By Susan Pagani, Communications Director
I learned to bake focaccia bread from a chef named Rosie in Portland, Oregon. We worked at a wonderful Italian deli that featured, along with amazing take-out food, a gourmet grocery, meat counter, pasta shop and a giant cookbook store. It was a fun place to work because we could use any of the resources in our cooking, which led to daily invention.
Rosie taught me an important lesson about baking bread: how to feel when the dough has had enough flour and kneading. Instead of giving me a recipe for the focaccia, she gave me the recipe for the sponge and then had me knead the flour in until the dough felt right. I’m no artisan baker, but that “feeling” for dough has stuck with me as I’ve learned to make more complex bread recipes — with satisfying results — at home.
In the recipe below, I’ve included the rough flour amounts. For one loaf, it’s not really necessary to make a sponge. Rather than simply adding the two and a half cups called for in the recipe, add just enough to form a sturdy dough and then turn it onto a work surface dusted with flour. Then, knead in just as much flour as you need to achieve a dough that is dry — not sticky — and feels elastic and smooth in your hand, springing back when you press a thumb into it. By adding flour this way, you avoid creating an unworkable dough that is too dry or too wet.
If you do not enjoy olives, rosemary is also delicious.
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pitted black olives
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour or a mixture of whole wheat and white
Coarse sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 450F.
2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the salt, olive oil and sugar. When it is fully dissolved — it should bubble a little — stir in the olives.
3. Add in just enough flour to form a sturdy dough and turn it out onto a board dusted with flour. Knead for 5 to 8 minutes, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. When the dough is smooth and bounces back, form it into a ball and set it in a lightly oiled bowl. Turn it over once, cover and put it in a warm place to rise until it is doubled in bulk, about 30-40 minutes.
4. After the dough has risen, turn it out onto an oiled baking sheet or a peel and pat it out to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut a few slits in the top, brush with olive oil and sprinkle the top with sea salt. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes.
5. Bake the bread in the top third of the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown. (If you have a pizza stone, use it — your crust will thank you.)
6. Remove from the pan immediately and serve or cool on a rack.