"Good bread needs more than just flour and water, milk, or eggs. It requires nurturing and care." – Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book
I sometimes think I could draw a timeline of my life based on phases I’ve gone through. Several of my earliest years, for example, could be captioned with titles like ‘the Sesame Street sandals phase’, ‘the My Little Pony phase’, and ‘the reading Sweet Valley High under the covers by flashlight phase’. These would be replaced further down the line by ‘the tomboy, dreams-of-being-a-professional-baseball-player-phase’, ‘the inspired-by-Ghost pottery class phase’, and later, ‘the tie-dyed everything, radical vegetarian phase’. Filling in the gaps there were many, many others, some worth remembering and many not, though admittedly most are good for a cringe or two now. One of my longest-running phases, however, not only quietly co-existed for several years with whatever else happened to be occupying my affections, but was remarkably un-cringeworthy: it was, in fact, bread baking.
I baked my first loaf of bread when I was nine years old, with the help of my mother. We baked a set of whole wheat loaves from one of the few cookbooks in the house, the Tassajara Bread Book, the now-classic exposition on natural breadmaking written by the head cook at the Tassajara Zen Center in San Francisco. The book itself is delightful, peppered with charming sketches illustrating every step from sponge to loaf, and brimming with Edward Espe Brown’s gentle, confident reassurances that good bread was as easy as following a few simple steps. As for me, even at such a young age I found the strange and cryptic procedures of bread making appealing: the hours spent tending the dough, the intense physical workout of kneading it again and again until it sprang up from the table like a rubber ball, the way the yeast miraculously brought flour and water to life. Though making a few loaves was always a full day’s job, it never seemed arduous – on the contrary, when the loaves emerged piping hot from the oven, it almost seemed criminal that for so little effort we could have something so remarkably delicious. "Bread is the one food that tastes of the love that was put into making it," my mother told me, and I believed her.
Some people have used bread making as therapy, and I can fully understand why – nothing is as soothing as nursing a loaf from inception to completion. Things like the rhythmic exertion of kneading, the awareness of details like the temperature of water on your wrist, and the gentle coaxing required to get a perfect performance from the yeast are, to me, something akin to meditation. In fact, I came to enjoy this process so much that over several years I worked my way through not only the Tassajara book but any others I could get my hands on. I kneaded, punched and stretched my way to a knowledge of many types of bread: dense whole grain loaves, sweet braided challahs, puffy pita, chewy bagels; there was even a sourdough starter I managed to keep alive for the better part of a year. Like all good phases, though, this one had a life span, and for whatever reason – dwindling enthusiasm, lack of new recipes to try, or something completely unrelated – I stopped making bread for well over a decade.
All of a sudden, however, I can’t seem to get thoughts of breadmaking out of my head. The fact that I have recently discovered the books of master baker Peter Reinhart is probably no coincidence. Like the effect Edward Espe Brown had on me years ago, Reinhart’s words about bread baking fill me not only with an intense desire to get my hands stuck into a bowl of dough, but with the unshakeable confidence that what comes out of the process will be magnificent. He writes with the clarity of a scientist and the simplicity of a teacher, yet manages to convey an enthusiasm about the magic of bread as if he had just discovered it himself. I’ve been particularly enamored with his small volume American Pie*, an enlightening and entertaining chronicle of his search for the best pizza in the world. I’d already tried his Neo-Neopolitan pizza, which was hands-down one of the most flavorful crusts I’ve ever eaten (though the whole experience was slightly dampened by my ineptitude at sliding the pizza onto my new baking stone face up… but well, that’s another story), so when I spotted his recipe for focaccia I knew it was next on my list.
Reinhart’s focaccia is not like any bread I’ve made before. It’s slow, requiring at least a day of advance planning to leave time for its trademark overnight fermentation, though the time spent in actual bread-making mode is quite short. It’s also so wet and sticky that you can’t knead the dough outside of the bowl (a fact I found mildly distressing as squishing a viscous, stubborn sludge inside a bowl is not nearly as much fun as slapping it around on the countertop). Any possible misgivings I might have had while making it, however, were more than made up for the instant it was out of the oven and had cooled enough for me to sink my teeth into. This was hands-down the best focaccia I have ever had. I don’t even know how to describe it properly – it was both light and substantial, chewy and soft, wonderfully irregular in shape and texture. And the taste… It was like the very essence of bread, full of fermented yeast and nutty flour and hot oven, permeated but not overwhelmed by a delicate parade of herbs, garlic, oil, and a tongue-tickling sprinkle of spicy chili.
Now, I know better than to try to identify a phase before it has even really started, but I have a sneaking suspicion that looking back at this particular point in time I’ll have no trouble identifying the ‘couldn’t stop eating focaccia phase’. And I must say, at least it has a better ring to it than My Little Pony, Sweet Valley High or tie-dyed t-shirts.
*I was delighted to see that our dear friend David gets a mention in this book. Apparently he was a dining companion of Peter’s at Chez Panisse one afternoon when, hot on the pizza trail, Peter attended a pizza party catered by Alice Waters herself. I wonder what David thought of the pizza?
Peter Reinhart’s Foccacia
Source: slightly adapted from Peter Reinhart’s American Pie
For the dough:
5 3/4 cups (26oz or 740g) unbleached bread (strong) flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant (fast-acting) yeast
2 1/2 cups (600ml) ice-cold water (you can substitute white wine, or even milk, for up to half of the water)
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
For the herb oil:
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
For the focaccia:
focaccia dough (above)
herb oil (above)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt (I used Maldon sea salt)
Make the dough:
With a large metal spoon, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, and water in a 4-quart bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer until combined. If mixing with an electric mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed for about 2 minutes, or until all the ingredients are hydrated and begin to form a wet ball of dough. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Switch to the dough hook, add the olive oil, and resume mixing on medium-low speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until all of the oil is incorporated and the dough is sticky, supple, and smooth; it should clear the sides of the bowl and stick just a little to the bottom. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful. Even though it is sticky, the dough should still pass the windowpane test. If mixing by hand, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the spoon into cold water and use it much like a dough hook, working the dough vigorously as you rotate the bowl with your other hand. As all the flour is incorporated and the dough becomes a wet ball, about 3 minutes, stop mixing and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
Add the olive oil, dip your hand or spoon again in water, and continue to work the dough for another 3 to 4 minutes. The dough should be very sticky, but it should also have some texture and structure. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful. Even though it is sticky, the dough should till pass the windowpane test.
Form the dough into a ball and place it in a bowl brushed with olive oil. Turn the dough to coat it with the oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and immediately refrigerate it overnight. The next day the dough should have nearly doubled in size. Allow it to sit at room temperature for about 2 hours before making the focaccia.
Make the herb oil:
In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for 2 hours before using.
Shape the focaccia:
Line a 12 x 17 sheet pan with baking parchment or with a silicone pan liner. Drizzle the 2 tablespoons oil onto the parchment and spread it over the surface. Working gently, scrape the dough into the prepared pan. Try to degas it as little as possible. Drizzle the herb oil over the surface of the dough, creating dimples and pockets all over the surface for the oil to fill. Do not press the dough outward toward the edges of the pan; instead, simply press downward at only a slight angle toward the edges. The dough will probably fill the pan a little more than half full before it begins to become elastic and spring back toward the center. When this occurs, stop pressing, and let the dough relax for 15 minutes. Repeat the dimpling process, beginning at the center and gradually working out toward the edges of the pan. Try to keep the dough somewhat even across the top. Let it rest again for 15 minutes. Repeat the dimpling; this time the dough should have stretched to fill the pan (don’t worry if it doesn’t quite reach the corners, as it will continue to expand as it rises). Let the dough rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until doubled.
Bake the focaccia:
Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C). Just before baking, sprinkle the salt evenly over the top of the dough. Place the sheet pan on the middle shelf of the oven, then immediately lower the temperature to 450°F (200°C). Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Continue to bake for 10 to 20 minutes longer or until both the top and underside are golden brown and slightly crisp. Remove the finished focaccia from the oven and immediately transfer it to a cooling rack, removing the paper as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting and serving.