Baking Focaccia, the final result. - Photo by Harini Prakash

Myth: I cannot make bread at home

Fact:  Well, you definitely can and it is easier than baking a cake and, if you are going to make an excuse that your oven is small – think again.  Breads can be made in small sizes too.

Myth: Breads should turn out soft

Fact:  Not always. Artisan breads, loved the world over, have crusty tops and chewy insides.

Myth: I am not sure whether I can find the right ingredients

Fact: That’s one excuse no one is buying. All you need is flour, water and yeast, unless you are looking for something a little extra special.  These are usually available in any kitchen.

So what is stopping you?

Now that you have geared up, let me warn you: you need love and patience. The bread dough needs to be handled like a baby to keep those yeast bubbles intact, and needs lots of time to rise. Another word of precaution: after eating home-made bread you might never again want store bought bread!  I like to challenge people because it often brings out the best in us. Why not take a virtual trip to Italy with a tasty and simple Focaccia?  I have added tips, notes and observations wherever possible but if you still have doubts, we have the comment box below where you can ask me more about the making of this bread.

Focaccia is flat bread from Italy and resembles a pizza, but is quite different.  It has generous doses of olive oil and herb toppings which impart a strong flavour to the bread and this is what sets it apart from others.

My recipe below is adapted from the methods followed by two master bakers – Peter Rhinehart and Julia Child. There are many ways to make a quick Focaccia but the one I am sharing, is time consuming. However in the end this will prove worth the wait. Quick rise Focaccia can never match the flavour or texture of a pre-fermented one.  ‘Poolish’ is the term used to describe the starter dough that needs to be made the night before.  You can use room temperature water for the poolish, but since the weather is cold I prefer using lukewarm water during this season.

Focaccia Bread Recipe adapted from Peter Rhinehart and Julia Child Yield: 12 pieces measuring about 3 inches each

Ingredients:

For the poolish or pre-ferment (to be made the night before)

1.5 cups all-purpose flour (refined flour) ¾ cup lukewarm water (room temperature in warm climate) ¼ tsp. active dry yeast

For the bread (to be mixed the next morning) The poolish from the night before 2 cups all-purpose flour 1.5 tsp. salt (I use pink salt but any salt is fine)1 tsp. active dry yeast2 or 3 tbsp. olive oil ½ cup lukewarm water (since the temperatures are cooler in winter)

For the herb oil:

¼ cup olive oil Finely chopped sage leaves and chives – 3 tbsp. You can use herbs of your choice such as rosemary, thyme or even coriander.  I use fresh herbs as they are very easily available but dried ones work well too. If using dried herbs reduce quantity by half the measure.

For topping: 7-8 cloves of garlic, cut laterally and then cut into thin slivers (optional, but highly recommended)

Method:

Day 1: Make the poolish

Mix the yeast in three tablespoons of warm water (if you dip your finger in the water it should feel more than warm but not very hot) and set aside until the yeast mixture froths.  I cover a hot cooking pan with plate and keep the yeast on top of this during winters to froth. In warmer temperatures, it will easily activate in room temperature as well.

Take the flour in a medium-sized bowl.  Make a well in the centre and pour the frothy yeast mixture.

Mix the rest of the water and oil together.  Pour over the yeast mixture.  Mix the two liquids well with a wooden spoon, making sure that the ‘well’ remains intact.

Stir in the flour from the sides of the bowl little by little into the centre until all the flour is incorporated.  If the consistency is very thick, add two tablespoons of water and mix gently to get a uniformly thick and sticky batter.

Cover and rest overnight to ferment.

Next morning the poolish will smell fermented and look very bubbly.  If you mix it gently and try to lift the batter, it will be very adhesive and strong.

Day 2: Making the bread

Use the ingredients listed for the bread now.

Froth the yeast as you did before.

Mix the flour and salt in a wide mixing bowl or platter. Add the poolish, yeast mixture and water.

Start by stirring the ingredients together until well combined.  Now beat in a clockwise direction for two minutes. Gather the flour stuck on the sides and stir in an anti-clockwise direction for another two minutes.  Repeat in clockwise direction again, gathering the dough on the sides of the vessel into the centre.  After 7-10 minutes you will find that the batter will become more elastic, leaving the sides of the vessel but still sticking to the bottom.  It will still not be firm and will be a little drippy.

Leave it covered with cling film for one hour in a draught free area. This will be the first rise.

After one hour remove the cling film.  The batter will not be firm but easier to handle. Bring the batter in a rectangular shape with oiled palms. Pour two tablespoons of olive oil around the batter.  Place the bowl so that the longer side of the rectangle is in front of you.  Slowly place both your hands on either side of the dough and gently stretch it away from you. Be careful not to poke or tear the dough as this will damage the yeast bubbles that have formed.  Stretch it as far it goes without tearing.  Fold it back over the dough.  Now turn the bowl 180 degrees and repeat the stretching and folding. Cover the bowl with oiled cling film and let rest for 30 minutes.  This will be your second rise.

Bring the batter in a rectangular shape with oiled palms. - Photo by Harini Prakash

After 30 minutes, repeat the stretching and folding but this time the stretching should be done on the opposite sides of the batter. After each rise you will find that the dough has become firmer and offers more resistance to stretching.  This is normal and is exactly what you want to achieve.  Cover with an oiled cling film and leave to rest in a draught free spot for 30 minutes. This will be the third rise. Handle carefully and see that your palms are well-oiled.

In between the rises you should have your herb oil ready.  Simply heat the oil and add the finely chopped herbs. When the colour of the oil changes slightly, take it off the stove and let it cool.

On the fourth and final time of folding, leave the batter to rest for one hour. Handle carefully and always use oiled palms.

After one hour, the batter will be firm, with bubbles on the sides and the surface also. It should be about an inch thick. These are the signs of a good Focaccia. Do not burst those bubbles; they must be intact if you want to form a well-textured Focaccia. At this stage you can bake it immediately or refrigerate the dough for three days and use it as and when you need.  You can cut the dough into two and refrigerate one part.  Again, handle carefully and with well-oiled palms.

If refrigerating, use individual containers with oiled base and cover with oiled cling film.  If not, go to the next step directly.  I like to refrigerate and bake the bread a day later as this gives a sour flavour.

On the day of baking, pre-heat your oven for ten minutes to 250 degrees Celsius with the rack placed in the centre of the oven.

If you are baking on the same day, the dough will already be at room temperature. Oil your baking tray well.  Lift the dough very carefully and lay it on the tray. Spread your palms and hold your fingertips directly over the dough.  Quickly but gently dimple the surface of the dough, flattening it as you go, so that the dough fills the tray (not necessary except for the aesthetic value) and has an surface.  If the dough has been refrigerated, then let it thaw for two to three hours naturally until it reaches room temperature.

Pour the herb oil all over the surface and use a pastry brush to cover it evenly so that the herb fills the whole area.  The oil may form little pools over the dimples which is exactly what you want.  Sprinkle slivered garlic evenly over the bread. Again, be very careful with the yeast bubbles.

After placing the tray in the oven, reduce the temperature to 230 degrees Celsius.  Let it bake for 20 minutes or until the surface is evenly brown and the garlic is roasted to a golden colour.  If your oven works unevenly, rotate the pan after the first fifteen minutes by 90 degrees and continue baking until done.

Every oven has a different temperature setting, so, if after 20 minutes the surface has not browned, increase the temperature by ten degrees and check every five minutes until done.

Remove and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes.  You can cut it into squares in the pan itself and serve or remove the entire Focaccia out of the pan carefully and then cut into squares.  Do not leave it in the pan for very long as the underside will sweat and turn soggy.

You can serve this as a snack, cut it and fill like a sandwich or serve it for lunch or dinner with a soup.

I said it requires patience.  Now you know why!  But one bite into the crisp crust, and the chewy interior full of holes and you will never regret making this!

Harini Prakash aka Sunshinemom, is an amateur vegan food writer and photographer who is always keen to learn more. She blogs at: TONGUE TICKLERS

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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