Sunday, February 21, 2010


While living in Italy and traveling around Europe, I learned a very important lesson: if you see something you like, buy it now; you may never find this street - or shop - again. Never was this more true than in Venice, with its narrow, twisty, identical-looking pedestrian streets, which is why my friends and I found ourselves, immediately after breakfast, buying huge hunks of soft, two-inch thick focaccia infused with olive oil and salt. Seriously, it was the best focaccia I've ever had. I'm still thinking about it 17 years later. (Contrary to the above lesson, I miraculously did find that shop again when my family and I visited Venice, but that was sheer luck.)

Bakeries in Siena, where I lived, also sold focaccia, of course - huge, full-sheet baking trays brimming with plain, onion, potato/rosemary, and olive/tomato varieties. They also featured schiacciata, a Tuscan version that is thinner and crispier. We had our favorite panetteria where we would stop before school for a slab of bread. No matter how good my Italian got (and I was quite competent then), I always felt like my exchanges with the employees were limited to, "A piece of that one. A little more, please. Yes, thank you. How much is it?"

Something got me thinking about focaccia this weekend, which is about all the motivation I need to bake. Surprisingly, a lot of recipes call for mashed potato to be mixed in with the flour; another good-sounding recipe called for rice flour. I didn't feel like shopping, so I chose a fairly basic recipe from Epicurious to try. I brushed the whole top with olive oil and sprinkled on a bit of crushed rosemary and coarse kosher salt. On half, I spread some thinly sliced red onions.

It was too thin to measure up to the perfection of the Venetian focaccia, but it was darn good, particularly right out of the oven. The coarse salt really stood out, the fruity olive oil penetrated the top crust just enough, and the onions were delicious without overwhelming the bread itself. If I made it again, I might make it in a smaller pan to see if I could achieve the thickness of the bread I remember.

Half onion, half plain (for little folks)

(See how in this picture, the grains of salt have disappeared? I took this one in the morning, but the picture of the whole pan was taken fresh from the oven and you can still see the salt.)

A query for readers: does anyone have advice on the best way to store baked goods with salt on the top (e.g., focaccia or pretzels)? The same goes for muffins and things with sugar sprinkled on them. No matter what kind of container I use, I always find the salt/sugar dissolves by the next morning leaving a slightly soggy top. A minute or two in the toaster can crisp it right up again, but I'd love to avoid the problem in the first place if anyone has an idea.

Thick Focaccia
Makes a jelly-roll pan's worth

3 1/2 teaspoons (a 1/4-ounce package plus 1 teaspoon) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
5 1/2 cups (23 3/8 ounces, or 1 pound plus 7 3/8 ounces) bread flour, all-purpose flour, or a combination
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon coarse salt (or to taste)
toppings, if desired: sliced onions, thinly sliced potatoes, red grapes, tomatoes, olives, etc.

In the bowl of the electric mixer, stir together the yeast, sugar, and water to "proof" for five minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. Add the flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 3 tablespoons of oil. Using the paddle, combine the ingredients well. Switch to the dough hook and knead for two minutes, until the dough is soft and slightly sticky. Coat a bowl with oil or cooking spray. Form the dough into a ball (mine was pretty sticky - it might've served well to oil my hands first), and turn it to coat the dough. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place for 90 minutes, or until it is doubled in bulk.

(If you don't want to bake it right away, punch down the dough, cover it with plastic wrap, and chill it overnight. Return it to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.)

Press the dough evenly into an oiled jelly roll pan (cooking spray works just fine). Let it rise, covered loosely, in a warm place for 1 hour, or until it is almost doubled in bulk. After 40 minutes, preheat the oven to 400F. When the dough has risen, use your fingertips to make 1/4"-deep dimples in the dough. Brush the dough with the remaining two tablespoons of oil, sprinkle it with the remaining tablespoon of coarse salt, and if desired, spread on toppings. I particularly like potato and rosemary. I love how the parts underneath the toppings bake just slightly less - it looks like they have tan lines.

Bake in the bottom third of the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the focaccia is golden brown. Let it cool in the pan on a wire rack. Serve it warm or at room temperature, or split it for sandwiches. We ate some with roasted tomatoes and burrata, and man, was that good.


NikiTheo said...

Mmmm.... this foccacia reminds me of the Panera foccacia I loved so much when I worked there. They don't make it anymore and that makes me sad...

Sandra Dee said...

You CAN'T store's part of the Great Pretzel Conspiracy...

You can only enjoy them fresh, so if you want to maintain that taste without the salty-sogginess...YOU HAVE TO BUY MORE PRETZELS.

Douglas E Welch said...

I am definitely going to give this a try. I am on a bit of a bread kick lately, looking for more and more recipes that catch my eye. Another blog recently posted a rosemary flatbread recipe that kicked butt. Not a crumb left when we had friends over.

Great pictures, too!