I love bread! I think it has a lot to do with my Balkan background – I’m programmed to prefer bread over any other carb source such as rice, pasta and potatoes. If I wasn’t aware of that before, I definitely learned when I was forced to eat the low-to-no-carb diet that goes with pregnancy diabetes.
Looking back, bread seems to have been part of every meal at our house. I dipped it into cups of cocoa in the morning (Oh, my dad’s cocoa! He used to make it stirring dark, bitter cocoa powder and sugar into a little milk, heat that, and then add steaming hot milk to it until it dissolved and combined to a thick, chocolatey concoction of bliss – it was cocoa heaven, even when there was no whipped cream on top, that was only for Sundays), I munched on it with my soups for lunch, and I loaded it with all sorts of cold cuts or nice Romanian cheese for dinner. Bread was comfort, nourishment and it was ubiquitous. Back then, it was nearly always white (pîine albă – A. you know which one I’m talking about, right…?).
With my family’s emigration to Germany, that, as most everything else, changed. Obviously, this is where they know about _grains_ and they really know their business with bread. I respect German bakers, I love many of their loaves, and I make my children (as well as us) eat healthy wholegrain bread a lot. But interestingly enough, the kids will be all over fresh Baguette or Italian white bread whenever I buy it – it would seem that whether it’s because of genetics or psychology, they’re white bread lovers too ;-).
But that wasn’t what I was going to talk about. I may have more to say about bread another time. For now, I’d just like to raise my hat (sorry, been watching a lot of White Collar lately) to one of the best bakers I know – dear J., the rest of this post is actually in your honor.
J. and her family moved to Washington 1,5 years ago, to our great loss and their new friends in D.C.’s gain, no doubt. She used to make focaccias and pesto for kindergarten parents meets, which we took turns hosting at our houses. Her pesto was spectacular too, but as I’ve been making my own for ages, I wasn’t that awed by it. Her focaccia, though, was an inspiration. It was crisp but not too dry, it was moist with olive oil but not dripping with it, it was savory with coarse salt and rosemary, and we couldn’t get enough of it. If she had told me she had made it with a bit of divine intervention, I’d have believed her.
As it was, she simply told me to get over myself, and give it a shot. And I did. My first attempts were pitiful :-). Too dry or too sticky. Too little salt. Wrong kind of flour. I made all sorts of mistakes. And I whined to J. about it. And then she said, and I quote ‚The recipe calls for a whole cup of olive oil – to be poured over the focaccia. Don’t let that scare you!‘ Wow. A cup of olive oil? That would indeed not have occurred to me … So I went back and tried again. Of course I ended up with a dry focaccia, which I went on to drench in very good olive oil. I guess it was alright with a Caprese salad. But it was nothing special, and I was aspiring to that level of ‚Hold the other food, this is all I want, thank you!‘. I was a far cry away from that.
Eventually, I got tired of trying, and didn’t bother with it anymore. After all, we have several excellent Italian delis in walking distance, and who needs to be perfect at everything? I’m not that much of an overachiever…
In the meantime, I learned how to make a really nice loaf of crusty no-knead bread. All you need it 16 (!) hours of rising time and a baking dish with a well-fitting lid. Read about that online, tried it, it’s easy, it tastes awesome, done and dusted. I regularly make these loaves for parties, or as a housewarming gift for friends (bread and salt, right?).
There’s two things about this method that are strikingly different from what you might think. One, I had always thought yeast dough needed to be kneaded a lot, and two, I had always aimed for a shiny, satiny, non-sticky lump before letting it rise … both couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to making focaccia (or crusty bread, for that matter). You don’t knead that kind of dough, you simply mix your ingredients with a fork and let the yeast do its thing. If you think about it, it makes complete sense: by kneading, you press the bubbles that blow up those delicious caverns in the bread right out of it – you’ll get a fine crumb, but in this context, that’s just not going to cut it… The other important matter is that you need that dough to be surprisingly gooey – not fluid, but viscous and definitely sticky. I assure you, it’s the way to greatness. Here’s what you do.
Using a fork, combine
500 g flour
1 tsp good salt
1 p dry yeast (or, if you prefer, the fresh equivalent for that amount of flour – I don’t know my way around fresh yeast so that part’s up to you)
1/2 cup of your best olive oil
in a large bowl, using as much water and oil as needed to achieve that pasty, semi-fluid texture. Dust with extra flour, cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place to rise for at least 1 hour, or until the volume of the dough has doubled. Preheat your oven to 180 °C. Generously brush a baking dish (small square or round) with olive oil. Scrape out the viscous dough into the baking dish, punch some holes into the dough with your spatula or the handle of a wooden spoon, scatter some rosemary over the dough and put in the oven to bake for about 30-40 min. When done, take out of the oven and pour a healthy drizzle of olive oil over the still hot focaccia. It should soak up all the oil nicely, but don’t overdo it – you should still be able to mop up sauce with that focaccia. You’ll know when it’s enough :-). Once cooled, you can scatter some coarse sea salt on top.
Focaccia is also very good with sun-dried tomatoes, olives or garlic – simply push little pieces of tomato or whole pitted olives into the dough, or scatter with fine slices of garlic before baking.
Please do give it a shot – it’s easy, and it’s such a great skill to have under one’s belt. It’s also quick to make for surprise guests, or a hungry bunch of kids who inform you sometime in the afternoon that they’d all like to stay for dinner …
You can – should you have any left overs the next day – make very decent sandwiches with this, or use it for bread salad.
Buon appettito everyone!