When my friends and I set off our dorm’s fire alarm last Founder’s Day and had to explain to the fire department that we were baking in a completely literal way, I never expected that the raw dough I carted across campus would develop into a bizarre obsession with trying to make the perfect rosemary focaccia.
Baking bread has always made something thrum deep in my hindbrain. To think that humans have been making bread for millennia, and here I am, doing it thousands of years later in effectively the same ways, reminds me of how small and human I am. I want to prove that I can create, with nothing more than some flour, spices, yeast and my own too-human hands, the perfect focaccia. But I know that it will take time. Even this most recent attempt to crack the elusive secret of making the best textured Italian flatbread I can create has slipped between my flour coated fingers once again.
Thus, my quest to make the perfect focaccia has gone through many iterations of doughy goodness, each one slightly different from the last. While the flatbread recipe my friends and I are currently working on perfecting, which I have chosen to dub ‘Frankenbread,’ is still recognizable as a focaccia at heart, the olive oil soaked, kosher salt encrusted monstrosity it has become is certainly not recognizable as the first, admittedly rather mediocre, focaccia we pulled out of the oven.
We have put so much into this bread, from basil to brie and from olive oil to oregano, all in quest of the best taste, the perfect texture. And, now, it is so close to perfection I can very nearly taste it. But, what does perfection taste like? Will I know, or will I keep striving for perfection as fruitlessly as Tantalus strived for his fruit?
What I do know is that the keys to good, if not quite yet perfect, focaccia are olive oil, salt and patience. Focaccia is a Mediterranean bread; there is virtually no way to have too much olive oil, while salt is essential in bread making for enhancing flavor. Never use table when you can use kosher salt. The larger grain size and uniquely flat shape of kosher salt makes for much better bread than ordinary table salt, so I find it useful to keep some in my cupboard at all times. Sea salt can be a good substitute in a pinch. Also, since I use no bread machines or mixers when I make bread, all of the kneading is done by hand, which, depending on the type of bread, can take anywhere from five minutes to nearly half an hour.
Bad or timid kneading can make or break a bread recipe. I have found the best way to handle it is to never be afraid of the dough. If things don’t appear to be going well, hit it, throw it on the counter, smash it with your (clean, floured) forearm. It can handle it for the most part. There has never been a point where I felt that being rough with the dough was too much, but there have been plenty of instances where I felt that more vigorous kneading would have been beneficial. For this recipe, err on the side of too much. Ultimately, this particular example of ‘Frankenbread’ was the best it ever has been. The texture was phenomenal and the flavor was well-balanced with olive oil and appropriate saltiness. But I still search for perfection. While adding basil and oregano to the rosemary already present in the recipe was good, the readdition of brie might just be what tips it over to edge from ‘really fantastic’ bread to ‘the absolutely perfect’ rosemary focaccia I so yearn to bake.
5 cups unbleached flour
1 1/3 cups warm water
1 1/4 oz packet yeast
1 1/2 cups olive oil plus 2 tbsps reserved
1 tbsps kosher salt
2 tbsps dried rosemary
2 tbsps dried oregeno
2 tbsps dried basil
1. Combine yeast and warm water in a large bowl.
2. Let stand until creamy, or about five minutes
3. Add 3 cups flour, 1/2 cup oil, salt and herbs.
4. Knead the remaining flour and oil into the dough. Knead for ten minutes.
5. Dough should sticky but firm to the touch.
6. Place in an oiled boil and let rise, covered, at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, or around 1 1/2 hours.
7. Remove dough and roll out onto a greased cookie sheet.
8. Let rise, covered, until doubled in bulk, or around 1 1/2 hours.
9. Press uniform indentations onto top of bread.
10. Drizzle remaining oil over bread and dust with salt and herbs to taste.
11. Bake in a 500°F oven until it sounds hollow when tapped, or around 20-25 minutes.