This entry’s been a long time coming, but I had to deal with a crushing blow last month when my beloved iPad failed me. It’s the only technology I’ve had with me for the last 15 months in Paris, and so I’ve suddenly had to resort to pen, paper, and occasionally the manager’s laptop at work. Not an ideal solution when the latter keeps trying to translate my thoughts into French, and who knew the characters on a French keyboard were in different places? Just when I thought I’d mastered touch-typing…..
So enough with the technical excuses; this post has actually been months in the making because I’ve been busy trying and testing numerous focacce recipes. It all started when my Chef, fully aware of my passion for bread-making, suggested I make a focaccia not for the staff, but for actual clients…..Parisian clients.
I’ve made focacce before, but I guess I’ve always had a suspicion that what I’ve actually been shown is the cheat’s version so-to-speak…..composed of a thick, pizza-style dough with lots of cheese, olive oil and sundried tomato. Focaccia is actually far less bread-like in consistency; the crumb or ‘mie’ as the French say, should be filled with lots of small and uneven bubbles, wildly distributed as opposed to uniformly and densely packed.
Over the last six months I’ve tried out four different recipes. The most recent attempt, using a recipe which coincidently uses a sourdough starter, was a resounding success and has since been served several times in the dining room as an aperitif. Indeed I add with pride; anything that the French are willing to serve with their precious Champagne, let alone an Italian bread made by an English girl, must be pretty damn good.
I must emphasise straight away – what I’ve realised from reading books, watching videos and my own personal experiences with focaccia dough is this: it’s not so much the recipe but the technique that needs mastering. The key to success lies in the handling of the dough. I’m going to talk through two recipes (the two most popular with my colleagues) – the first almost foolproof (one of the cheat’s versions I mentioned earlier, but tasty nonetheless); the second slightly more time-consuming. The result however, makes all those hours spent folding and waiting patiently, highly worth it.
Pumpkin and Gruyere Focaccia
For the pumpkin purée and dice:
1 medium pumpkin
Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
– Cut ¾ of the pumpkin into large cubes and spread evenly over a baking tray. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover the tray with aluminium foil to prevent the pumpkin burning in the oven, then roast at 180°C for roughly 35-45 minutes until completely soft. If the pumpkin is very ripe, it may drop a lot of water – if it looks a little wet when it comes out, transfer the contents of the tray into a casserole and cook gently over a medium heat, stirring regularly. This will cook off some of the unwanted moisture and help concentrate the flavour. Transfer the hot pumpkin flesh to a food processor and blend until completely smooth. Weigh out 366g and chill until required. Freeze any remaining purée for another day.
– Cut the remaining pumpkin quarter into much neater, smaller squares (1cm x 1cm cubes). Again, spread across a baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil, but do not season until cooked. Cook at 180°C for around 8 minutes (if the pumpkin’s very ripe they may only need 5-6, so watch them closely). You want them cooked, not ‘al dente’ and by no means overdone; they must hold their shape when handled, as they will be rolled into the bread dough later. Season them with salt and refrigerate until needed.
For the dough (this recipe makes a large focaccia, enough to feed at least 6 hungry people):
1,125g strong white flour
366g cool water
366g pumpkin purée
22g fine salt (plus some good quality sea salt for sprinkling on top – Maldon’s best)
22g fresh yeast
3 generous handfuls of Gruyere cheese, cut into 1cm cubes (separate all the cubes into 3 equal-sized batches)
The cooked pumpkin cubes (separate into 2 equal-sized batches)
A bunch of rosemary (finely chopped)
4 heaped tablespoons of pumpkin seeds (lightly toasted)
Plenty of good quality olive oil
1. Using an electric mixer (or your hands if you prefer), mix the water, purée, flour, salt, yeast, chopped rosemary and toasted pumpkin seeds into a dough – always start by putting the wet ingredients into the bowl first, followed by the dry on top. Knead for 6-8 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic (if you’re using a machine fitted with a dough hook, mix on medium speed for 4 minutes, followed by 2 minutes on a higher speed setting). Cover the dough with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
2. Transfer the dough to a lightly-floured work surface. Roll the dough to a large rectangle, approximately 50cm x 30cm, then cover the top two thirds (2/3) of the area of the rectangle with one batch of diced pumpkin and one batch of diced cheese. Try to distribute the filling as evenly as possible across the dough. Now, fold the bare third of dough up to cover the middle third, then continue to fold upwards to encase the final third of dough at the top (so in effect a letter-fold). Make sure all the edges are well-sealed just to prevent the cheese and pumpkin falling out, then rotate the letter by 90°.
3. Dust the surface of the dough with flour, and perhaps the work surface too if it looks a little tacky, then proceed to roll out to a rectangle once again. The dough will naturally be more elastic this time around so expect the rectangle to be a little smaller. Also, don’t risk tearing the layers of dough with the cheese by trying to roll it too thin. Repeat the same process as outlined in step 2 – cover two-thirds (2/3) of the surface of the dough with the second batch of cheese, and the final batch of pumpkin dice. Fold the dough up in exactly the same way, ensuring all the filling is securely encased within the seams. Gather the dough into a ball with a nice smooth surface, then gently lower into a large, lightly floured mixing bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
4. Prepare a baking tray, ideally one that’s at least 50cm x 30cm x 2cm-deep, by lining with baking paper. Pre-heat the oven to 220°C, and set an empty tray in the bottom (unless your oven has a steam-injection button).
5. Gently punch down the dough using your knuckles to expel some of the gas, then transfer to a lightly floured work surface, smooth-side-up (this will be the surface of the finished focaccia). Gently roll to a rectangle, trying carefully not to tear the layers of dough and filling. Transfer the rolled focaccia into the lined baking tray, then using your fingers, gently push and mould it into all four corners, until the surface is as even as possible. If the dough springs back too much, give it 10 minutes to relax a little before trying again.
6. Scatter the surface with the remaining batch of diced cheese, pressing each cube down into the dough to secure it in place. Drizzle rather generously with olive oil, cover loosely with cling film and leave to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When the dough feels light and springy to the touch and looks to be about double the original size, remove the cling film and sprinkle the surface with good quality sea salt. Lightly oil your forefingers, then gently press them into the dough to create indentations across the surface for that rustic rippled appearance.
7. Transfer the focaccia to the oven, tipping some cold water into the hot tray at the bottom at the same time. This additional steam will help the dough expand during the first few minutes of cooking. All ovens vary, but I would suggest cooking it for at least 8 minutes before rotating the tray, then perhaps another 6 minutes after that. The crust should be golden and crispy, and the base in no way soft or soggy. Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tray before attempting to transfer to a wire rack.
Although this focaccia doesn’t look like much from the outside, the hidden layers of pumpkin, cheese, pumpkin seeds and rosemary reveal themselves upon cutting. It’s best served fresh and warm, but it’ll keep well too – just flash chunks through a hot oven for 2-3 minutes before serving.
This recipe takes at least two days from start to finish. Once mixed, the dough can actually be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.
7g sourdough starter
108g strong white flour
97g cool water
7g malt extract (optional – this recipe comes straight from a kitchen in America, where they love using this stuff in bread – it’s supposed to aid fermentation and browning)
12g fine salt (plus some good quality sea salt for sprinkling on top)
5g fresh yeast
35g olive oil (good quality, extra-virgin)
494g cool water
42g rye flour
42g wholewheat flour
504g strong white flour
1. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix together the sourdough starter, white bread flour and cool water (for stage 1 as noted). Cover this mixture with cling film or a lid, and leave at room temperature for at least 12 hours. It should start to bubble nicely.
2. Put the olive oil, cool water and pre-ferment from stage 1 into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Tip over the three different flours, along with the salt, crumbled fresh yeast and malt extract if using. Mix on low speed to bring the ingredients together, then continue to knead for 8-10 minutes at medium speed. The dough will be very loose and wet; do not be tempted to add any more flour. Using a plastic spatula or dough divider, scrape down the sides of the bowl and the dough hook a couple of times, just to make sure that all the ingredients are being evenly incorporated.
3. Transfer the wet dough into a lightly oiled plastic container. The container should be on the large side, as the dough will be worked and folded from within it. Now for the first fold – with slightly wet fingers, lift and stretch one side of the dough up and fold it back over onto itself, covering two thirds (2/3) of the surface area. Then, do the same on the other side, effectively folding the dough like a letter. Rotate the container by 90° and repeat the same process with the shorter edges. You should be left with a smaller pile of folded dough. Cover the container and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
4. Repeat this folding process twice, resting the dough in the fridge for at least 1 hour between each fold. These folds will produce a complex gluten network within the focaccia dough, and the stretching will build strength and volume. Because the dough is so wet and sticky, always handle using wet hands – have a small pot of water on your work station to dip your fingertips into. Although this organisation of the dough takes time and patience, the results are well worth the extra effort, as demonstrated in the pictures below. If you don’t have time to rush back to the fridge every hour, you can always leave the dough a little longer between folds and stretches – it’s relatively forgiving. Just make sure the dough is well de-gassed before baking.
5. Punch the dough down well before transferring it to the baking tray (to expel some of the carbon dioxide which has developed within the gluten matrix). Lift the whole mass up and place it gently into a large lined baking tray (ideally one at least 50cm x 30cm x 2cm-deep). Using your wet fingers, press the dough into all the corners, ensuring it sits as evenly as possible. Stud the surface with chunks of cheese or seeds, herbs, tomatoes…..whatever takes your fancy really. I sliced some baby waxy potatoes very finely and let them confit in olive oil with a clove of garlic until just cooked; I lay these slices, overlapping them a little, over the entire surface of the focaccia. I then studded the gaps with some cheddar cheese before leaving the dough to prove. This will take roughly 1 hour, maybe 90 minutes, depending upon the temperature of your kitchen. When the dough is well-risen and appears light and springy to the touch, it is ready for the oven.
6. Preheat the oven to 230°C. Drizzle the top of the focaccia generously with more good quality olive oil, and sprinkle the surface with sea salt flakes. Bake for approximately 8 minutes, rotate the tray, then continue for a further 6-8 minutes, until the crust has turned a deep golden brown. Leave to cool in the tray for 10 minutes before attempting to turn out onto a wire rack.
Sourdough focaccia with confit potato slices and cheddar cheese…..
…..and one with cheddar cheese, sun-dried tomato and rosemary…..
Look at those bubbles…..