Updated: May 18, 2020
I hate to buck the trend (I love to buck the trend) but as everybody seems to be getting into sourdough I've regressed, rebelled and resolved to get back into focaccia, which - in my controversially held opinion - is probably the best bread of them all.
I have a long and chequered history with bread making. I worked as head baker at Spring for a year, using good old Tartine methods to make 40 or so loaves daily; one porridge sourdough and a lovely seedy rye bread. I also worked at Peter's Yard in Edinburgh and made some delicious breads whilst I was studying for my masters way back. I helped out my friend Dan (who runs the very good bakery, The Almond Thief) for a summer when he was setting up. I was obsessed with sourdough for a long time, from about 2009-2014. I used to be one of those people that maintained a starter and really baked sourdough regularly at home.
But things change, and for better or worse, I am no longer that person.
Now don't get me wrong, I love and appreciate ALL bread, and all the amazing bakers out there making it too, but my own bread-making has inevitably downsized and downscaled to suit my way of life. I live alone, and as much as I love bread and am happy to eat it with almost every meal, making sourdough regularly and maintaining a starter is currently just too much admin for me.
I may well change my mind at some point in the near future (I almost always do) but in the meantime I thought I'd go back to basics and master a really, really good focaccia.
Focaccia is one of the best breads in the world. When made well it has a crisp, oily exterior and a custardy, sweet and chewy inside. It's really the perfect companion to anything, which, is after all, what bread is designed for (the word companion comes from a combination of the Latin words 'com', with, and 'panis', bread). It's uncomplicated enough to be eaten with any and every thing, which is not something I would say about rye bread, for example, or even many sourdoughs. It's good (exceptional, even) fresh out of the oven, it's amazing toasted the next day and eaten with jam and ricotta, or even with peanut butter or Nutella, and it makes the best croutons (doubly oily and crisp) that you could ever wish for.
It's also incredibly adaptable. And incredibly easy. No special shaping required, no elaborate cuts, no fancy flours, no special baskets, no extra flour; just your hands, four simple ingredients, and then lots of oil, and rosemary if you wish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly I am a puritan about the topping of focaccia. I don't like onions on there (they always burn) and tomatoes make it soggy. If you want toppings I think pizzette (mini pizzas) are a much better way to go, as these you can roll out nice and thin so they are not made soggy in the same way by a wet topping ingredient. I almost always add rosemary because it adds an interesting edge even when you want to eat the focaccia the next day for breakfast with jam or honey. Sometimes I add extra salt flakes, and sometimes I don't.
This recipe, which I have been tweaking and working on over about 6 months is very, very simple and very, very good. It requires no 'biga' (or poolish, both of which are an overnight leaven which you then mix into the final dough). Its goodness is created by a very wet, silken dough (touching this dough is true ecstasy) and a very slow rise. BUT - and this is an important but - you don't have to worry about scheduling in your rise because you just bung it in the fridge and forget about it.
What more could you ask for?
So, as this is a slow rise, you need to begin the process the day before you want to eat your focaccia.
I suggest beginning at about 6/7 pm the night before. This way, your focaccia will be ready for lunch the following day.
Here's how to do it.
500g OO flour
4g fresh yeast
150 ml extra virgin olive oil
few sprigs of rosemary
Mix the dough the evening before you want to bake your focaccia. Add the yeast to the flour and crumble it in with your fingertips until there are no lumps left, as if you were rubbing butter into flour for pastry or scones. Add the water to the flour and mix well with your hands until a smooth dough is formed. Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl so that the dough is whole, and there are no sticky bits around the bowl.
Cover and leave for 30 minutes.
Add the salt and the water and mix it into the dough with your hands, by stretching and folding the dough, pulling sections of it outwards and then folding them over themselves (you can do all of this with the dough still inside the bowl).
Cover and leave for another half hour.
Over the next 2-3 hours, stretch and fold the dough over itself (always in the bowl) every half hour or so, whenever you remember to. There is no need to be too precise about exact half hours, but make sure it has 3 stretch and folds in total. If you are unsure about the method for this, you can watch a jolly Youtube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTo_Ho5C6sk
Now cover your dough with cling film and place it in the fridge to rise overnight.
The next morning remove the bowl from the fridge and gently scrape the dough out into a well olive-oiled baking tray (your dough should be sitting in a good pool of oil, not touching the tray itself at all).
Stretch the dough to form an oblong to fit your tray and then cover and leave for 2-3 hours, in a warm place, until the dough has come to room temperature, and has risen well and is full of air bubbles.
Preheat the oven to 220. Dimple your focaccia using the tips of your fingers, and then drizzle over the remaining oil and some torn rosemary, and extra sea salt if using.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden all over.