Friday, January 13, 2012

Italian Focaccia

As some of you may know, I have been trying to learn how to bake yeast breads. I'm fine with soda breads and cakes, but when it comes to yeast, I've had a miserable decade of it. Now that we're in the new house and I have the majority of things unpacked and sorted, I have decided to return to my bready studies, and have applied myself to learning this skill. Since it is a skill mastered by both other adult members of my household (neither of whom have the time to bake in the "old fashioned" way lately), I have plenty of places to turn for immediate advice when things don't go well.

Today's experiment was a second try at focaccia bread, which is a flat Italian bread topped with olive oil and spices (and in this case, onions). The original recipe is out of the Frugal Gourmet's first book. I tried the recipe, untampered with, last night. It was alright, but we all found that it was not quite right. I discovered that "9x13 shallow pan" does NOT mean a ceramic oval pan of somewhat close size, and results in a doughy interior rather than a nice, proper bread crumb. None of us liked the tomato and chopped onion/garlic topping, it being TOO oniony (and this is a family that loves onions). So this is my modified experiment.

2 packages dry yeast, dissolved in 1 cup lukewarm (tepid) water
3 cups unbleached flour (I used bread flour)
olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 yellow onion, sliced into half moons
fresh pepper and Italian spices

The water should be just a little warmer than your skin temperature, and I took the time to warm the mixing bowl in the oven before putting in the water and yeast. Because our kitchen is very cold by baking standards (it's usually below 65F), I wanted my equipment to make things comfortable for my yeast! I put the water and yeast into my big KitchenAid mixing bowl, then added 1.5 cups of the flour, 1/4 cup of very good olive oil, and the sugar and salt. I mixed it in the MixMaster for about 3 to 4 minutes, something that was hard for me.

The directions state to mix "until smooth" but that's not very descriptive to someone who isn't a natural or experienced baker. Last night, sis told me to let it go a lot longer than my wont, and so I did so this afternoon as well. The first few minutes it looks a little grainy, but after a while it starts to get very liquid looking, almost like a pudding, with lots of gluten strands springing off the sides as the beater goes around. When it reaches this point, where it's quite smooth and soft looking, take your bowl out of the mixer and push the equipment away. You're doing the rest by hand!

Pull the rest of the dough off the beater, and then add in the rest of the flour. Blend it by hand, something I assure you will be sticky, messy, and perhaps uncomfortable. It does get better, I promise. You want to squish the dough and the flour together, until it becomes less soupy and more doughy. This process takes about five minutes, perhaps less time if you're more experienced. Take the time to scrape the sides of the bowl several times during the process, getting all the flour worked in. You can see in the image that the dough gets almost stringy, and is very sticky during this entire part. It will coat your fingers and stick to them. Once in a while you'll want to pull all that dough off and return it to the bowl, so it gets worked in with the rest of it.

Once the majority of the flour is worked in, slop the whole thing out onto a floured countertop (they call specifically for Formica in the cookbook). Again, as you can see, it's still sticky and messy and not as much like the nice, elastic bread dough as you might like. It's okay, really. Be patient and don't be afraid (I was terrified I'd done something wrong). Set a timer (or better yet have a friend do it for you) for five minutes, and then begin to knead the dough. You want to push down on it with the heal of your hand, and then do a quarter turn, fold it away from you, and press again.

Keep doing the kneading for the entire five minutes. You'll notice that the dough stops being sticky after about a minute, and then continues to change in consistency. It'll seem dry for a bit, then springy, then almost wet again, then it'll cycle through some variation of those. Don't be alarmed. Get into it; meditate on it. This is great exercise for your shoulders and arms, and is very therapeutic in a meditative way. I have to use a foot stool to get myself high enough to knead properly (when you push down with the heal of your hand, you should have straight arms). Don't be afraid to really put your back into it - lean into the dough, really press it hard. It'll tear a bit under your hands and that's fine. It'll stretch, turn, look funny, and then just about the time the timer beeps, you'll notice it changes. No, I can't tell you what it's like... it's just something that happens with dough when you've treated it correctly.

I made a ball out of the dough, achieved by sort of cupping it repeatedly with your hands while turning it. You'll note it is NOT sitting in the flour anymore. You want to let the dough rest now, and if you don't have Formica countertops, put down some saran wrap to let it sit on. Cover it with a large bowl (you can see mine in the picture there). You want the dough to rise for about one hour, or until it's doubled in size. You might find that a phone camera is handy at this point, because you can take a picture and then compare it later!

Now, if you have a cold kitchen (under 70F), you probably want to do something to keep the dough from getting too cold. See, we're letting the dough rise here, and that means the yeasties have to be warm and moist. Moist they get by being under the bowl, but if your kitchen is only 62F like mine, the yeast begins to slow down or stop, and no rise happens. I solved this with a neat little trick - a heating pad (the kind you use for sore muscles) set to low, on top of the bowl. It doesn't get hot enough to actually heat the bowl up, but it keeps the temperature underneath nice and even. It was a tiny bit warmer than the kitchen under there, and it rose beautifully!

As you can see, the ball doubled (or more!) in size in my hour. Don't forget to use a timer - this is not something that does well if forgotten. You want to make a fist and actually punch down your dough. It will deflate; don't panic, it's supposed to do that, and yes it makes funny farting noises, which is great if your toddler happens to be around. Knead out the dough for a couple of minutes (don't go much over 2 minutes, although it does feel awful good at this point, almost like a baby's powdered butt).

Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is about 9" by 13" (roughly... don't bother with  measuring here!). As you roll, put your back into it again, as you're going to want to make all the big air bubbles pop. Again, toddlers and young children will appreciate this part, as it is kind of amusing to listen to. Sort of like a bready bubble wrap. I would guestimate that my dough ended up being about an inch thick when it reached its final shape and size, although perhaps a bit thinner than that. It still felt pretty soft and springy.

Put your rolled out dough onto a well greased baking pan or a floured pizza/oven stone. I love these pizza pans, with their zillion little holes in them. It allows air circulation and a beautiful crust formation. You want to let this rise again, "...until not quite doubled in bulk." I set it for 30 minutes, but then it sat for a longer time while I got the next part of the recipe done. I put the metal bowl over it again, with the heating pad hat, for the second rising. I would say it almost doubled, though I only eyeballed it.

After it has risen a second time, you want to poke it with a fork. Poke it all over. Make pretty patterns if you like, or be random like me. Enjoy yourself! I like this part, a lot. It will deflate a bit, though not a lot. While you're doing this start pre-heating your oven to 375%. You want your oven to be FULLY pre-heated before your bread goes in. The initial "blast of heat" invigorates your yeast and makes for a slightly puffier, more delicious bread. This is true of all kinds of bread, by the way, not just focaccia.

Next, drizzle some good quality olive oil over your bread. Use your hand or a food brush to lightly coat the entire top of the bread with the oil. Then you sprinkle it with the spices you want to use. I used pepper, and an Italian blend of herbs. I also used the halved onions, which I sort of spread randomly over the top. If you want to use the tomato paste, you put about three tablespoons worth of it on right after the olive oil. I preferred it without, and so didn't bother using any tomato on this loaf. Having seen focaccia in stores, I would guess you could also top it at this point with sliced olives, sliced tomato, or perhaps even a sprinkle of feta cheese or something similar. I wouldn't try cheddar or any other grated style cheese because the fat content when melted might make it too greasy.

Pop your focaccia into your pre-heated oven and let it stay there for about 25 minutes. I checked mine at the 25 minute mark and decided to let it sit for another 4 minutes. That took it from "lightly browned but still looking rather doughy" to "perfect." The onions got a tiny bit browned, too, which made it look like one of those beautiful artisan loaves you see in higher quality grocery stores, or at bakeries. I was very pleased with how this loaf turned out, especially after last night's rather 3/4 cooked results. The smell is heavenly, too. Our children have been clamoring after the bread since before it got out of the oven!

The finished Italian Focaccia loaf!