Many years ago I bought focaccia (pronounced foh-KAH-chee-uh) bread from a former restaurant owner who made the best I’d ever tasted. Once when I was catering a wedding for 125 guests, I placed a large order. Placing orders always gave me slight cause for concern because I never had to give my name or phone number, just the pickup date and time, afternoons only. Leaving me a bit anxious, but my orders were always filled.
I’m wedded to the kitchen on the day of catering parties, so Nick picks up any last minute items. A few hours prior to the party, Nick headed downtown to the focaccia baker’s new location, (over the years the man behind the delicious Italian flatbread moved around) an unattractive strip mall situated in a beautiful historic part of the city. From a distance, Nick spotted the CLOSED sign on the door and panicked, and when he telephoned to tell me, I panicked as well. Hmm … what to do? I thought about ciabatta, focaccia’s not too distant cousin. Ciabatta is elongated, broad and flattish, with a crispy crust and a chewy-yet-soft interior, it's airy, rather light and has lots of holes like focaccia. Seemed like the ideal replacement and it turns out it was. But this harrowing experience, (focaccia, the bride and grooms favorite, was the only selection slated for the sandwich bar) forced me to learn how to make this bread.
I never attempted making it in the past because the process seemed complicated and daunting, a task best left to professional bread bakers, like the one I'd been buying from for years. It took me a long time before I got enough courage to prepare it, but I'm thrilled I did. I’ve been making bread for years and surprisingly focaccia is about the simplest to prepare. And like most home-baked breads it’s so incredibly rewarding! So I encourage you to give it a go and don’t be daunted by the long directions; follow them step-by-step for an easier than you would believe, extraordinary bread. By the way, we never did find out what happened to the focaccia baker!
Helpful to know: Plan ahead. The dough needs to slowly ferment in the refrigerator overnight and more prep and rising time will be required the following day, but trust me, this will be a labor of love that won’t disappoint you! This focaccia is fantastic sans toppings but many ingredients can be successfully added to the loaf; topping amounts are a matter of personal preference.
OPTIONAL ADD-ON IDEAS MENU
Thyme, Sage, Basil, Oregano and Rosemary
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
The possibilities are endless!
5½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 package active dry yeast
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus extra for sprinkling just prior to baking (day 2)
2½ cups cold water
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, yeast, 1 tablespoon salt and water. Mix ingredients with your hands. The dough will be extremely sticky, so please don’t think you've done something wrong! This is the correct consistency of the dough at this point in the recipe. Knead dough for about 3 minutes and let it rest for 5 minutes. Knead for another 2-3 minutes. The dough will be somewhat smooth, but still very, very sticky. This is also correct; you're doing great!
Place dough in another large bowl and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil; turn dough to coat on all surfaces. Grab a large portion of the dough with one hand, hold it above the bowl and allow it to stretch out until it doubles in size; repeat this process 3 more times. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the dough then turn it over and wrap bowl with plastic wrap. Cover with a kitchen towel and refrigerate overnight.
The following day …
Parchment paper for lining baking sheet
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Approximately 3-4 hours before you plan to bake the bread, line the bottom and overlap the sides of an 11½ x 16½ x 1-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; coat the paper with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Transfer dough to the parchment paper using a rubber spatula. Drizzle the dough with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Starting in the center of the dough, splay your fingers and make indentations over the surface of the dough, creating hollows as the dough is moved down and out toward the edges of the baking pan. When dough begins to resist, let it rest for about 20 minutes.
Drizzle another 2 tablespoons olive oil over the dough and repeat the last process until the dough nearly reaches the edges of the baking pan. Dough doesn’t have to be snug in each corner; it will do this naturally during the next rising. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap then top the plastic wrap with a kitchen towel. Place the pan on a wire rack and allow dough to rise for about 2-3 hours.
Approximately 30 minutes prior to baking …
Preheat oven to 475°. Sprinkle focaccia with kosher salt and place baking pan in middle of oven; reduce temperature to 450° and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer focaccia to wire rack and cool for about 10 minutes before cutting. Fantasticca! Yield: One 11½ x 16½ x 2-inch flatbread.