There are very few smells as evocative as the aroma of freshly baked bread. Bread is a primal food – for as long as man has known how to grind flour, he (or probably she) has been mixing it with water, spices and, eventually, leavening agents, and baked it as a meal staple for millennia.
Whenever I travel, I always try the local bread to find out how different cultures approach this humble food. In my probably skewed recollections, two stand out.The round loaf that came out of a blackened brick oven in the middle of the Sinai desert, baked by a small and ancient man who worked in an area no larger than a square meter and whose skin had assumed the color of the soot coming out of the oven. Cleanliness was not necessarily his first priority – at least the flies, otherwise undaunted by the August heat, were kept at bay by the oven flames. But no matter – his small round loaf was soft, with a slight crunchy bite to the crust and tasted of fire and charcoal and I lived on and for it during the entire time I was in the Sinai. The second masterpiece that makes my mouth water at the mere thought is the focaccia from Liguria – not too thick, slightly greasy from the extra virgin olive oil it’s saturated with, you can buy it at any bakery in the Genoa or on the Liguria coast. It will be slid in a paper bag that will be quickly spotted with grease dots and it’s best eaten while still walking around, slightly warm and promptly followed by finger licking because god forbid they provide you with paper napkins.
While I have never tried to replicate either item – they are too perfect in my imagination to be messed with- I often bake a quick focaccia. It doesn’t require spending an entire day at home waiting for it to rise (only half a day), it’s easy to make and hard to resist. While you can top it with sun-dried tomatoes, olives or caramelized onions to name a few, I much rather eat it with a sprinkle of olive oil, sea salt and rosemary from my garden.
2 3/4 C All Purpose Flour
1/2 ts Dry Active Yeast
15 1/2 oz Water, warm
3/4 ts Sugar
3/4 ts Salt
A/N Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A/N Sea Salt
A/N Chopped Rosemary
1. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, in a small bowl. Let rest a few minutes until it bubbles (if it doesn’t, start over with a different batch of yeast – it means it’s old and can’t be used any longer)
2. Pour the water/yeast mixture in the bowl of an electric mixer and, using the dough hook, mix until soupy.
3. Increase speed to medium and mix until dough forms, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add sugar and salt and mix until incorporated. The dough should be easily detaching from the sides of the bowl. If it’s still too sticky add a little flour. If it’s too dry, add a little bit of olive oil.
4. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover it tightly with plastic and place it in a warm spot. Allow the dough to rise and double in size, about 2 hours.
5. Oil your hands and gently punch the dough down, then transfer it to a well oiled rectangular baking pan (about 13 by 11 inches). Using your hands, gently stretch the dough to nearly fit the pan. Let rise a second time for 30 mins to 1 hr.
6. Spread some olive oil on the surface of the focaccia, using your hands. Sprinkle salt and rosemary to taste and bake at 450F until a light golden color (about 20 to 30 mins depending on oven).
If you are using different toppings, add them halfway through the baking process or you will scorch them.