Somewhere back in the mists of classical antiquity, focaccia came to be on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. And that was good. Although the ancient Etruscans didn’t know it yet, focaccia would some day be the forerunner of pizza. And as we all know, pizza is very, very good.
Unlike most of the flatbreads of the region, focaccia is leavened with yeast, making it the Goldilocks of bread, not too flat, not too tall and perfect for soaking up olive oil as it bakes.
Focaccia is really simple to make as it only requires five ingredients; flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and water. Since the yeast allows the bread to rise, the top can be dimpled with a fingertip creating little wells for olive oil to be poured. Then as the bread bakes, the oil is absorbed into the bread making a tender, luscious inside with a crisp crust.
Coarse salt is often sprinkled over the top and often herbs as well. Rosemary is the classic choice. Over the course of time, that broad, flat surface was just too inviting not to put things on it. Halved olives are often placed in the indentations, onions or tomatoes are sometimes scattered on top.
From there, it wasn’t much of a jump for focaccia to evolve into pizza. And for that, we are eternally grateful to the Etruscans with their brick tiles and hot fires.
Fast forward to the 21st century and focaccia can be very versatile, a useful thing for homemade bread which doesn’t have the shelf life of commercial breads. A family of four can make short work of a standard 9×13 loaf of focaccia.
Slice a piece horizontally and it becomes a bun, ready for a sandwich or a burger. Focaccia sliced horizontally also stands in for a pizza crust. Fast too, since it’s already cooked. Just run it under the broiler long enough to heat your toppings and melt your cheese.
Focaccia doesn’t need any special use. It’s delicious just as bread. For a party, you can cut bite-size pieces for appetizers. Serve them as is, or add toppings for tiny pizza canapés.
If yeast bread is something you want to try but are intimidated by the process, focaccia is the perfect place to start. It’s easy and the standards are not too high. Unlike a regular loaf of bread which needs to rise to great heights to be successful, focaccia doesn’t need to rise much. It is a flatbread, after all. And there’s no tricky forming or shaping. You just stretch it out to fill a pan.
But the process is the same. Mix the ingredients, knead a little, let it rise until it’s doubled, dump it in a pan, stretch it to fit, let it rise another half hour, indent it with your fingers, pour on some olive oil and whatever else you want and bake. It’s as simple as a yeast bread can be and totally low-stress. There’s really no way to mess it up. As long as your yeast is fresh. Be careful about that.
And once you’ve gotten comfortable with the process, maybe you’ll want to raise your sights and try a baguette or a boule. But only if you want to.
Though this recipe is a long one, it is neither complicated nor time-consuming as far as active time in the kitchen. The detail of the recipe walks you through the entire process. You’ll be able to do it without looking at the recipe by the second or third time you make it. And you will make it many, many times, it’s that good.
Makes 1 (13 x 9 inch) rectangular pan, or 3 (10 – 12 inch) round loaves
5 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
2 tsp. instant yeast
2 – 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (Plus 2 additional tablespoons to oil bowl)
1 tsp. salt
2 cups warm water
Extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Optional toppings of your choice
Measure flour, oil, salt and yeast into bowl and stir. Add half the water and stir. Continue to add water until the dough begins to come together into a shaggy ball.
Dump the dough mixture onto a lightly floured surface and begin to knead with the heels of your hand. Knead for about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and pliant.
Add a little oil (2 tablespoons) to the bottom of a large bowl and place your ball of dough inside. Roll the ball around in the oil, ensuring the sides of the bowl, and ball of dough are both lightly oiled. Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot to rise.
Let the dough rise until it is doubled in size, about an hour or an hour and a half depending on temperature of the room. The dough will become very light and pillowy.
To make a large rectangular focaccia, lightly oil a 13×9 inch baking sheet with sides. Dump your risen dough into the pan punching it down to deflate it. Use your fingers to push and press the dough evenly over the bottom of the pan. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for another 20 or 30 minutes or until the dough dimples when pushed with your fingertip.
Use the tips of your fingers to dimple the entire top of the focaccia. Drizzle olive oil over the top turning the pan carefully to allow the oil to roll into the indentations. Sprinkle coarse sea salt over the top of your focaccia and then let it sit and rise for another 15 minutes while you preheat your oven to 425°F.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Cool to room temperature before slicing.
To make round loaves, divide your ball of dough after the first rise into three equal parts. Sprinkle cornmeal over three baking sheets. Take one ball at a time and use your hands to begin to press into a flat disc. Use the heel of your hand pushing from the center out, turning the circle of dough as you go until you create a circle about 12 inches across. Place each round on a prepared baking sheet, cover with kitchen towels and let rise for 20 to 30 minutes until soft.
Dimple the dough with fingers just like with the rectangular focaccia above, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and add any additional toppings you prefer. Let prepared dough sit and rise for another 15 minutes while you preheat your oven to 425°F. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Cool to room temperature before slicing.
Black Bean Burgers on focaccia buns
Real beef burgers are great on focaccia. Unlike commercial hamburger buns, the bread is sturdy enough to soak up grease without falling apart. But when you want a change or a meatless Monday, black bean burgers are an excellent alternative.
Makes 4 burgers
2 cans (14.5 oz. Each) seasoned black beans
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated white onion
1 whole egg
1/2 tsp. chili powder
salt And pepper
Hot sauce of your choice, or none if that is your choice
8 slices Swiss cheese
Olive oil and butter, for frying
1/2 loaf (11×9) Focaccia bread, for buns
Mayonnaise, sliced tomato, red onion, lettuce or other greens or whatever condiments you desire
Drain, but do not rinse, the black beans. Place them in a bowl and use a fork to mash them. Keep mashing until they’re mostly broken up, but still have some whole beans visible. Add the breadcrumbs, onion, egg, chili powder, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Stir until everything is combined, then let the mixture sit for 5 minutes.
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil with an equal amount of butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Form the bean mixture into patties slightly larger than the buns you’re using (the patties will not shrink when they cook.) Place the patties in the skillet and cook them about 5 minutes on the first side. Flip them to the other side, place 2 slices of cheese onto each patty, and continue cooking them for another 5 minutes, or until the burgers are heated through. (Place a lid on the skillet to help the cheese melt if needed.)
Cut your focaccia bread into bun-sized servings. An 11×9 loaf will make 8 very generous buns. Split each piece to create a top and bottom. Spread the buns with mayonnaise and hot sauce, then place the patties on the buns. Top with lettuce, onion and tomato, then pop on the lids.
Or dress your burgers anyway you like. Avocado could be useful here. Or chili. Salsa perhaps. Really, the sky is the limit.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.