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Spending the last 10 years with a bread-obsessed man have ruined me for life. What can I say -- I am a bread snob. That's why I normally stay out of bread baking. Unlike most home cooks, I don't get a kick out of the process of producing my own loaf unless the results are outstanding. This whole "Look, I made bread!" thing somehow never did it for me. I don't care if the kitchen smells homey, and I don't care if the loaf looks rustic. I only care if it can rival the best version of this bread I've ever had or at least the best version of it that I can buy in Boston (and Boston is a serious bread town).
But there are times when even an apathetic baker like me decides to mettre la main a
la pâte (put the hand in the dough) as Julia Child used to say. What usually gets me to step into this unfamiliar territory is a topping or a filling. The problem is that there are some variations of breads that I can't get in Boston, like the grape walnut focaccia we had in Vancouver, for example. It always feels like a hopeless undertaking, but sometimes, Jason succeeds in encouraging me. Since he was baking this weekend, I thought I'll join in the fun. Bread baking with Jason is not nearly as intimidating as on my own. When it comes to bread recipe interpretation, he is like my local rabbi -- strict but compassionate.
The two focaccia options were Peter Reinhart's from the Bread Baker's Apprentice and Rose Levy Beranbaum's from the Bread Bible. I've tried Reinhart's a long time ago. Like all his breads, it was only ok. Jason thinks it's because Reinhart never uses enough liquid in his recipes (making them easier to work with for a home cook), and never asks for enough rising time. Since Beranbaum's recipe sounded way more watery (as wet as a pancake batter), Jason suggested I go with that one. What does more water get you? Those lovely holes!
Before I set out on any bread baking adventure, I go over every little detail with Jason and get my plan officially approved, which seems to make a great difference in how the bread turns out. Here is what I learned from our bread baking lessons:
Things that are not flexible the first time you try a recipe:
- Ingredients: Absolutely no substitutions here. If the recipe calls for a particular type and even brand of flour, that's what you should use. This one was easy. It called for unbleached all-purpose flour. King Arthur that we normally use was one of the approved brands. The right type of yeast is important too. Pretty much all serious bread books call for instant yeast. That's the only yeast Jason uses, but if you don't have an obsessive bread baker in the house, you might not have any. I strongly encourage you to get it should you decide to bake bread since the process of using active dry yeast is a little different and will require you to deviate from the process described by the recipe. Instant SAF yeast is available in any William and Sonoma and lately, my local Whole Foods started carrying it too.
- Measurements: You have to measure everything to the last little gram. For flour, the scale is absolutely essential. Don’t even think about measuring with cups (see this post on measuring flour for more explanation). Make sure the liquids are measured correctly with the bottom of the meniscus at the line of a liquid measuring cup and are at the right temperature. Don’t pour in cold water if the recipe asked for 75-90F and vice versa. An instant read thermometer is a good idea. The three most important concepts in bread baking is precision, precision, and precision.
- Equipment: Make sure you have all the equipment the recipe calls for. This one required a heavy duty mixer, a bread stone, a 17 x 12 sheet pan, and a scale of course.
Dough rising schedule: Most great breads require a long rising time. The good news is that it’s ok to slow down and even stop the rising, just not to speed it up. The basic principle is that the higher the temperature, the faster the dough rises. Fast rising generally yields less flavor and crumb structure, so you don’t want to crank up the heat to 90F and cram the recommended 4 hours of rising into 3. But you can slow it down enough to break up the process into multiple days. For example, this focaccia recipe asked for 4 hours of rising at 75-80F to at least double the dough, and then another hour of proofing in the pan. After talking to Jason, I decided to break up the dough making and baking into two days. I let the dough rise for 2 hours at room temperature and then put it in the fridge overnight. Keep in mind that it takes a while for the dough to chill, so it will continue to rise but at a slower pace. Also, pay much more attention to how long the rises should be than how big the dough should get. It’s perfectly fine to let the dough get bigger than the recipe specifies. Mine about tripled instead of doubling during the first rise. It’s also important to remember that the yeast doesn’t get going again until the dough warms up. So the next day, my proof (rising in the pan) took 2 hours instead of 1. Understanding how this works makes bread baking much more doable on regular basis since you don't feel as confined to the house.
Toppings and fillings: this isn’t nearly as flexible as you’d think, but since that’s the whole reason I go into the dangerous dough making territory, I can’t help but improvise a little. The first time I made this focaccia, I added walnuts and grapes. The walnuts went in towards the end of mixing and actually changed the color and flavor of the dough. See how it got darker. The grapes went in right before baking. They didn't taste as good as I remembered from Vancouver, probably because they were too sweet.
Overall, this first try was surprisingly successful! The dough had a nice crust, and excellent holey crumb – way better than I have ever achieved with other breads. The two things that didn't work so well were a slight lack of salt and removing the focaccia from the pan – it got completely stuck on the bottom.
I was so encouraged by the way this dough behaved that I decided to try again the very next day. This time, I dropped the grapes and the walnuts and stuck to the original rosemary version. I also made a few little changes to fix the salt and stickiness issues. Jason said that I can start to gradually change thing as long as I document what I am doing. Did I mention that we were lab partners in college? Can you tell who was the organized one? :)
Here is what I changed on my second try:
Salt: I doubled the salt in the dough and dropped the sprinkle of salt on the outside. The original recipe asked for 3/4 tsp fine sea salt (=1 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher) + 1/4 tsp sea salt sprinkled on top before baking. The second time, I tried 3 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher in the dough and no salt on top. It was a perfect balance of flavor and that's how I'll keep it from now on.
Pan: The original recipe said to bake the dough in a 17 x 12 sheet pan. In spite of using a good bit of olive oil, my dough got stuck to the sheet and was very difficult to get out. On my second try, I baked it in a cast iron pan in two batches (half on the first day and half on the second). It was perfectly crisp and didn’t stick one bit. I imagine that lining a baking sheet with parchment paper would prevent it from sticking too, but I am not sure if it would come out as crisp.
Baking time: The original recipe stated 12-13 minutes. I had to increase this time to about 15 minutes for a sheet pan and to about 20 minutes for a cast iron pan. This was probably due to the thickness of the dough in the pan, the speed at which different pans heat up, and variations in oven temperature.
How did it taste? The plain rosemary version (my second try) was heavenly – it was the best focaccia I’ve ever tasted (including the ones I had in Liguria). I’ve been in a happy daze about it ever since! It’s the kind of feeling you get from winning a lottery (not that I know what that feels like, but I am guessing). It’s when something really wonderful happens to you out of pure luck. Bread this good should have taken much more blood, sweat, and tears. But all it took was a fabulous recipe from Rose and a few insightful tips from Jason.
My Adaptation of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rosemary Focaccia Recipe
390 grams (13.6 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour (Gold Medal, King Arthur, or Pillsbury)
3/8 tsp instant yeast (I used SAF instant yeast)
2 liquid cups minus 2 Tbsp water, at room temp (70-90F)
3/4 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1 1/2 tsp table salt)
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp fresh rosemary needles
- a kitchen scale
- a heavy-duty stand mixer with paddle attachment;
- a baking stone OR baking sheet (I've only tried it on a stone)
- 10 inch cast iron pan (OR 12 x 17 sheet pan lined with parchment paper)
- Mixing the dough (can be done 1-2 days in advance). In the mixer bowl, with the paddle attachment on low speed (#2 if using a KitchenAid), combine the flour and yeast. With the mixer running, gradually add the water, mixing just until the dough comes together, about 3 minutes. It will be very soupy. Increase the speed to medium (#4 KitchenAid) and beat until the dough wraps itself around the paddle attachment. It will start to clear the sides of the bowl and climbing up the paddle. This will take about 20 minutes of constant beating, so be patient. It's ok if it pours back down when you stop the mixer. Add the sugar and salt and beat until they are well incorporated, about 3 minutes.
- First rise (can be done 1-2 days in advance). Grease a 2 quart bowl with a paper towel dunked in olive oil. Using an oiled spatula, scrape the dough into the bowl. It will look like melted mozzarella. Oil the lid or plastic wrap and cover the container. Allow the dough to rise (ideally at 75-80F) for about 4 hours or until it has at least doubled. I let it rise for 2 hours and move it to the fridge overnight.
- Shape and proof (second rise). If using a cast iron pan, you'll have to shape, proof, and bake in 2 batches. This works well if you'd like to save half the dough for another day. It will live quite happily in the fridge for at least 2 days after it was mixed (maybe even longer, but I haven't tried). Coat the pan with oil (1 Tbsp for cast iron pan / 2 Tbsp for sheet pan). Pour half the dough into cast iron pan or all the dough into the sheet pan. Coat your hands with oil and stretch the dough to fit the pan. If it doesn't want to stretch, let it rest for 10 minutes and try again. Try not to pop the bubbles in the dough as you are stretching it. Drizzle the dough with olive oil (1/2 Tbsp for cast iron pan / 1 Tbsp for sheet pan). Cover with plastic and let the dough rise until 1 1/2 times its original volume, about 1 hour (2 if it was chilled during the first rise).
- Preheat the oven. Preheat the oven to 475F 1 hour before baking (I only gave it 40 minutes and it worked fine). Have an oven shelf at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before pre-heating.
- Bake. Uncover the dough and sprinkle with rosemary (half the rosemary if using a cast iron pan). Place the pan on the hot stone and bake until golden brown rotating the pan half way through baking time (18-20 minutes for cast iron pan / 14-15 minutes for the sheet pan). Remove from the oven, cool 10 minutes, and serve.