The Mystery of Foccacia Bread

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.

Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia

Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia

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.

Foccacia dough is stickier than other bread doughs

Foccacia dough is stickier than other bread doughs

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

Foccacia sponge

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.

Foccacia

1-1/4 cup plus 2 TBS water

1/2 cup EVOO

Focaccia sponge

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!

End of the Farmer’s Market Season

Farmer’s Markets are winding down. Today was the final day until next Spring for the one I visited this morning.

This makes me sad because there are great bargains to be found at the Farmer’s Market. Today I spent $3.50 and bought a beautiful baking pumpkin, about 3/4 pound of lovely turnips, a bag of shelling beans, and three ears of end-of-the-season sweet corn.

End of the Farmer's Market Season

End of the Farmer's Market Season

But even when I don’t buy anything, I just love to stroll through the Farmer’s Markets. Where I live, there’s at least one every day of the week from spring until autumn.

All farmer’s markets are different, yet they are all the same. There’s the hectic bustle in the big produce tents contrasted by the serenity of the flower salesman, his wares splayed colorfully on the ashpalt. The plain Mennonite women in their bonnets selling homemade breads and sweets, next to entrepreneurs hawking jewelry, gym memberships or timeshares.

I often see the same two older gentlemen sitting at a folding table selling jars of suspect honey, chatting with passersby. I’ve never actually seen them make a sale, although they must sell something to afford the space rental.

In summer, children run in bursts between the aisles and down the midway, excited by the colors, smells and sounds. By autumn, the kids are safely back in school and their parents return alone or in pairs to pick efficiently through the produce, taking a brief respite from their busy days.

Day after day, month after month, year after year.

Here’s a recipe for one-pot pork roast I made with some of the produce I bought today. It’s an quick and easy dish to prepare on a quiet autumn afternoon. The quantities are purposely vague so that you can use whatever you have or don’t have on hand.

One-Pot Pork Roast

One-Pot Pork Roast

See you next year, Farmer’s Market! Sigh.

One-Pot Pork Roast

3-4 lb pork roast

1/2 TBS sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

1/2 TBS onion powder

1/2 TBS granulated garlic

1/2 TBS dried thyme

2 TBS EVOO

1-2 white onions, rough chop

3-4 carrots, peeled and rough chop

3-4 white turnips, peeled and rough chop

4-5 red potatoes, quartered

2 cloves garlic, smashed but not crushed

1 cup beef stock (or chicken stock)

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

Put cast iron pan over heat. Meanwhile, season pork roast liberally with salt, pepper, onion powder, granulated garlic and dried thyme. When hot, pour TBS EVOO into skillet. When smoking, sear pork roast on all sides until dark brown.

Put large pot over heat. When hot, add TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onion, carrot and turnip. Cook until slightly brown, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add stock and bring up to boil. Add potatoes, garlic cloves and bay leaf. Place pork roast directly on top of vegetables, throw rosemary and thyme sprigs on top, cover and place in 350F oven for 35 minutes.

Remove from oven, remove roast to cutting board and and let rest, uncovered, 5 minutes.

To plate, spoon vegetables in heap in center of pasta bowl. Slice pork into medium slices and place on top. Spoon a little of the liquid over the top of the pork. Garnish with parsley or fresh herb sprigs.

Budget Cooking – The Accidental Herb Garden

My wife and I planted an herb garden Saturday. I know, I know, it’s kind of late in the season, but it all came about by accident. We’re hoping for the best.

Although I’ve always grown a few fresh herbs in pots during the summer, I’ve never had a dedicated garden set aside just for herbs. I’ve wanted one ever since a few years ago, when my wife and I spent a memorable week at the Westward Look Resort, in Tucson, Arizona. It’s a beautiful place. Walt Disney filmed part of “The Living Desert” documentary there back in the 1950s.

During a walk there one afternoon, I unexpectedly came upon a Chef’s Garden. The resort’s chef had set up quite a large growing area along one of the many terraces upon which the resort is built on the side of a mountain. In it, he grew fresh vegetables, herbs and even flowers that he used in the resort’s restaurant.

Great idea, I thought. I’ll have to try that sometime.

Flash  forward to five years later.

About six weeks ago, our area was hit by a freak microburst storm, which caused a lot of damage and the loss of power to hundreds of thousands of homes. Among the casualties was our lilac tree, which stood 20 feet high just outside my home office window. Each spring, I would look forward to the sweet fragrance of the lilac as it wafted past my
desk.

During the storm, a party tent erected by our backyard neighbor for a graduation party was hurled into the air and crashed down into our backyard, splitting the lilac tree in two. It took about a week to clear the remnants out, and the space has been vacant ever since.

Lilac Tree Split in Half

Lilac Tree Split in Half

My wife, Sandi, and I have talked about planting a permanent herb garden in the space for weeks, but one commitment or another has distracted us from our plan until this past weekend.

I was a little concerned that none of the area greenhouses would have any herbs left this late in the season and, in fact, several we visited had nothing but annuals and shrubs left.

Just as we were ready to give up we decided to try one more greenhouse and, wouldn’t you know it, not only did they have a good selection of herbs left, but they were all priced for clearance. We got all the herbs for our garden for less than $12!

Jalapeno plant

Jalapeno plant

Now we’re growing basil, rosemary, thyme, Greek oregano, chive and flat leaf Italian parsley, in addition to a pretty little pepper plant we bought at the flea market a few weekends ago for $2.50.

There’s nothing better than running outside to clip fresh thyme or basil to add in the middle of your recipe. That always makes me think, “Now this is living.” The fresh herbs available at the grocery store seem to be expensive year round and are never as good quality as home grown. Farmers’ markets never seem to have much to offer in terms of fresh herbs.

Our vegetable garden already is overrun and half-rotting due to hot, wet weather this summer. We haven’t enjoyed the yield in tomatoes, green peppers or jalapenos that we have in prior years, although the cucumbers did well for awhile. I ‘m hoping for a nice long patch of mild weather for the rest of this summer so the vegetable plants can revive and the herb plants can take root and thrive.

Since the garden was just planted, there are plenty of spaces between the plants and Sandi did an amazing job of visualizing then creating a unique space with some leftover river rock we had and some flagstones rescued from my sister’s garage.

I’ll keep you posted.

The Accidental Herb Garden

The Accidental Herb Garden

Meanwhile, here’s a traditional summertime salad that uses some fresh herbs and vegetables from your garden. There’s nothing in the world like home-grown tomatoes, especially at the height of the season, which around here is right now.

Insalata Caprese

3-6 plum tomatoes, or whatever kind you’ve grown yourself

½ pound fresh mozzarella

6-8 large fresh basil leaves

Cracked black pepper

EVOO

1 TBS Balsamic Vinegar

Sea salt to taste

Cut the tops and bottoms off the tomatoes and cut horizontally into about four pieces each. Cut the mozzarella the same thickness.

Arrange the tomato and mozzarella slices on the plate, alternating tomato slice and mozzarella slice. With one large tomato, make one stack. If you’re using smaller plum tomatoes, make two or three stacks per serving.

Chiffonade the basil by stacking the leaves into a pile, rolling into a cigar shape, then starting at one end, use a sharp knife to cut it into thin strips. Sprinkle decoratively over your tomato and mozzarella stacks. Drizzle the EVOO and Balsamic over the stacks, then sprinkle with sea salt. Finally, crack some fresh black pepper over everything.

Now that’s living.