Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Best Focaccia Bread...EVER!

The meal plan this week features 2 recipes that call for focaccia bread. I almost picked up a couple of focaccia rounds from the grocery, but with the ingredients already available in my pantry, there was really no reason not to just make my own. So tonight begins a series of three posts. First, the how-to for this awesome focaccia. Tomorrow, I'll use it in a tomato bread salad. And on Friday, I'm making a focaccia pie!

Back in June, I baked my own focaccia bread for the first time. You can check it out HERE in my post about Focaccia: Four Ways. I used a recipe from The Best Ever Italian Cookbook. However, when I did the write up for the dinner club where I served the focaccia, I stated that I was less than pleased with the chewy result and would be shopping for another focaccia recipe. Well, I've been shopping...and I think that I've finally found THE focaccia recipe for me. Today's focaccia loaves turned out perfectly!

A few weeks ago, I checked out Surfing the Menu: Two Chefs, One Journey: A Fresh Food Adventure from my local library. I admit that I didn't check out the cookbook in search of the perfect focaccia recipe. If I'm being truthful, the sole reason that I checked out this book is that it was co-authored by Curtis Stone. Anyone remember The Take Home Chef on TLC? On the Take Home Chef, Curtis and the TLC film crew descended upon unsuspecting supermarket shoppers. Then he'd help the shopper select ingredients and return with them to their home kitchen to whip up dinner for their family and friends. You might also remember Curtis Stone's most recent television endeavor from last season's The Celebrity Apprentice. If you're a fan of either show, then you're probably familiar with Curtis Stone. Back in the day, I may or may not have fantasized about Curtis coming up to me in the supermarket and asking (in that cute Australian accent) "Who are YOU cooking for tonight?" If this had really happened I might have melted on the spot. Not only is Mr. Stone easy on the eyes, but he's an amazing chef too!

"Surfing the Menu" takes seasoned chefs Curtis Stone and Ben O' Donoghue back to their native Australia in search of fresh inspiration. It's as much a travel guide for "The Land Down Under" as it is cookbook, with descriptions of the places visited, the local fresh ingredients, and recipes inspired by the region. I appreciated that there were plenty of pictures of the gorgeous scenery, the food, and...Curtis Stone. : )

On page 121, Ben O'Donoghue comes up with this focaccia bread recipe while visiting the monastery town of New Norcia. According to "Surfing the Menu", rosemary grows "everywhere" in New Norcia, so I thought it appropriate that I sprinkled both of my loaves of focaccia with this herb. Plus, I love rosemary in bread. I almost always sprinkle my pizza dough with rosemary before I pop it into the oven.

I took some liberties with this recipe. For example, it calls for more than 4 cups of semolina flour, but there was no semolina flour to be found at my local supermarket. Semolina flour is the coarsely ground endosperm of durum wheat. Never bleached and high in protein, it is used to make the highest quality "white" pasta. But it can also be used to add extra flavor and texture in some bread recipes. I settled for using only bread flour in this one. Bread flour is unbleached flour made from a special blend of wheat higher in protein than the wheat used in all-purpose flour. Protein produces gluten, which gives the desired loftiness or chewiness required in products like bread and pizza crust. It absorbs greater quantities of water and has a more elastic dough-handling quality than all-purpose flour too. The bottom line is that bread flour produces better volume and crumb structure in bread than other types of flour. It definitely worked for this recipe!

Here's what I used to make this focaccia dough: Bread flour, 2 packets of active dry yeast, warm water, olive oil, salt, and a pilsner beer.

I didn't follow the "mix by hand" instructions in the recipe either. I used my KitchenAid mixer. Sure, I could've mixed the dough by hand, but this was easier and I use any excuse available to fire up my KitchenAid mixer! I poured the 2 1/2 cups of warm water into the mixing bowl with 4 cups of flour.

Then I blended until smooth.

I'm accustomed to proofing my yeast before adding it to the bread recipe, but the recipe notes assured me that the beer would stimulate the yeast, so I poured it directly into the mixing bowl. Mix until combined.

Now for the beer. The recipe called for 3 1/2 oz. or 100 ml of a pilsner beer. I picked up the only pilsner available at my local ALDI. It's a German Pilsner called Wernesgruner that retails for $6.99/6 pack. It's just okay. I don't know if I'd pick it to drink with dinner, but it worked great in this recipe. Stir in the beer and wait for the mixture to "activate". I let it sit for 5-10 minutes. I didn't really notice a big change or an wasn't like when yeast gets foamy on the top as it proofs before you add it to a recipe. After waiting around for a bit, I deemed the mixture "activated" and pressed on with the recipe.

I added the remaining flour and the salt, mixing until the dough formed a sticky ball.

Then I turned it onto a floured surface. I use The Pampered Chef Rectangular Pastry Mat. Love it!

Knead the dough with floured hands for 8-10 minutes, until springy and smooth. Kneading (and rolling) dough is hands down my daughters' favorite kitchen activity. No pun intended. They like it even better than making cookies!

Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. While you rest the dough, prepare 2 baking sheets, dusted liberally with flour (the recipe called for semolina flour). I used bread flour and corn meal to give the focaccia a little extra crispness. I was concerned with putting the dough onto floured baking sheets, rather than oiled sheets. It turns out that my concerns were warranted. I'll get to that later...

After resting, divide the dough into two equal parts.

Roll each portion out to an oval with about 1 inch of thickness. This really doesn't require much rolling. Don't roll it too thin. You're going for a soft bread with a crisp crust, not a cracker.

Transfer the focaccia to the prepared baking sheets and using your fingers, press dents into the dough, all over the surface. Unlike the focaccia that I made earlier this summer, this dough seemed to spring right back from these finger pokes. You can't really see them in the picture, but I promise, they are there. Pat your toppings into the surface now. I sprinkled rosemary onto both, and then sliced red onions for one of them.

When she saw what I was doing, my toddler took a break from playing dress up and decided that it was her sole purpose in life (or at least for the afternoon) to press onions into the focaccia dough. She took it very seriously. When she'd finished pressing the onions that I'd sliced, she begged me to "slice more!"

Cover the baking trays with tea towels and put them somewhere warm until the dough nearly doubles in size. It should take 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Before baking, drizzle 1/4 cup of olive oil over each focaccia loaf. (I used a pastry brush to evenly distribute the oil over the dough.) Sprinkle some sea salt and freshly ground pepper over the top. Then bake the loaves at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes until cooked and golden brown.

These baked up beautifully!

Only one problem...they stuck to the pan. Remember that I was worried about floured baking sheets rather than oiled? Here's the thing, preparing the sheets with flour and cornmeal did lend itself to a nice, crisp focaccia crust. But if you decide to use flour and/or cornmeal, then be sure to use it liberally. If not, I think that a nice layer of oil on the sheet would work well too. Use a spatula to loosen the bread from the sheet and transfer the loaves to a rack for cooling.

This bread was wonderful on it's own. It would also be great dipped in olive oil mixed with dipping spices. My family loved it! I was on the phone with a friend when I took the first bite. I started raving about how it was "the best bread ever". "What's up with you and all of these bread recipes lately?" She was referring to the Monterey Ranch Bread from last night. I didn't miss a beat before answering, "Didn't you know? It's my goal to gain 100 lbs. before the New Year." I might be joking, but with Monterey Ranch bread and this focaccia in my life, this exaggeration might not be too far-fetched.

The focaccia was also the star of this amazing Tomato-Bread Salad that I will feature tomorrow. It was SO good!

Now I can't wait to make the focaccia pie!

Focaccia adapted from Surfing the Menu

8 cups bread flour, plus more for kneading and dusting
2 1/2 cups warm water
2 packets (1/4 oz each) active dry yeast
3 1/2 oz. pilsner beer
1 tbsp. salt
1/2 cup olive oil
cornmeal for dusting
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toppings: rosemary, roasted garlic, olives, sun dried tomatoes, parmesan cheese, caramelized onion, raw red onion (optional)

1. Place 4 cups of flour in a large bowl. Add in warm water and mix until smooth. Mix in the yeast until blended. Add beer. When the mixture starts to activate, add the remaining flour and salt. Form a loose dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until springy and smooth, 8-10 minutes. Rest for 5 minutes.

2. Divide the dough in half. Dust two baking sheets liberally with flour and cornmeal. Roll each portion out to a flat oval shape about 1 inch thick. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Push holes into the surface of the dough using fingertips. If using a topping, pat into the surface now. Cover with clean, dry tea towels and let rise in a warm, breeze-free spot until almost doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Before baking, drizzle 1/4 cup olive oil over each focaccia. Use a pastry brush to evenly distribute oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until cooked and golden, 20-25 minutes. Immediately transfer to wire racks to cool.


Kim said...

I love the picture of your daughter adding the onions! We should all wear princess costumes while cooking:)

I have been seeing quite a few bread recipes that call for beer lately. And, everyone seems to really like the results. It looks like the extra yeast in the beer makes the dough rise high and probably results in a better tasting bread. It certainly looks delicious Krista!

Not that you'll have leftover focaccia, but if you makes the best breadcrumbs. So much more flavor than regular breadcrumbs.

teresa said...

so gorgeous! i love focaccia bread, this looks delicious. my little girl used to LIVE in princess dresses. i'm kind of sad to discover that she's outgrowing them.

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