Tuesday, April 30, 2013


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Makes one 17 by 12-inch focaccia
I have been fortunate to take numerous cooking classes in other countries. Without doubt, hands down, my favorite was a class in Rapallo, Italy taught by the famed chef, Fausto Oneto at his restaurant U Giancu (http://www.ugiancu.it). Fausto is quite the character – he collects and wears several humorous hats, which change as the class progresses and the food is eaten. We cooked and ate several memorable dishes that day – but the focaccia has stuck with me. I had made focaccia several times before…but this recipe and technique has become my favorite and the favorite of everyone who tastes it. What follows is my American modification of Fausto’s recommended methods, including the addition of a baked potato into the dough ”to keep it smooth” and addition of a lot, really a lot, of water and olive oil just before putting it into a very hot oven. These two unique additions took my focaccia from very good to absolutely amazing – consistently.

Restaurant U Giancu 
Famed chef, Fausto Oneto

Rapallo is located in the Liguria coastal section of northwestern Italy, where Genoa is the capital. The region is popular with tourists for its beautiful beaches, picturesque towns (think Portofino & Cinque Terre) and cuisine. 
Cinque Terre
High on the list of Ligurian specialties are pesto and focaccia. Focaccia is usually baked plain with salt and onions, though the region’s abundance of herbs are often combined and sprinkled on top.  Cheeses, meats, olives and fresh vegetables are other delightful additions to focaccias.  I had previously shared a wonderful recipe for Fougasse (see 12/7/2011 posting) – which is a type of bread typically associated with Provence. The two breads are quite distinct. Fougasse often has the “toppings” incorporated into the dough prior to baking while Focaccia has them added to the top. Because Fougasse is baked on a stone instead of an oiled pan, it is quite crispy whereas Focaccia has crisp bits and soft parts. I would recommend starting as a purist with perhaps just salt as topping so you can really appreciate the bread you have just made. Add toppings in the future – suggestions will follow below.
Key ingredients
This can all be done by hand. It is quite relaxing and therapeutic! However, I have found that most home cooks prefer the use of a mixer so I will provide information on both methods. Flour is the core of the bread – the body containing its heart and spirit. Wheat is the grain of choice, from which flour is milled. This is because wheat contains more gluten than other grains. In the US, cake flour has 6-7% gluten, pastry flour has 8-9% gluten, all-purpose flour has 10-11.5 % and bread flour has 11.5 – 13.5% gluten. Gluten is what determines the texture and taste of the bread. I prefer to use instant yeast as it is more concentrated than fresh or active dry yeast, and has a longer shelf life.  It can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for months or in the freezer for a year.
  • 1 12-16 oz russet potato
  • 5C unbleached high gluten or bread flour
  • 4 tsp freshly chopped rosemary (divided)
  • 2 tsp kosher or sea salt (more salt later)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2-3 tsp instant yeast
  • ½C + 8 Tb extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
  • 1 tsp diastatic malt powder* (optional)
  • 2 C room temperature water (divided)
  • 3/4 C mixture half water and half olive oil

Clean and poke a few holes in the russet potato.  Cook in the microwave until tender. Once done, cut in half, scoop out flesh into the bowl until cool.

Combine ½ C room temperature water, yeast, malt powder and honey. Whisk together and allow it to sit until foamy – about 5 minutes. Add 4 Tb olive oil and 2 tsp rosemary to yeast mixture.

Stir together flour, ¾C baked russet potato and salt in a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add the yeast/oil mixture and remaining 1½ C water and mix with a large metal spoon or by hand until all the ingredients form a wet, sticky ball (or mix on low speed with paddle attachment). If you are mixing by hand, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the metal spoon into cold water and use it, much like a dough hook, to work the dough vigorously into a smooth mass while rotating the bowl in a circular motion with the other hand. Do this for 4-5 minutes. 

If you are using an electric mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for 5-7 minutes, or as long as it takes to create a smooth, sticky dough. The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl. Add additional flour if needed to firm it up to clear the bowl. 
Use the dough hook if using a mixer
Oil a large bowl, put in dough, spray the top with a fine mist of olive oil and sprinkle a bit flour. Cover bowl with saran and place a warm draft-free spot in your kitchen until the dough doubles or more in volume, 1-2 hours.
Rising in the bowl
Remove from bowl, sprinkle enough flour on the counter to make a bed of about 6 inches square. Using a scraper or spatula dipped in water; transfer the sticky dough to the bed of flour and dust liberally with flour, patting the dough into a rectangle. Wait 5 minutes for the dough to relax. Coat your hands with flour and stretch the dough from each end to twice its size. Fold it, letter style, over itself to return to a rectangular shape. Mist the top of the dough with oil, again dust with flour, and loosely cover with saran wrap. Let it rest 1 hour.
Mold the dough into a rectangle
...then fold it over itself and cover with Saran wrap
Line a 17 by 12-inch sheet pan with baking parchment. Pour 4 Tb olive oil over the parchment paper; spread it with your hands or a brush to cover the surface. Lift the dough off the counter and transfer it to the sheet pan, maintaining the rectangular shape as much as possible. Use your fingertips to dimple the dough and spread it to fill the pan simultaneously. Do not use the flat of your hands – only the fingertips – to avoid tearing or ripping the dough. Try to keep the thickness as uniform as possible across the surface. Dimpling allows you to degas only part of the dough while preserving gas in the non-dimpled sections. If the dough becomes too springy, let it rest 15 minutes and resume. Do not worry if you are unable to fill the pan 100 percent, especially the corners. As the dough relaxes and proofs, it will spread out naturally. Loosely cover the pan with saran wrap. Refrigerate the dough overnight (or for up to 3 days).
In the pan
Remove the pan from the refrigerator, add remainder of rosemary and any pre-poof toppings (see below for list), cover lightly with Saran wrap and set aside at room temperature for at least 3 hours before baking. With oven rack on the middle shelf, pre-heat oven to 500 degree F for at least 30 minutes. Gently re-dimple the dough if needed and add any pre-bake toppings. Put 3/4 C water/olive oil mixture in a measuring cup or jar. Whisk thoroughly or shake jar until mixed. Just before placing in the oven, pour entire 3/4 C olive oil/water mixture over dough and put into the oven. 
Dimpled and ready for the oven
Immediately lower the temperature to 450 degree F. Cook 10 minutes, turn 180 degree and cook another 8-10 minutes (internal temperature of focaccia of 200 degree F) until it turns a light golden brown. Take out, immediately sprinkle with a good finishing olive oil and sprinkling of kosher or sea salt and transfer the focaccia out of the pan onto a cooling rack. Allow the focaccia to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing and serving. If by some miracle there is any left, it freezes beautifully.
Cooked to a golden brown!
Do give this one a try. The recipe may seem daunting and first time through goes a bit slower. Trust me, it is really simple to make and delicious to eat. It seem that each time I make focaccia, it goes faster and easier – and with even more creative toppings. My favorite is a combination of rosemary, sliced olives and chopped sun-dried tomatoes.  Experiment – find yours.


Toppings for Focaccia

I have separated the possibilities into pre-proof and pre-bake to provide direction on the timing of the additions. Some toppings, such as sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and nuts, need to be surrounded by dough to protect them from burning or from falling off. Other ingredients are not so vulnerable and will stay on the dough without having it proof around it, including moist cheeses, like blue, or strips of meat, which should not sit out during proofing.

Pre-proof toppings: Marinated sun-dried tomatoes; olives; roasted garlic; fresh herbs; walnuts, pine nuts, or other nuts; sautéed mushrooms, red or green peppers, or onions. Of note, I usually thinly slice the onions and soak in warm water and a bit of vinegar, to soften the taste.

Pre-bake toppings: High-moisture cheeses, such as blue cheese, fresh mozzarella, and feta cheese, and cooked ground meat or meat strips. Also coarse salt or sugar. Of note, if you wish to add dry or semi-hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano, regular mozzarella, Jack, Cheddar and Swiss, add them during the baking process – usually the last 4-5 minutes.

*diastatic malt: “Diastatic” refers to the enzymes that are created as the grain sprouts. Diastatic malt breaks down the starch in dough to yield sugars on which yeast can feed. Diastatic malt powder (or barley malt syrup) when added to dough helps produce a finer texture and longer keeping quality. I have found it in natural grocers and online from The Barry Farm in Ohio.

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