I have my sister, Tricia, to thank for introducing me to my first focaccia back when we were in high school. I want you to try something, she whispers to me, almost conspiratorially. She pinches off a piece from a squat, round bread that I notice is liberally dotted with rosemary and coarse salt. She then dips it into a bowl into which she has poured equal amounts of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. She hands it to me, her eyes sparkling. Try it. It’s focaccia.
The fruitiness of the olive oil nicely offsets the astringency of the vinegar. As I chew, the bread oozes bashful amounts of the oil-vinegar mixture in my mouth, softening the bread, and creating contrasts of sour and sweet. It’s a taste memory that’s firmly lodged in my brain.
Since then, I’ve tasted lots of other focacce (plural of focaccia) and toyed with various ratios of balsamic vinegar to olive oil. On occasion, I’ve even added some coarse salt and gratings of Parmesan cheese to the dipping sauce. I now prefer just a drop of balsamic vinegar in my little puddle of the best olive oil that I can afford.
When it comes to focaccia in Manila restaurants, I used to eat at Italianni’s a lot because of the house focaccia they serve at the beginning of every meal. A server would often plop a plate of bread down on the table even before handing me a menu. I remember there are two kinds of bread offered a peasant bread with a hard crust and the focaccia, which I always asked for a second serving of. It’s been a while since I’ve been back there; the seemingly shrinking portions of the focaccia bread at Italianni’s, not to mention the now-miniscule servings, has made me look elsewhere.
At home, I often whip up a batch of focaccia to go with whatever pasta my Bin is making for dinner. He’s very good at using the leftovers from the fridge and turning them into a good meal. The only down side is that he forgets how to cook it again the next time around because the ingredients are always changing.
Focaccia is super easy to make, it’s one of the breads I’d recommend to those flirting with the idea of baking their own bread. A simple dough made of flour, yeast, water and salt, it becomes my own creation with whatever herbs I happen to have on hand ”“ usually a mixture of dried rosemary and oregano along with trails of sea salt. It’s great fun to dimple the bread and brush it with olive oil before baking.
This is my latest focaccia recipe find. Two tablespoons of yeast ensure an actively bubbly dough that threatens to rise up and deflate itself. An overnight rise in the fridge makes for a complex flavor and steam created in the oven via a squirt bottle gives plenty of chew to this bread.
This is the focaccia recipe I’m sticking to for life.
Freely adapted from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
2¼ to 2½ cups warm water
2 T active dry yeast
¼ cup olive oil
6 ½ cups all-purpose flour
4 tsps salt
Whisk ½ cup of the water and the yeast together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Attach the mixer with the dough hook. Set the mixture aside for 5 mins until the yeast dissolves and turns creamy.
Meanwhile, pour 1¾ cups warm water into a large measuring cup, add the olive oil, and whisk to blend; set aside. Whisk the flour and salt together in a large bowl and set this aside as well.
Pour the water-oil mixture over the yeast and stir. Add 4 cups of flour. The original recipe calls for 6 ½ cups of flour, but I only needed 4 ½ cups. I suggest watching how the liquid absorbs the flour after you've added 4 cups, and then add in a ½ cup of flour at a time. Mix on low speed to incorporate the flour and the liquid. Add just enough flour until the dough comes together. If the dough appears dry and a little stiff, add a few drops of warm water. Don't forget to scrape the bowl and hook if necessary. Mix just until you begin to get a soft dough.
At this point, if your mixer can take the beating, you can increase the mixer speed to medium-high and continue to mix for 10 mins. If you're like me, transfer the dough onto a Silpat mat or onto the kitchen counter and knead for 10 mins. Knead until the dough is soft and elastic.
1st rise: Form the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or insert into a large plastic bag. Allow the dough to rise at room temp until doubled in bulk. In Manila weather, this will only take 1 hour.
2nd rise: Punch the dough down and let it rise again until doubled in bulk, about 45 mins to 1 hour.
Shaping and Resting:Punch the dough down on itself once again and then refrigerate overnight. This refrigerated rest is what gives the focaccia its many bubbles and distinctive flavor.
The next day
About 1 hour before you plan to bake the bread, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Let it thaw until it feels spongy to the touch, and not hard. Preheat oven to 450F.
Lightly grease two baking sheets with olive oil. Divide the dough into two equal balls. Spread each ball out onto the baking sheet, making a rough rectangle. It doesn't matter if you can't get the dough to fit the sheet. If the dough is too resistant, leave it alone for 10 minutes to relax.
Once the dough has been prepared, brush the focacce with olive oil and sprinkle with fresh herbs and coarse salt. Bake for 15-25 mins. Make sure to spray the inside of the oven with a water bottle 3 times within the first 8 mins of baking. This is what will make the crust crunchy. The focacce are done when they are golden along the edges.