When I worked as a cook in a hotel restaurant, one of my tasks during afternoon dinnertime prep was to dole out plates of high-tea sandwiches and desserts as the orders ringed in. The pastry chefs would roll carts laden with sandwiches and beautiful tiny pastries into our fridge and leave us to it. The focaccia bread would be brought down at the same time and handed off to the servers to cut and fill breadbaskets.
If I was quick, I could sneak pieces of warm focaccia bread before service and let it melt in my mouth so no one would see me chewing. The focaccia bread was so incredibly soft it’s what I imagine biting into a pillow would feel like. The bottom was golden brown and crispy—like the base of a deep-dish pizza. Combine that with a springy interior, a crusty, salty top and you have everything you need from one loaf of bread.
Once dinner service started, I was too busy to stop for snacks. As a result, being hungry at the end of shifts was common, and once the last order had been completed, I'd use any opportunity to go into the fridge and scour the leftover high-tea pastry cart. It always had a mixture of mini éclairs, dainty tarts, cakes, fancy mini sandwiches, and if I was lucky, focaccia bread. All of which you could eat in two bites, which was perfect, as solo time in the fridge was rare and needed to be quick.
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The pastry chef who was in charge of making the focaccia was Stefano de Costanzo. He was the junior sous chef in the pastry department and now heads the pastry team at London’s one Michelin Star, Locanda Locatelli. When I asked him what the secret was to the tender focaccia dough, he said: mashed potatoes!
Adding mashed potatoes to focaccia bread stems from a region in Italy called Umbria. Stefano explained that the mashed potatoes add extra starch to the dough, which makes the bread more tender. He recalls his grandma Nicoletta making focaccia bread every Sunday in the evening, kneading the dough by hand. Something she has done for 30 years.
I’ve scaled down Stefano’s recipe from yielding 24 loaves of bread to one perfect loaf. Just a drizzle of olive oil and salt is all this bread needs before being baked. But don’t be afraid to get creative by adding a variety of toppings like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, Parmesan cheese, thinly sliced potatoes or fresh ricotta.