tacky texture is achieved. Stop kneading when the indentation of two fingers pressed gently into the dough remains for a few seconds.
Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, or until doubled. Remove the dough and gently de-gas. For rectangular focaccia divide in half, roll out, and place on an oiled 10 1/2 x 15 1/2 sheet pan. For round focaccia, divide the dough into thirds press each into an oiled 9 or 10 inch pie pan. Cover with towels and let rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.
Using your fingertips, dimple the dough vigorously and deeply. Indentations should be up to 1/2 inch deep. Cover with moistened towels and let rise for another 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place a baking stone (optional) on the floor of the oven.
For the sea salt topping, brush focaccia liberally with olive oil. Oil should pool into some of the indentations as this will keep the bread from drying out. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and place pan directly on baking stone or floor of the oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden. For the olive topping, brush focaccia liberally with olive oil and press olive pieces into dough. Finish with a generous amount of cracked black pepper and bake on the floor of the oven (or stone) for 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately transfer from the pan to a cooling rack, or bottoms will get soggy.