The Best Focaccia

Marissa     Eats and Drinks         0    

I’ve been baking bread on and off for about 10 years.  Mom baked bread a lot when we were young but it dwindled until we got a bread machine in the 90s.  I loved the perfectly square pieces that came out of it!  When I first started baking, I was a complete ‘purist’ (aka glutton for punishment).  There would be no machines mixing or kneading my bread!  After many a loaf that could double as reinforcements for the house in case of a bombing raid, I finally got the hang of mixing, hand kneading and rising and made some darn decent bread.  But I also realized that there are more important things in life than avoiding machines.  So many of the recipes I had didn’t help me convert to using mixers so I was still getting a shoulder workout when Mom bought the book Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz.  Oh, the SCIENCE!  This engineer nerd immediately felt at home with the ‘formulas’ (not recipes) and the exacting instructions.  There are 10 basic formulas in the book with several variations of each.  The first one I made was the focaccia variant of ciabatta dough.  And it was so wonderful that it was many many months before I even bothered making any of the other types!

This is not a real how-to as I could simply never capture all of the information presented for creating this bread.  If you are interested in making the best bread imaginable, I really do suggest you get this book.  There is so much behind each step – how to properly measure your ingredients, what to do with the different kinds of yeast, testing for gluten, a video of stretching and folding (book comes with a DVD!), etc, etc, etc.  But I will take you through the process of creating the best bread I have ever made at home…and what my husband claims to be the best bread he’s ever eaten…but he has to say things like that!

The process starts the night before baking day.  You make a pre-ferment called a poolish.  This is a very wet mixture of dough and water with a pinch of yeast.  The poolish for focaccia is equal weights of water and flour.  I cannot stress enough how much it has changed my baking to use weights instead of volumes.  I tried the recipe once with the volume measurements (scale on the fritz) and realized how much more flour was going into the mix.  It was dry and the bread did not rise as much and the texture was quite dense, in a bad way, and the taste was ‘flatter’.  Anyway, after mixing the poolish, let it sit at 75F overnight and it should be a little bubbly and double in size.  While the official directions say to do this in a plastic bowl, I’ve taken to just mixing in the stand mixer bowl and let it rise in there since I will be adding the rest of the ingredients to it in the morning.  Less to clean up!

The next morning, get started on the project early since this will take about 4 hours and you’ll be dying for some good bread by lunch time.  Mix in the remaining ingredients to the poolish – more flour, water, some salt and yeast.  It still makes a very sticky dough, one that is nearly impossible for me to deal with using my hands.  After about 5 minutes in the stand mixer, it’s ready to go through its first rising which occurs at the unusually low temperature of 75F.  I’ve always thought all breads needed something rather warm.  Also, this recipe, as with all in the book, is about the limit of my Kitchen-Aide.  I have the older ‘low powered’ version and it’s hot and worn out by the end of mixing.

After the first 30 minute rise, you do a ‘stretch and fold’ procedure which is essentially pulling and folding the dough over on itself.  You are supposed to do this on a floured surface but I have found the dough to be so wet that I can’t really get this process to work, so I’ve taken to just pulling and folding while still in the same mixing bowl.  Again, less to clean up!  The dough rises again and again you stretch and fold.  Finally, after a third rising, you plunk the dough into oiled baking sheets.  With oil coated fingers, you then push on the dough to help spread it out, but it won’t reach the edges completely after the first time.  Let it sit for 10 minutes.

After squishing the dough every 10 minutes for 30 minutes, it’s finally stretched to the edges of the pan and you can add your toppings.  These were just herbs and sea salt, but we have explored all sorts of things including zucchini, grilled onions, olives, feta, tomatoes, etc.  A final 15 minutes of proofing and they are ready to go into a piping hot oven (having been preheated for the past hour to 450F) for about 20 minutes.

And finally, you get to eat delicious homemade focaccia, the best you’ll ever have!  I never did get a picture of the finished product from this particular batch.  I was distracted by a 2 year old!  :) Ah, but there is a picture of a piece in the Tuscan bean stew from the last post.

I highly recommend Ciril Hitz’s book to anyone who has struggled to make artisan style bread – and to people that are successful at it!  The book has something for everyone.