These are the longest days of the year – waiting for summer to depart and for the cool breezes of fall to waft over our fevered brows. Trying to stay home during lockdown and being socially distant has taken all the spirit out of us. Even Luke the wonder dog is loathe to walk in the afternoons: we lurch from shadow to shadow, seeking coolth and respite as we stagger through our mindful paces. We don’t even have the first day of school to look forward to – no lunch boxes this year, for a while, anyway. We have been overcome by ennui.
It has been time to get a grip, and make changes ourselves. It’s time to do some easy peasy baking; baking that delivers deliciousness for our minimal investment of time (and skill). It’s time for focaccia. Which is sublime when hot from the oven. It is good warm, it freezes well, and can be eaten for any meal. It is deeply satisfying to bake something warm and oozing olive oil and garlic – without all the bother of the bother of sour dough starter maintenance or that ubiquitous banana bread that found its way onto every homebound COVID-19’s avoiders to-do list.
Focaccia can be mixed up after breakfast, and ignored until an hour before dinner. Or you can make the dough after watching the Reid Out, letting it rise over night, to be put it in the oven tomorrow night. Yet, if you are suddenly seized with the yen for warm, home-baked bread, you can start the dough at lunch and hurry it along through the afternoon, and start baking in time for cocktail hour. We spent this week experimenting.
Years ago I found a mix for focaccia at our local IGA market and it was a revelation to someone who had grown up on Pepperidge Farm white bread, Levy’s Jewish rye bread and the occasional loaf of freshly baked Italian bread from the red sauce Italian restaurant my family frequented for high holy days. I wasn’t used to crusty, fresh, yeasty bread. During my European interlude I had the standard American food epiphany upon discovering baguettes, brioche, pain perdu, tigella, naan, crumpets, scones, hot cross buns, broa, zopf, sfincione, challah, pita, ciabatta, and finally focaccia di Recco col formaggio. Translation: my unformed suburban brain was blown.
Moving to the south brought me a deep appreciation for the complex simplicity of the biscuit. Moving further south (though considering Florida “south” is often debated, volubly) we found a wonderful French bakery, and we worked our way through their inventory of baked daily epi breads, baguettes, pain aux chocolate, croissants, and brioche. These days I cannot wander down Flagler Street into Jim and Kim’s bakery. I am stuck at home, but luckily the internet provides me with all kinds of inspiration.
This week our first batch of homemade focaccia was wrong in so many ways. The pan I used was too small, so the dough rose to epic, cornbread-y heights. Focaccia is considered a flatbread, or a hearth bread, not a soufflé. I also relied on the recipe, instead of my experience, and merely coated the pan with olive oil. What I should have done was use a larger, shallower pan, (thank you, Food52 for the sheet pan suggestion) and line it first with parchment paper, and then generously coat it with olive oil.
The second batch was better, and more attractive. I dotted the dimpled top with halved cherry tomatoes, and a scattering of Maldon salt, finely minced garlic, and fresh rosemary. You can also consider cheese, basil, and onion. To bask in the glow of the Mediterranean, you could add lemon slices and green olives. For a more abundantly flavored focaccia you could add Prosciutto, mushrooms, and arugula. If you’d like something sweeter, for a breakfast dish, consider honey, apples, raisins, raw sugar, orange peel or lemon zest.
I aspire to baking airy, crisp baguettes, and hope in time I will master some of the necessary skills. In the meantime, I am content to have spent a week learning about the simple goodness of focaccia. In these perilous times, it is good to ratchet down some of the anxiety with soothing oozy, warm, crunchy, garlicky goodness. And with the stash in the freezer, it is always close at hand.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…Bread making is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
― M.F.K. Fisher