Monday, August 3, 2009

eG Heartland Gathering: Focaccia is Fantastic

My main contribution to the Heartland Gathering for the past three years has been bread. The first two years it was fairly easy to do bread because the gathering was in Ann Arbor and Cleveland. This made it very easy to start the breads on Friday night after work and bake into early Saturday morning. A couple hours of sleep and I was off to the main event. Last year in Chicago proved to be a much more interesting challenge because not only was Chicago a six hour drive, but I was also arriving earlier in the week for a couple pre-Gathering events. Fortunately, there was enough interest (and at the last minute an available kitchen) for me to put together a bread workshop where we actually made the breads for the dinner the next day.

This year's Heartland Gathering was in Kansas City. And I drove. And arrived at midnight on Saturday morning. Hmmm ... how was that going to work? Well, gentle reader, I'm here to tell you.

I stayed with a good friend and founder of eGullet, Fat Guy (his screen name). When I was teetering on the fence on whether to attend this year's festivities, he offered to share his room with me. This was enough of a financial incentive for me to commit to the Saturday and Sunday activities. Knowing that I wouldn't have access to an oven until 2 pm on Saturday, I decided that I would do all of the steps of making my focaccia bread at the hotel and then transport the almost finished doughs to the venue for this year's dinner.

Fortunately, Fat Guy was able to secure a room on the first floor as lugging around my KitchenAid Pro up and down the stairs was not something I really wanted to do.

Once I finally arrived, I started the pre-ferment, in this case a poolish, for the three batches of focaccia I would be making. The poolish adds a wonderful sour element (but not nearly as sour as a sourdough) to the finished breads and a nice depth of flavor. Plus, the poolish helps to extend the shelf-life of the finished bread, although to be fair, I don't think it was around too long once the noshing started.

To make a poolish, you need:

* 250 grams of bread flour
* 250 grams of room temperature water
* 2 grams of active dry yeast (basically 1/3 of a packet)

I would recommend using bottled water since the chlorine gas has had a chance to escape. And remember that since there are only a few ingredients, they must all be really good. If your tap water tastes bad, it won't do much to help your bread either.

Once you have all of your ingredients in your container (this can rise significantly, so use a big enough container), mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until it has the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover this with a lid (or plastic) and sit it in a draft free corner for anywhere from 6-12 hours. If you find that you can't use it right away, it can be successfully stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

After about 8-12 hours of sitting in a nice draft-free corner, if done correctly, your poolish should look something like this:

Notice all of the little bubbles and tiny holes. When you first remove the cover, take a deep breath. This is the smell of a good starter. Virtually any bread you make with this will benefit from the time you took to make the pre-ferment.

Now that your poolish is ready, you are ready to make your focaccia dough. At this point you need to break out the serious tools, especially your KitchenAid stand mixer. Here is a shot of mine sitting on the dresser next to the TV set (which I moved to accommodate the mixer):

Here is a shot of the basic ingredients required for the main dough:

Into the KitchenAid bowl, add:

* 430 grams of bread flour
* 100 grams of cornmeal
* 7 grams of active dry yeast (1 packet)

You can now add the extra virgin olive oil and all of the poolish to the bowl:

* 500 grams poolish
* 15 grams of extra virgin olive oil (also known as 1 tablespoon)

Before starting to build the recipe, you should measure your salt and water separately so that you can add them at the appropriate time:

* 296 grams of room temperature water
* 16 grams of salt (preferably sea salt)

The thing to remember about the water is that IT is the variable in the recipe, not the flour. 296 grams of water is a starting point, you might need less, you might need more. It all depends on the humidity of the day, the protein level of your flour and the age of the flour. I always find that it's better to add 50 less grams of water initially than what is called for in the recipe and slowly add the last 50 grams until the dough gets to the right consistency. Even then, I may have to add more water, but I do it very slowly. In today's dough, I actually used about 284 grams of water instead of 296 grams. An over-hydrated dough can turn sticky and unmanageable very quickly.

Also make sure that you don't let the salt touch the yeast directly or it may actually kill it. Using the dough hook, start the mixer slowly (setting "1") to mix the ingredients. Once the ingredients have come together, increase the speed of the mixer to "2" and knead the dough for 6-7 minutes. The gluten in the dough is properly formed when it can pass the windowpane test.

Notice that even though we have a rather wet dough, it is not sticking to the sides of the bowl. This is a good thing. Once the dough is fully kneaded, transfer to a slightly oiled container,

cover with a lid (or plastic), and put into a draft-free corner for about 60-90 minutes or until the dough has visibly doubled in size. The amount of time will really depend on how warm your spot is. In this particular instance, I let it rise about 2 hours before folding it over. Remove the lid, fold the dough over onto itself to release the gas buildup as well as redistribute the yeast and re-cover and place back in the corner. The second rise shouldn't take nearly as long as the first since the yeast is now nice and active, maybe about half to three-quarters the amount of time as the first rise.

Once the dough has risen a second time, it is ready to be panned. First, turn on your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit in order to allow it to sufficiently pre-heat. Now, take a sturdy half-sheet pan and spray the bottom with release spray (i.e. Pam). Then cut a piece of parchment to the size of your pan and lay it in the bottom of the pan.

The Pam will initially help to hold the parchment paper in place and after baking will help to release the finished bread from the pan. Once the parchment is in place, use a brush to spread a thin layer of olive oil on top of the parchment. The oil will not only help to flavor and slightly crisp the bottom of the focaccia, but will also help in removing the parchment from the bottom of the bread.

Now that the pans are ready, use a flexible plastic scraper to transfer the fully fermented dough into the middle of the pan.

Wet your hands or spray your hands with release spray and gently begin pushing the dough to fill the pan.

This will take about three or four times to accomplish because the tendency of the dough will be to spring back. Every five minutes, push the dough a little further out towards the edge of the pan, making sure to cover the top of the pan with a tea towel between attempts to avoid drying out the dough.

While you are stretching your dough, you can create the flavorful topping. In this case we will need:

* 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
* 11-12 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
* 1/2 cup fresh rosemary, finely chopped

This amount will actually make enough topping for two half-sheets of focaccia, so if you are making a different amount of bread, you can adjust it accordingly.

Once the dough has been stretched, give it about ten minutes to rise a little more. Using a spoon, spread an appropriate amount of the topping onto the focaccia. Then, use your finger tips to gently dimple the top of the dough, pressing the toppings downward.

Allow this to proof for ten more minutes. Before going into the oven, sprinkle the top of the dough with some nice coarse Kosher salt.

Place this into the center of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned and the garlic is nicely caramelized. You may need to rotate the pan half-way through the baking process. Once the pan is removed from the oven, immediately remove the bread from the pan and place onto a cooling rack. Once on the rack, you should be able to easily remove the parchment paper from underneath the bread. After it has completely cooled (which takes about 45-60 minutes), cut up into appropriately-sized portions. A half-sheet should make 24 portions if cut into 2" x 2" squares. However, you can get man more portions if you cut it into a different shape.

The topping can really be anything you find flavorful. In fact, if you wanted to pair the focaccia with something else like cheese, you could just finish the top off simply with Kosher salt and cracked black peppercorns. That's what I decided to do for a second variety of focaccia that I knew would be served during the cheese pre-dinner course.

You'll see how we ended up using (and eating) both versions (rosemary & garlic and salt & pepper) in the next two entries where I will cover both the Heartland Dinner pre-dinner and the dinner itself. Let's just say that both breads turned out spectacularly and I was quite pleased with the results.

[Ed. note: The photos taken of me working in the kitchen (I'm in the blue shirt) were photographed by another attendee, jgm, who has graciously surrendered the copyright of her photos to me and I am hereby re-releasing them under the Creative Commons license that governs this blog. Documentation is on file to confirm this.]


DianeS said...

Ohhhhhh man, I haven't had your focaccia in way too long!

Great post as was the one below.

thinkfood said...

I used your recipe for foccacia here in Brazil, when ready will put on my blog, thank you for the richness of detail, and all tips. A big hug.

Tino said...

@thinkfood: I'm so happy that my instructions were able to help you make some delicious focaccia! Please let me know when you put up the entry on your blog.

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