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Friday, August 26, 2011

Random Food Fridays - Focaccia

Who would have guessed that something as simple and ubiquitous as bread could become so fraught? Bread has become complicated. How did that happen? Some folks genuinely are sensitive to gluten or have other health issues that prevent them from enjoying bread, but for the rest of us, why not? We are now seeing the health consequences of the fat-free fad that persisted through the 80's and 90's. I wonder what ailments will be evidenced in the future as a result of people excluding carbs from their diets now. As for me and mine, we choose moderation.

That being said, not all breads are created equal. Our daily bread is brown and chewy. This focaccia is a special treat and is best enjoyed the same day it is prepared in your own kitchen. I recently saw a rerun of Oprah that featured an interview with Michael Pollan. He made an excellent point that there is nothing wrong with French fries, particularly if you go through the whole rigmarole to make them at home. We naturally limit our access to foods that are time consuming and complex to make. What becomes wrong about fries is how easy and cheap it is to eat a tremendous amount of factory processed fries without even getting out of your car. I feel similarly about this bread. The effort used to make it enriches and elevates it. It is made with unbleached all purpose flour and plenty of good olive oil. This is a lovely project for a lazy weekend and really shouldn't hit my table too often. Homemade, special treats have no weirdly engineered food products and they have something no factory can add - love. I mean it. My food is good for your because I love the food and I love you.
I scaled back my baking when Mr. Dwayne and I decided we needed to do a better job controlling our weight. I actually started canning because it is similar to baking in that it is exacting, technical and offers a life-long learning curve with tasty results. Bread is something of a collaborative project because it is a living thing that may grow differently based on flour, water and humidity in addition to flavoring agents. I hope that if you are disappointed in your first attempt at bread, you will try again. Great bread is always worth the effort you've given to achieve it.
Look at all that lovely green olive oil!

This focaccia is a great beginner's bread.
Flat breads are very forgiving and lend themselves to endless variation.

I served this focaccia with basic spaghetti bolognese. Talk about a carb-o-rama! But remember, the Italians, like the French, have that paradox thing - they seem to be able to eat all kinds of yummy foods and be healthier overall than Americans overall. So stop worrying and pass the Parm!
The following day we made these gorgeous focaccia pizzas by spooning some of the leftover sauce onto the focaccia and topping with provolone. We popped them under the broiler until hot and bubbly. Best leftovers EVAH!

Focaccia
For the dough:
4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the bowl

For the topping:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Coarse or kosher salt
Coarsely ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt. In a smaller bowl, combine the warm water, yeast and sugar. Set aside until the yeast blooms - about 5 minutes. Add the water mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Add the olive oil and rosemary and kneed until smooth and elastic. I used my Kitchen Aid with a dough hook for about 7 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and kneed a couple of times to stretch the outer gluten later around the dough. Place the dough in a large oiled ball, smooth side up. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Wrap in a kitchen towel and allow to rise in at warm room temperature until doubled.

When the dough has doubled, gently press the excess gasses out of the dough, being careful to maintain the smooth gluten layer. (I hate it when recipes instruct to "punch down" the dough! Just too rough and not necessary at all!) Now you have a choice. If you are ready to eat soon, you can proceed to baking it after this one rising time. If you are not ready to eat, you can flatten your dough a few times throughout the day. I often start this on a Saturday morning and end up with three rise times before we're ready for dinner. This improves the flavor of the bread, but is not necessary. It is important to keep pressing down the dough each time it doubles. If you let it go too long the gasses will penetrate the gluten layer and your dough will collapse and loose some of its good texture.

When you are ready to eat, begin by preheating your oven to 500 degrees for at least 10 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and press out the excess gasses and reshape it into a ball. Let it rest for 10 minutes while you prepare the topping. For the topping, mix the olive oil, rosemary and garlic in a small bowl and set aside. After the dough has rested, place it on a greased cookie sheet and begin to flatten it by working it out with your fingers. The dimples that your fingers make will help hold the topping. This dough should easily stretch to fit a large cookie sheet. Brush the dough with the topping. Drizzle with any remaining topping until it is all on the dough. Sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper to taste. Bake in the very hot, preheated oven for about 10 minutes. The focaccia should be golden brown and hard on the bottom. Remove to a wire wrack to cool or serve warm.

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