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Author Notes: A note on the photos and references to them. For some reason, their order changes every time I add a new one. That they were never stored in sequential order in the first place only makes things more exciting. I have an email in to food52's resident geniuses, and until I hear back, I apologize for inaccuracies on photo references.
In the early part of the 10 or so years I've been making this bread, I adjusted this and that here and there, determined to get it to the point of being foolproof. I finally did; this dough simply "works". Nothing tricky about it. Not that there aren't a couple of important tricks to remember.
If you're about to feel daunted by the three days required to make it, calm down and please read on. The actual time you spend actively doing much to it is pretty minimal. The yeast and flour are going to do more work than you will. The job of the poolish is to take a minuscule amount of yeast and grow it into a population that will go into the final dough and begin growing another population. The same will occur during the final overnight proofing once the bread has been shaped. Well why not just use more yeast in the first place and be done in a day, you're thinking about now. Because the great character that true focaccia has develops over timefr with the additional bacterial activity which takes place during those long, slow proofings. The great benefit of having some patience is that in the end, you'll have a world-class slab of bread.
Focaccia is a sticky dough, and you'll need to make peace with that. It's sticky because it has a much higher level of hydration than conventional one-day doughs. Those tiny amounts of yeast require more water with which to reproduce. As well, the greater amount of water encourages the additional bacterial activity which contribute to the bread's wonderful character and flavor.
The water is also partially responsible for the near magical open, irregular crumb. When the dough hits the high heat of the oven (425 degrees), it turns to steam. It is retained inside the dough as it expands, being a gas, by the strong gluten you are going to develop as you knead the dough.
You might want to make the focaccia as is at first before you start adding ingredients to the dough. Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh herbs, toasted nuts, etc. are all wonderful, but they do change the texture of the dough, so best perhaps to get comfortable to begin with. Toppings? By all means. Fresh herbs, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions, cheeses, nuts, and so on, are wonderful. Be sure to wait until the last to minutes or so of the bake time to add them, then quickly return the bread to the oven. As I mentioned, it's baked at 425 degrees, and toppings added at the begin tend to incinerate, for lack of a better term, by the time the bread is done. And that would be so sad.
Serves 1 half sheet pan, 12"x18"
- FOR THE POOLISH
- 2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 16 ounces tepid water (80 degrees)
- 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast OR 1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
- FOR THE DOUGH
- All the poolish
- 2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast OR 1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
- 2 ounces tepid water
- 2 ounces olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 4 ounces very good olive oil
- Sea or kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Make the poolish. Measure flour into a large mixing bowl. If using instant yeast, stir it in. If active dry, stir it into the water, then add the mixture to the flour. Stir it all together. It will look lumpy and shaggy and wet. That's perfect. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature overnight. By the next day, it will have changed dramatically. It will appear actively bubbly, will have a lovely glutinous texture, and will smell fantastic (photo 1).
- Make your dough. Try to do so early in the day so it has abundant time to rise. It doesn't like to be rushed. Pour all of the poolish into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add both flours and salt. Add instant yeast if using, otherwise dissolve the active dry yeast in the 2 oz. of tepid water and add. Pour in the olive oil and honey. Mix with the dough hook on lowest speed until dough comes together and all dry ingredients have been hydrated. Dough should leave the sides of the bowl, but if some sticks to the bottom, leave it alone. It's called a "foot" and every good batch of focaccia has one. It tells you that your dough is adequately hydrated. Try hard to resist the urge to add flour until it goes away.
- Turn off the mixer and cover the top of the bowl with plastic. Set a timer for 20 minutes and walk away. You're giving your bread a rest period called an "autolyse". It allows the gluten strands in the flour to absorb water without at the same time undergoing the stress of being kneaded. It's almost miraculous how, after the rest period, when you turn the mixer back on you'll find a completely different dough.
- After the rest period, remove the plastic and keep it nearby. Turn the mixer back on to low speed. You should see your dough practically stand right up and square its shoulders and it comes together in its silken glory (photo 3). Knead for 2 or 3 minutes, then stop the mixer and test for a windowpane. Pull off about a walnut-sized piece of dough and quickly round it up between your palms. Next, carefully stretch it out over your fingertips. You're trying to get it as thin as possible (think sheer) without it tearing. If successful, you've just windowpaned your dough. The windowpane tells you that your gluten is developed to the point that not only will it hold up your bread, but it will also stretch to accommodate expanding pockets of steam, also without tearing and allowing the steam to simply escape into the oven, leaving a flat, dense bread behind. If at this point you can't quite get a good windowpane, toss the knob of dough back into the bowl and turn the mixer back on. Knead for a couple of more minutes, then repeat the windowpane test. When it's there, remove bowl from mixer. Turn dough out onto your board and either pan spray the inside or wipe a bit of oil around with a paper towel. Return dough to bowl, then turn it over so that the oiled surface is on top. Cover with your sheet of plastic and allow to proof at room temp until doubled in size. This can take 2 or 3 hours, sometimes more.
- When your dough has fully doubled - photo 4 - (press the surface gently with a finger, then let go; if finished proofing, the dough will retain the impression of your fingertip; if it still feels springy, it needs to proof longer), prepare your baking sheet. Oil it generously with your favorite cooking oil (I save the good stuff for the top). Spread the oil all over, especially into the corners, with your hand. Turn your dough right onto the oiled baking sheet (photo 7). Press both your palms into the oil. Working from the center, begin pressing your dough to fill the pan (photo 5, my assistant the lovely Amanda). Have faith; it will. Always work from the center towards the edges. DON'T stretch it or tear it! After a few presses, you'll feel it "stop". Suddenly it won't press without shrinking back. The gluten has gotten tired of being pushed around and is fighting back. Stop. Back away from the dough. Let it rest for 5 or 10 minutes, then go back to it, always gently. Repeat as needed until dough has stretched to fill the pan. If necessary, pour a bit of olive oil into the palms of your hands. Rub them gently over the surface of the dough. At the point, you're just trying to prevent your piece of plastic from sticking to it (photo 6). Cover your dough and refrigerate it overnight.
- The next day, a good 2 hours or so before you plan/need to bake your bread, remove the dough from the refrigerator. It needs to come to room temperature and finish proofing. Once again, it's done proofing when it retains the indentation of your finger. When it's approaching that point, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Just before putting bread in oven, make both your hands into claw shapes. If you have long fingernails, you'll probably want to glove up for this step. Gently press your fingertips all over the surface of your dough, creating dimples which will trap your lovely olive oil (photo 6, lovely Amanda again). Pour the oil into the center of the dough (photo 8). Use you hands to spread it all over the surface; feel free to add a little more if you think you need to. Scatter sea or kosher salt over the surface, followed by several grinds of black pepper (photo 9). Place bread in oven and bake for 25 minutes, rotating at the halfway point.
- Focaccia is done when fully golden brown and glistening. Remove from oven and cool on a rack. When cool enough to handle, the easiest way to remove the focaccia from the pan is to slide a hand gently under one long edge and be sure it's loose all over, then slide it off onto the rack (photo 2).
- How to eat it? Slice it thinly and grill it (photo 12). Cut it in squares, split them through the middle and use it for sandwiches. Or, hold onto your hats, a hamburger. Once you taste a burger on focaccia, there is no going back.
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