Homemade focaccia you won't be able to resist
It is amazing what combining different combinations of flour, water, yeast and a little salt can produce. Recently, my daughter Kailey and I had fun exploring these ingredients, and a few more, at an Italian bread making class where we learned to make grissini, ciabatta and our new favorite, focaccia. We topped ours with tomatoes, pitted green olives, red pepper flakes and fresh rosemary while finishing with a generous sprinkle of flaky sea salt. I can't even begin to tell you how hard it was to resist eating it right out of the oven.
Yeast is an intimidating ingredient for many, but please don't let that stop you from attempting to make bread or yeasty baked goods.
There are different kinds of yeast; dry, cake and quick; all varieties will help your bread rise, but the first steps of using each may be slightly different, so be sure to follow your package and recipe instructions carefully.
Dry yeast varieties need to be awakened by warm water, usually between 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you can use a thermometer to test your water temperature, but I use a method shared with me by a cooking class instructor long ago that has never failed me. Fill your measuring cup with warm tap water, place your finger in the water and if you can comfortably count to 5, it is too cool, but if you feel the need to remove your finger after counting to 3 or 4, the temperature is likely just right. You can test this by using the finger method and thermometer at the same time, as I'm sure some of us can tolerate more heat than others.
When making bread, it's crucial to use the correct type of flour, most often bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content, usually, 11 to 15 percent, as opposed to all-purpose flour at 9 to 11 percent. The higher the protein content, the better gluten formation.
Gluten is what gives bread dough its stretch and elasticity, and baked bread its chewy texture. Kneading dough develops gluten strands that trap the air produced by yeast, forcing the mixture to rise while creating air pockets within. I don't bake bread every day, so I keep my bread flour in a container in my freezer, so it doesn't spoil, and allow it to come to room temperature before adding to a recipe.
Our focaccia started with measuring flour, water, salt and yeast into a bowl. In measuring, this is where a digital scale is handy, as it allows you to use precise measurements, but traditional measuring is OK, too.
Next, we stirred the mixture together with a spoon to combine, followed by pouring it onto a clean un-floured table. The mixture was very wet, almost oatmeal like, and the first thing I wanted to do was add more flour, but our instructor encouraged us to resist this temptation, as focaccia and ciabatta doughs are supposed to be very wet. Now the kneading began, but not the typical pushing and pulling I was used to, but instead grabbing the mixture with an open hand, lifting it up off the table, and throwing it back down; almost as if bouncing a ball. We did this for eight minutes, occasionally using a dough scraper to tidy up our mess.
I will admit, this seemed to take forever, and I would advise taking your rings and bracelets off, as it was a bit messy, but it was amazing to see the pile of goo I started with turn into a thick rubbery mixture that would ultimately become the best tasting focaccia I've ever had.
After its workout, the dough needed to rest, so we poured a little olive oil into a bowl, and carefully placed our dough inside. The next step was new to me; using our hands, we folded the dough over itself top to the bottom, and then again from bottom to the top. This layering helps the oil incorporate into the dough. We repeated this folding step three more times at 30-minute intervals allowing the bowl to sit in a draft-free place in between each folding before transferring our dough into a prepared pan.
Now for the fun part, we then gently coaxed the dough into an even thickness with our fingers and topped our masterpiece with olives, cut cherry tomatoes, and fresh rosemary followed by a generous sprinkle of flaky sea salt. After another little rest and after putting our pans in the oven, we sprayed the bottom and sides of the hot oven with water. This misting adds extra crunch and texture to the outside of our finished bread.
Immediately upon removal from the oven, we drizzled our bread with a little more olive oil. The urge to cut the bread immediately was strong, but we were strongly encouraged to wait until it had cooled. Letting it cool avoids damaging the structure of the bread and allows the moisture to redistribute.
Soon we were slicing into our delicious focaccia, and it was well worth the effort. I will definitely be making this again, as it was easy enough to make often, but next time I will try other toppings like red onion, Kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
So, the next time you visit the grocery store or bakery, check out their focaccia, then buy some bread flour and yeast to make your own. It takes a little bit of time but is well worth it in the end.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.