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Focaccia fever: Chewy bread is versatile and easy

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Frigid temperatures, deep snow and icy roads lead to soup and bread season in my kitchen. When I have a choice, I tend to stay tucked inside rather than bundle up, head out in my car and brave the winter elements.

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More time indoors means I can have a pot of soup simmering on the stove and yeast dough rising in a large bowl all wrapped up in a flour sack dishtowel.

I know there are some who say there's no good reason to make homemade bread. Working with yeast dough is just too much fuss. It takes too much time.

And I would disagree. Who could resist the magical sensory experience of making their own bread? The fragrance of yeast as it bubbles and grows in warm water. The soft, smooth feel of the dough as it moves beneath your hands. The aroma of baking bread wafting through the house. And finally, the intoxicating flavor of just-baked, hot, chewy bread. It's not only a rewarding experience to create your own bread. It's relaxing. It's a process that reduces my stress levels and calms my nerves.

If you are one who has not experienced the satisfaction of working with yeast dough, making focaccia might get you hooked.

Focaccia, the Italian version of hearth bread made all over Europe since the Middle Ages, takes a multitude of forms. My preference is one that is crusty, not too thick, and a little salty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.

I've made a few batches of chewy Focaccia in the last couple of weeks. It doesn't take a lot of time to mix and knead. The rising time is short compared to most yeast bread dough. And there's no rolling or shaping involved. Just pat the dough into a pan and bake.

One batch got measured, mixed and kneaded by my 10-year-old granddaughter, Emily. A huge fan of soft pretzels, Emily creatively formed the soft and elastic dough into pretzel shapes. Her siblings reaped the benefits of her work and highly approved of her finished product. Emily thought her homemade pretzels tasted better than those she eats in the food court at the mall.

Versatility is one of the things I appreciate about focaccia. Cut it into squares, slice each through the middle and lightly toast to create an over-sized crouton forming a bed for a salad of fresh greens. Those same toasted squares can sandwich any filling you like.

Warm focaccia served fireside with an indulgence of quality olives is a substantial and satisfying nibble. And there's nothing better than warm, chewy focaccia to eat with a steaming bowl of soup.

Focaccia is not meant to be pizza, but it can be adorned with herbs and seasonings. Sprinkle the top with fresh rosemary or thyme immediately after pulling the focaccia from the oven. Or mince up a couple of cloves of fresh garlic and sprinkle it over the unbaked focaccia with coarse salt. Grate some fresh Parmesan over the top when you pull it from the oven.

Just measure, mix, knead, press and bake. Eat warm, homemade focaccia. You'll not only enchant your senses, you'll be captivated by the satisfaction of making your own yeast bread. You'll be hooked.

Focaccia

1 1/4 cups warm water (105 degrees F. to 115 degrees F.)

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

Pour warm water into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle sugar and yeast over the water. Gently whisk to mix. Let the mixture stand for about 5 minutes. If the yeast is alive, the mixture will bubble and swell and foam. If this doesn't happen, you'll need to start over with fresh yeast.

Measure flour into another bowl. Stir some of the flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt into the yeast mixture. Gradually add more flour until dough forms. You may not need to use all of the flour you've measured out. When the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and follows your spoon, place the dough onto a lightly floured (using premeasured flour from bowl) work surface. Turn the mixing bowl upside down over the dough and let it rest.

Use shortening on your clean fingers to grease the inside bottom and sides of a 15x10x1-inch pan and the inside of another large glass bowl. Set aside. Rub the shortening remaining on your fingers onto the inside of your hands. This will help prevent the dough from sticking to your hands when you begin kneading.

Knead dough 10 to 12 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place dough in greased bowl. Turn the ball of dough over so that greased side is facing up. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a towel. Let dough rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, place oven rack in lowest rack position. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Gently punch dough to deflate. Place dough in greased pan. Use palm of hand to press dough to cover bottom of pan. Cover with towel. Let rise about 20 minutes or until risen by half. Brush dough with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt.

Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer to cooling rack. Cut and serve warm.

Tips from the cook

--An instant-read digital food thermometer is a fool-proof way of testing the water. If the water is too hot, it will kill the yeast. If it's not warm enough, the yeast will have a difficult time growing.

--I seldom use the full amount of flour called for in recipes for yeast dough. The brand of flour you use and the humidity level in your kitchen are a couple of determining factors in how much flour you will need.

--Focaccia is best eaten the day it is made. Any remaining focaccia can be stored at room temperature in a closed brown paper bag.

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