Still celebrating International Week of Italian Cuisine I’ve decided to share with you one of Italy’s best-loved breads, the focaccia. Italians have created a practical but delicious way to cure a hunger pang when you’re out and about taking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful country. As we all know nothing fills you up faster than bread so when roaming around Italy you’re bound to see locals snacking on a piece of focaccia that usually sells for about a euro a piece. Bakeries in Italy make a killing every day selling pieces of focaccia to people from all walks of life from the man in the Armani suit, to the girl walking home from school. This simple and “dimpled” bread is loved by Italians the world over.
Focaccia is traditionally a yeast bread that is (in my humble opinion) very easy to prepare hence I chose to start with this particular bread to set the ball rolling for other yeast risen dough recipes in the future. In most Italian bakeries the focaccia is prepared in the simplest way with a dash of salt and flavoured with olive oil but there are insurmountable ways to heighten the flavour with a more contemporary twist. While the dough itself is consistently flavoured with olive oil, the unbaked bread can be finished with various toppings of herbs and vegetables. Here I’ve used the peppers from the Bell Pepper Preserve I made a few days prior but you can use an array of ingredients of your choice. Thyme and onion is big in our home as well rosemary and garlic while olives and tomatoes are of course, a popular Italian front-runner .
Before we go onto the actual recipe though there a few rules we have to learn before attempting to make yeast risen bread. In the section Some Kitchen Knowledge I talked about the various types of flours and how they are distinguished. A strong flour is the most preferable flour for bread making which is usually called bread flour or graded in certain countries according to its strength. For instance 00 (double zero) is considered a strong flour and therefore a bread flour, here in Italy recognising bread flour is easy, it’s basically called manitoba in reference to the hands (mani). Bread flour forms a high quality, strong gluten which is what allows flour to stretch and become elastic when it touches water. Yeast risen dough for bread relies heavily on this factor so that the dough can form a gluten network or matrix to trap gas bubbles produced by the raising agent, yeast.
This brings us to another important key ingredient to bread making, the yeast. Yeast is the reactive agent which allows the dough to rise and form pockets of air. Now while there hundreds of different types of yeasts available the two most commonly used yeasts in bread making are dry yeast and fresh yeast and since they both come from the same family of yeasts there is not much difference between using either or . The only notable difference I’ve discovered is that fresh yeast is already active therefore the amount used is substantially smaller than if you were to use dry yeast for the same amount of flour. Dry yeast is inactive and sometimes many of the yeast cells are already dead therefore the quantity of dry yeast would be more. It is important to note that seven grams of dry yeast will achieve a properly risen dough when using around 300 – 350 grams of flour. As a rule of thumb remember that very hot water kills yeast cells rendering them useless while warm or tepid water starts to activate yeast cells. Always remember this rule so that you never make the mistake of adding very cold water or very hot water to yeast. To speed up the activation process a sugar is necessary even when making a savoury dough.
The same can be said when proofing your dough. Proofing is the fermentation process of the yeast which causes the dough to rise. Yeast manifests in warm places so if you want the dough to rise well, always allow your dough to proof in a warm place and watch the magic happen after some thirty minutes or so when the unbaked dough starts to double in volume. There are different stages in proofing time. I though simply refer to it as the first rise (bulk rise) and the second rise. The first rise usually takes place after the kneading process is complete. The dough is left in a warm place or sometimes even in the fridge depending on what method and bread you require. During this time the dough is relaxing and forming the “stretchiness” or elasticity that is needed to be shaped accordingly. The dough starts to trap in gas bubbles and becomes easier to work with. The general rule is that when the dough has doubled in volume the first rise is complete. The dough is then ready to be shaped after the gas has been punched out (my favourite part). Once the dough has been shaped it is then ready for its second rise and like I said before it depends on the type of bread you are making. Traditionally focaccia needs only two rising stages. Once the dough is shaped, the second rise will allow it to bloom rewarding the bread with a delicious lightness. I find it amazing.
Some time in your life you may have heard of no-knead bread recipes and in fact they are very good breads out there that can save you the effort of kneading by hand. The main factor to no-knead recipes is that the dough must be left for about 24 hours to proof in a cold temperatures. During this time the gluten forming proteins are working by itself with the excess water to form the elasticity which would have been accelerated by the kneading process. Of course if you wish to make bread, bake bread and eat bread all in the same day then kneading is the all important element to make it possible. What kneading does, is it helps the gluten in the flour to form a mesh structure and this structure traps in the gas bubbles produced by the yeast. Without this structure there would be no place for the air to be trapped and for the dough to rise hence the importance of kneading. So simple bread basics revolves around four major factors that work together, strong flour, yeast, kneading and proofing. Once you understand this process, the smell of fresh bread baking will become a part of your kitchen.
Like I said in Some Kitchen Knowledge you can knead bread dough by using a stand mixer or you can knead by hand. Some breads take more time than others and in my personal opinion those are the doughs that should go into a stand mixer. For instance a chewy bread like a baguette gets its inherent chewiness from the longer knead and that’s when a stand mixer can be very handy. The same can be said for sandwich bread because when making sandwich bread you are often dealing with bulk quantities. Why? Simply because you don’t want to go through all that trouble of making home-made sandwich bread only for one loaf. Two or three loaves should be made at once and because there is a whole lot of kneading that goes on during the slow incorporation of the flour to make sandwich bread dough, it is best to whip out the stand mixer. For bread like focaccia a good hand knead works perfectly because softer bread requires less kneading also kneading bread by hand can be quite gratifying so you’ll certainly want to perfect this by hand.
In light of all the explanation involved in bread making I must finally add that I have such a deep respect for bread whether its bought or made at home, we can’t deny that it has been the sustenance of life in every nation, every tribe and every culture around the world. It is the basis of why mankind exists today for even in its most simplest form it has managed to sustain generations upon generations of strong men and women. There is no place on earth, no corner of the globe where people have not found a way to make their bread of choice to feed their families and keep their communities alive. It truly is the life-line to human existence and we should be so grateful every time we take a bite of bread. It is because bread exists that many of us have never known profound hunger. With that said, let’s bake bread!
For the Dough
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 2 tsp fine salt
- 14g instant dry yeast
- 450g bread flour + 50g for dusting
- 300 ml warm water
- 80 ml olive oil
For the Topping
In the recipe above I’ve used 100g of roasted bell pepper preserve + 50ml of flavoured oils from the jar however if you do not have these ingredients herein I have included a different variation. To find the Bell Pepper Preserve recipe go to the home page. Below however is a list of ingredients for another variation.
- 1 large onion sliced
- fresh thyme sprigs
- fresh rosemary sprigs
- 1 large garlic pod finely chopped
- 20g sliced black olives
- 50ml olive oil
- 1/4 cup of water
- Salt to season
- Mix together all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl excluding salt.
- In a separate jug mix water and oil.
- Slowly pour oil and water into the flour mixture and using a knife begin to mix.
- Add salt and mix again.
- Once the mixture forms a dough and resembles a ball, turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes.
- To begin the kneading process fold the dough in half and push the dough out with the heels of your hand. Turn the dough a quarter of a turn and continue kneading in this motion for the full 10 minutes.
- After, place dough in a bowl that’s been greased with a little olive oil and let it rest for an hour in a warm place to double in volume. Make sure to cover with a clean damp tea towel to prevent the surface of the dough from drying out.
- Grease an 18×24 inch baking tray (regular oven tray for a 60cm stove/cooker) with olive oil.
- Place the proofed ball of dough onto the greased tray and push out the air.
- Using your fingers gently start to press the dough and spread it onto the sheet pan taking care not to tear the dough.
- If the dough does not stretch to the full length of the tray do not despair. The dough will inflate and fill the tray during the second rise.
- Mix together all of the ingredients for the toping with olive oil and salt until well seasoned.
- Now use your fingers to poke dimples into the dough. These dimples will act as water holders for the final drops of water the dough needs.
- Brush the dough with a little olive oil and scatter the desired topping over the dough
- Leave to proof for 40 minutes in a warm place.
- Once the dimples have been poked throughout the dough sprinkle the quarter cup of water over the dough especially the sides.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 160° gas fan / 180°C electric fan / 200°C conventional for 30-35 minutes.
- Focaccia is best served at room temperature.
Maestros Need to Know *It is very important to note the length of time bread dough needs to be kneaded in order to obtain the perfect result. The length of time mainly depends on the bread in question which will go according to recipes and experience. Most commonly though the average kneading time is 10 minutes. What you want to make sure not to do is over knead your dough or in contrast under knead it. Two things can happen, under kneaded bread means that the structure to hold in the air pockets will not be thoroughly developed resulting in a flat bread. While dough that is kneaded for too long will result in a very stiff bread. *So the question is how do you tell when the dough is ready. My best advice in this regard is to look out for a dough that is smooth and elastic. However we are not professional bread makers so you are welcome to test the dough by pulling off a piece and try to stretch it in the air into a square, it stretches easily without tearing it is ready. If not try kneading it again and proofing it again.