Monday, November 14, 2011

Lotsa Focaccia

It becomes more and more obvious to me every day that my love of food is deep-rooted and stems from the dozens of delicious memories from my childhood. As most yummy memories do, mine revolve around my Italian grandmother. But funny enough, it's not always the things she made that I recall so fondly, but sometimes the treats she picked up at the corner bakery.

There are two things that almost always showed up with my grandmother on her visits to our house: chocolate-frosted prune muffins (trust me, they were amazing) and what we affectionately referred to as "pizza bread." As the name suggests, this bread was delicious ... a fluffy, tender center with a just-a-little-bit-crisp crust, topped with either a very, very thin layer of tomato sauce or with olive oil and herbs.

It wasn't until I was in college that I learned that our "pizza bread" was focaccia ... and that it wasn't the same anywhere as it was at my grandmother's favorite bakery. When I left home and that San Francisco bakery was hundreds of miles away, I tried dozens that didn't even come close to being as good. And after my granmother passed and that bakery was too far out of the way for anyone else to bother stopping by, I figured I'd never have my beloved "pizza bread" again.

My focaccia rising alongside my resting pasta dough for homemade ravioli!
And then I moved to Milwaukee and sat down at an unsuspecting trattoria downtown one evening. As often happens at Italian restaurants, a basket of bread was dropped on our table. I took one look - and one whif - and knew I'd found it. This was the "pizza bread." This was the focaccia I thought I'd never find again. But surely it couldn't be as good. The focaccia my grandmother brought us was chewy and moist. This was probably tough and dry. But there was a tomato paste on top. And another with onions and rosemary. It looked right, so it was worth a taste. And it was perfect. It was just like I remembered it. And it's the sole reason that Louise's is my favorite Italian restaurant in Milwaukee to this day.

Shockingly, I hadn't thought of baking my own focaccia, even when I thought I'd tasted my last slice. So the proverbial lightbulb went off when I saw this recipe on America's Test Kicthen Feed the other day. Beware ... this focaccia will take all day (actually, two days!) to make. And most of your time will be spent waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting. But it's worth it.

While it's not a perfect replication of what Louise's makes or what I remember my grandmother buying, it seems to be a good substitute in a pinch. It bakes up a bit thicker and fluffier, and it's not quite as moist as I'd like, but it's delicious nonetheless. Just look at those air pockets that give away the chewy, airy interior! Irresistable!

I made a few minor tweaks to my focaccia by switching up the seasoning and baking it on a sheet pan instead of using round cake pans. You can read the Test Kitchen's original recipe here. Oh, and watch the salt. I had a heavy hand in the step just before baking and added a pinch (or palmful) too much. Oops!

Focaccia Bread
For the Biga
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup warm water (100-110 degrees F)
1/4 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast

For the Dough
2 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for shaping
1 1/4 cups warm water (100-110 degrees F)
1 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
Kosher salt
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Italian or garlic bread seasoning

To make the biga, combine flour, water, and yeast in large bowl and stir with wooden spoon until uniform mass forms and no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature (about 70 degrees) overnight (at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours).

To make the dough, stir flour, water, and yeast into biga with wooden spoon until uniform mass forms and no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt over dough; stir into dough until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature 30 minutes. Spray rubber spatula or bowl scraper with nonstick cooking spray. Use spatula to fold partially risen dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward middle. Turn bowl 90 degrees and fold again. Turn bowl and fold dough 6 more times (for a total of 8 turns). Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding, turning, and rising 2 more times, for total of three 30-minute rises. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees at least 30 minutes before baking.

Transfer dough to lightly floured counter. Lightly dust top of dough with flour. Coat a baking sheet with 4 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle sheet with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Place dough on sheet, slide dough around pan to coat bottom and sides, then flip over. Cover pan with plastic wrap and let rest for 5 minutes.

Using fingertips, press dough out toward edges of pan. (If dough resists stretching, let it relax for 5 to 10 minutes before trying again.) Using dinner fork, poke surface of dough 25 to 30 times, popping any large bubbles. Sprinkle seasoning evenly over top of dough. Let dough rest until slightly bubbly, 5 to 10 minutes.

Place pan in oven abd reduce temperature to 450 degrees. Bake until top is golden brown, 25 to 28 minutes (in my oven, that was just 15 minutes - so keep an eye out!), rotating pan halfway through baking. Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool 5 minutes. Remove loaf from pan and return to wire rack. Brush top with any oil remaining in pan (I had none, sadly enough). Let cool 30 minutes before serving (good luck - Bill was slicing into ours shortly after baking!).


  1. That looks amazing! I love focaccia but I've never made it in my cast iron pan or on a grill and both sounds amazing!

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