Sun, 7 April, 2019
Focaccia is the best bread, even when plain or just sprinkled with rosemary. The classic Italian bread is an easy dough to make and whether it has sun dried tomato, anchovy or cheese topping, or simply rosemary and salt flakes, it is incredible.
My first focaccias were the flattish greasy bread rolls with unnecessary rosemary on top that I used to buy for lunch in the sandwich shop across the road. I would have them filled with salt beef, gherkin and Emmental cheese – what multicultural sandwiches I used to eat!
I must have had some at least once or twice on my several visits to Italy but I was probably generally so blown away by food that I didn’t focus on a lesser issue of bread. That’s what focaccia is: the staple of, foremost northern, Italy. The English think of ciabatta as a byword for Italian bread but ciabatta is only ever a failed focaccia, neglected at stretching, skimped on oil and un-dimpled.
Before I tackled this beauty I’d made a twisted, sweetened focaccia with blueberries; I’d baked fougasse, focaccia’s French cousin and I’d baked several ciabattas. A few times I’d also poked leftover pizza dough with my fingers, drizzled with a few drops of olive oil and thought I’d created focaccia - but I was foolishly wrong.
Focaccia is possibly the best bread in the world. It is versatile as far as toppings go so you can get a different flavour every time. It’s easy to make, no food processor is needed and about as labour intensive as picking your nose. Even the pernickety sourdough aficionados might be persuaded: look, there’s 3 grams of fresh yeast or a pinch of instant yeast in the dough. It ferments slowly overnight so the bulk of the rise is done by wild yeast – the baker’s stuff is there only to give them an initial nudge. Focaccia is irresistible warm and almost as good after a couple of days thanks to all this oil. Also thanks to that it makes butter superfluous thus making it spectacularly permissible to gorge on, caloriewise.
This is proper Ligurian (aka the best and authentic) recipe that featured in Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Netflix series; with Diego the focaccia maestro doing the kneading, dimpling and brining. I don’t know what I fell in love with first: the bread or the spectacular Ligurian scenery (it was the bread). I cut the amounts down here as in the original, after the Italian fashion, they make enough for a village. I’ve made it several times trying to meet the challenge of textbook dimples but I’m still striving. But the thickness is right – according to Diego, Ligurian focaccia shouldn’t be thicker than about an inch. Phew.
rosemary focacciaServings: 1 large focacciaTime: 2 hours plus proving overnight
- For the dough:
- 300ml (1¼ cup) water at room temperature
- 3g fresh or ½ tsp instant yeast
- 15g (1 tbsp.) honey
- 25g (2 tbsp.) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 400g Italian 00 flour or strong bread white flour
- 9g (1 tbsp.) coarse crystal sea salt plus more for sprinkling
- 2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
- For the brine:
- 1 tsp (6 grams) coarse crystal sea salt
- 60ml (¼ cup) warm water
1. Mix the dough the night before baking. Stir the yeast and honey into the water in a jug, add the 25g olive oil.
2. In a very large bowl stir together the flour and the 9g salt. Gradually mix in the liquid, stirring the dough with a spatula or your hand until just combined. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave at room temperature to prove for 12-14 hours.
3. The next day prepare a 15 x 10 inch (38 x 26cm) or similar rimmed baking tray brushing it with olive oil. Gently scoop the dough with oiled hands and stretch and fold it onto itself. Pour it into the tray and drizzle with 2 tbsp. of oil. Stretch it gently, oiling more as needed, to cover the tray by grabbing the underside of the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes. If it shrinks back, stretch it gently again in 10 minute intervals.
4. Prepare the brine by mixing the salt into water. Make sure the dough covers the whole surface of the tray and make dimples all over by pressing down with tips of your fingers into the dough. Pour the brine over the dough into all the dimples, taking care not to let the brine run underneath the dough; it will make it stick big time. Leave it in warm kitchen to double in volume and bubble up, for 45 minutes.
5. Immediately preheat the oven to 235°C/450°F/maximum gas. Place a baking stone or a heavy baking sheet, inverted, on the middle rack.
6. When the focaccia has risen, sprinkle it with the chopped rosemary and with the coarse salt crystals. The surface will dry out slightly but the brine should still be pooled in the dimples. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until the focaccia is golden and crisp on top and crusty underneath (peek under using a spatula or palette knife).
7. Remove from the oven and drizzle 3-4 tbsp. of olive oil over the bread, brushing it all over the surface and making it pool in the dimples. Wait 5 minutes until the oil is absorbed, then remove focaccia onto a wire rack and cool further.