One of the things that inspired me most to become a chef was bread.
Bread is alive. It eats, it breathes, it grows, it changes shapes. I was drawn to the mystery of how all those things happened.
Even after studying the scientific facts of bread, and memorizing lists of what each ingredient adds to the equation, and reporting on bread faults and what causes them, I’m still filled with a sense of wonder about the whole process.
I understand how it works. I just like to think about why it works because it’s beautiful and magical.
Baking bread is one of my favorite things to do. I’ve written before about how I wish more people would bake their own bread, and how easy and rewarding it is. The aroma of baking bread fills your house with goodness.
So when I came across a recipe for focaccia bread — an oil-rich Italian flatbread that is a relative to pizza — on the wonderful Hungry in Milwaukee blog, I knew I had to try it.
Focaccia dough is stickier than most bread doughs I usually work with. It reminded me of coffee cake dough with its tacky texture.
The inclusion of a sponge starter — a little bit of yeast, water and flour made the night before that helps foccacia to get a running start on fermentation — means it will have holes of various sizes, rather than than uniformity, when you cut it open. I like that.
But the real attraction for me is that you can pack foccacia with cheese, olives, onions, tomatoes, you name it, and it is strong enough to not only hold everything together, but stand up to the flavors and not let them overpower the bread.
A side note: Normally I can find sun dried tomatoes at one of the local grocery stores, but for whatever reason there weren’t any this week, so I made my own oven-dried tomatoes. Just cut some plum tomatoes in half, use your finger to pull out the seeds, salt them, let them drain face down for about an hour, then flip them over and roast them in a slow (200-225F) oven for several hours. The result is a tomato with a highly concentrated flavor, perfect for this recipe.
Sun Dried Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia
1/16 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup plus 3 TBS all-purpose flour
Combine yeast and water and let rest 5 minutes. Then add bread flour and stir. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature 12-24 hours. Sponge will become thick and bubbly.
1-1/4 cup plus 2 TBS water
1/2 cup EVOO
1-3/4 tsp active dry yeast
2 TBS plus 3/4 tsp corn meal
3-1/3 cup all purpose flour, more if needed
1 TBS sea salt, plus more for sprinkling over loafs
4 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2″ cubes
4-5 sun dried or oven dried tomatoes, slightly rehydrated, rough chop
1 tsp dried thyme
1. Combine water, 1 TBS EVOO and sponge in bowl of Kitchen Aid mixer (or mix in bowl with wooden spoon if you don’t have one). Combine yeast, corn meal and flour in another bowl. Using dough hook, mix on low and slowly add the flour mixture to the wet mixture.
2. Add the salt and increase speed to medium. Mix until dough starts to pull away from the walls, about 6-8 minutes. Add additional flour if dough is too damp.
3. Pour TBS of EVOO into a clean mixing bowl, then use a napkin to spread the oil throughout the bowl. Turn the dough out into the bowl, then cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let it sit undisturbed in draft-free, warm place until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.
4. Gently dust a counter with flour, then turn dough out onto counter. Acting as if the round has four sides, fold the edges of the dough toward the center. Sprinkle a little more flour on top, flip the dough, then return it to another clean, greased mixing bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let double in size again, about an hour.
5. Measure out 1/4 cup EVOO, then pour evenly into two 9″ cake pans and swirl around so that the bottoms and walls are completely covered. Dust the counter again, turn out the dough again, then use a knife to cut into two equal halves. Place the halves in the cake pans then cover with a clean dishtowel and let rest about 5 minutes.
6. Use your fingers to poke holes in the dough and fill each hole with a cheese cube or sun dried tomato. Cover the pans with the dishtowel and let rest about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425F.
7. Just before putting the dough into the oven, brush with EVOO and sprinkle liberally with thyme and salt. Bake on center rack for 30 minutes, then move to lower rack for the final 5 minutes to form a crisp bottom crust. Remove from pans and cool on racks.
You can play around with different cheeses and herbs — cheddar and rosemary are a good combination — as well as vegetables, such as carmelized onions or olives. Foccacia is great on its own, or it goes well with pasta. I served mine with a gemelli in red sauce with grilled Italian sausage.
What bread recipes do you love to cook? Why not share them in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!