This post will be an object lesson in the need to keep checking the recipe, even if you think you know what you’re doing.
It seemed appropriate that my first cooking foray of the new year should be something fundamental, like bread. One of the cookbooks I received this Christmas was Nick Malgieri’s Bake! Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking. It’s a strongly pictorial book, containing a lot of information that I know already, but also many useful tips that, even if I did know, it’s good to be reminded of. The first things in it that appealed to me were the focaccias – a base recipe, plus variations with different toppings. I particularly liked the version with fresh sage leaves and sun-dried tomatoes.
I’ve worked with many focaccia recipes, never finding one that I really love, one that makes a focaccia as good as the ones I’ve enjoyed in some restaurants. What intrigued me about Nick’s recipes was the very different technique he describes. You don’t knead his dough. You mix flour and salt into yeasted water and olive oil with a rubber spatula – first half the flour, “stirring smoothly” (which I assumed meant stirring until smooth) – then the rest, plus chopped sage leaves. Beat with the spatula 15 seconds. The dough was so dense, my spatula couldn’t do that at all, so I had to mosh it with my hands.
That photo is actually of my second batch of focaccia dough, made on the next day. The first day’s dough had been considerably firmer than that. Just about when that first day’s dough had finished its initial rise, I realized that I’d forgotten to add any olive oil to the yeasted water. Gaaah! I’d skipped the first essential technique (not one mentioned by Nick, who naturally assumed a basic competence in his readers): Keep checking the recipe!
Well, there was that batch of dough, looking forlorn. A pity to waste it; let’s try to save it. I squished the requisite amount of olive oil into it and left it to rise again for an extra half hour – which it did, but not with any enthusiasm. I gentled it into a heavily oiled half-size jelly roll pan and gave it its last rise, which was to be for just 30 minutes.
Then I dimpled the top all over, pressed bits of sun-dried tomatoes onto it, drizzled on more olive oil, and sprinkled on kosher salt.
After baking in a hot oven, also for 30 minutes, it became focaccia, more or less. It was much browner than the photo in the book, it never rose much, and parts of it stuck to the pan despite the oceans of olive oil it had received. Also, the sun-dried tomatoes essentially burned. (That at least wasn’t my fault; the photo in the book shows blackened tomatoes too.) Once I scraped off the tomatoes, the bread tasted all right; but quite dense in texture and nothing to write home about.
I was mortified. So the next day I made another batch – the initial dough that you’ve seen above. This time I mixed the sun-dried tomatoes into the dough at the beginning (a permitted variation), along with the sage leaves. And I did add the olive oil.
Unsurprisingly, this second time around, the dough behaved much better. (But it still wouldn’t “beat” with a rubber spatula; I don’t know what kind of monstrously heavy spatula Nick must use.) It rose more than the first batch had, and it spread into the pan more cooperatively.
It still didn’t do much in its last rise. All the focaccias I’ve made before get a much longer time for the second rise. Still, I was determined to stick to the recipe this time, so after the requisite 30 minutes I dimpled the dough, topped it with oil and salt, and put it in the oven. It was done quickly and looked quite a bit better than yesterday’s attempt.
Still hadn’t risen as much as I’d hoped – only about ¾ of an inch – but the crumb was softer and the flavor more interesting. Altogether a more successful focaccia, and the contrast between the two days’ results was a salutary reminder for me, as I start my culinary experiments of 2013, to pay attention to the recipe.