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Italian focaccia simplified!

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If at ANY point along the way you are unsure or have questions, contact me at JustLorrie@gmail.com and I will answer your questions!

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"Focaccia", or Italian flat bread, has a long history on the northern shores of the Meditarranean. It was customarily baked on a hot tile or earthenware disc, or even on the hot stone hearth in front of a very hot fire. As a yeasted bread, it does require time for rising and development of the gluten that gives the bread its lovely springy texture, but the dough is very light and contains only enough flour to bring it “just to the edge of knead-able”. This shortens the time it takes to rise, and baking time is likewise shorter than the average bread. Let's get started so you can enjoy a loaf today! Once you have made this wonderful bread once, you will make it again and again...It is so simple!

First, we start with the sponge. A sponge is simply the beginning of a yeast dough with only a minimal amount of flour added. Its consistency is very similar to pancake batter. We reserve the salt to add later right before kneading, as salt controls the yeast development and at the beginning we want that yeast to really take off!

Water temperature should be no warmer than 120 degrees if you check it with a thermometer. I don't usually bother with measuring the temperature exactly. As funny as it may sound, your water is plenty warm as long as it is not cold! Yeast requires warmth and moisture in order to activate, so cold water will do nothing to get your yeast breathing. Just remember that though producing a quality bread dough does require a bit of thought and careful attention, it is also not an exact science and is actually quite forgiving of minor errors. Here are your ingredients to mix together into your sponge:

1 T dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 T. sugar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup flour

Use a whisk to mix the ingredients together thoroughly, then set it aside with a towel over the bowel for about thirty minutes. If you're nosey the way I am about the progress of your sponge, you will occasionally want to peek under the towel. It's okay to peek, the sponge isn't shy and will not be harmed in any way by your lifting its blanket! You will begin to notice bubbles forming on the surface and the volume of your sponge expanding as the yeast breathes.

After that half an hour goes by, add:

3 to 4 cups more flour
1 T. salt

Now, the flour amount is slightly less than moderately not precise at all. (Humor there) I like to mix in the salt first, then add the flour one cup at a time as I mix it in with a wooden spoon. I am not religious about spoon materials, I just really enjoy using wooden utensils. As the dough begins to clump together in the center of the bowl after adding about 2 cups of the additional flour, go ahead and flip it out onto your counter top for kneading. It will likely still be quite sticky, so be ready to add in your remaining flour roughly a good-sized handful at a time. (These are highly technical bread-baking terms... “quite sticky”, “good-sized handful”, “flipping dough onto the counter top”. Bread bakers have their own lingo. Don't worry, you will learn it as you go.)

Now, kneading is like riding a bicycle: Once you get the hang of it, you couldn't forget how it works even if you tried. The first thing to remember is that if the dough is sticking to your hands in big clumps, it is still too wet. Add another half cup or so (“or so”...another highly technical term), and sort of fold the dough over it, pushing downward toward the counter top. Turn the dough and press again. Using the heel of your hand works very well. Focaccia is a very soft dough, so it's great to practice on! As you feel the dough become sticky again, add another half cup. Repeat this process a few times, noticing the change in the texture of your dough. It will become drier as more flour is incorporated, and you will feel a “springiness” develop. This is what we mean by the dough becoming smooth and elastic. When you can knead the dough without it clinging to the counter top or your hands and it springs back a bit when you make a dent with your finger, it is ready to set aside to rise. Just lightly oil your bowl with about a teaspoon of olive oil, lay your dough in the bowl and turn it over to let it rest oiled-side-up. Cover it with its towel again., feeling free to peek just like before any time you want to see how it's doing!

Now, about that towel. There are a couple of reasons for covering the dough with a towel, and here they are. Well, the two I personally think are really important...

The first is that a towel covering prevents any rogue wind storms from suddenly chilling your dough. I know, you might think there is not much chance of a frigid tornado blasting through your kitchen unannounced, but actually it takes only a very mild breeze to cool your dough and interrupt its rising. Covering with a towel keeps your dough safely nestled away all warm and cozy so breezes are not a problem. This is even more important to keep in mind if you are baking during very hot weather because many of us will have our trusty room fan blowing when summer heat hits. Remember to set your bowl of dough in an area out of the pathway of any fan-generated wind.

The second function of that towel beyond keeping wind OUT is to keep moisture IN. You don't want the top surface of your dough to dry out and form a crust at all, as that creates resistance and makes rising more difficult. Kneading a dried out surface crust into the soft dough can give the finished bread a course texture. If you live in a particularly dry area such as a desert climate, you may even consider covering your bowl of dough with a snug-fitting piece of plastic wrap in order to seal moisture into the bowl.

Once risen, take your dough and just lay it on a slightly oiled baking sheet...don't roll with a pin, just press it outward with your hands. Stretch the dough outward til about 1/4” think, then dimple it with your fingers to make lots of small indentations...or, dimples. Yup, pretty simple. Drizzle olive oil over the top, about cup in total, watching it make really cool little puddles in the dough where it settles. That is the point! Wherever the oil settles, it will help the dough form a nice chewy little “tough and chewy spot” in the bread...flavorful and full of texture. For a plain ordinary focaccia, you should just sprinkle sea salt on top (just a sprinkle, too much salt is never very good) and that is enough. Popular addends are included below...but you can think creatively and come up with your own perfect flavors!

Once pressed out and dimpled and flavored with your favorite seasonings, let the focaccia rest for just about ten minutes before baking. This just allows the dough to settle with its new additions, slightly absorb oils, etc.

Now, the perfect (lightly used term,of course!) focaccia bakes to a lightly golden brown to what Italians term their pasta “al dente”...or “just done”. This IS is important with focaccia...over-baking will make it like a toast, while under-baking will leave it doughy and definitely unpalatable. So the best advice is to bake it and watch it...yes, WATCH IT. At the earliest baking time, LOOK at it and if it is a golden brown, take it out. If it still looks pale, leave it for a couple of minutes. You want it to be a nice golden color. In the old days, this was a “look and tap test”...look at it, if it looks browned then tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it is done baking. If it sounds dull or heavy, it is still raw in the center...put it back in to bake for several minutes.

Ideally, cool the focaccia ON a towel and UNDER a towel. Hold in all the moisture that wants to escape during cooling and keep your splendid focaccia splendid!

Does this all intimidate you? If you are now thinking, “I can't do this, it is tooooooo complicated”, you are WRONG!! Focaccia is simple, and you CAN do it! Follow my directions here and if you stumble at any step along the way, let me know and I will personally answer your request and help you through the steps.

You CAN do this....bake your perfect focaccia and let me know when you do!

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