Cooking Class: Focus on focaccia

Flatbreads from France and Italy have become popular favorites among the bready bunch.

Focaccia (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On our first trip to Italy in the 1970s we came across focaccia by chance, without being aware of its importance to the region’s culinary culture. The flatbread was flavored with olive oil and salt and baked in a pan like pizza. It was simply delicious.
“Don’t bother eating regular bread in Liguria,” advises Faith Heller Willinger, author of Eating in Italy. “This is the land of focaccia (foh-CAH-cha), the flatbread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil that’s sweeping American bakeries. It’s found throughout the region of Liguria – plain, herbed or studded with olives, and is always the best choice in bakeries or breadbaskets.”
Carol Field, author of The Italian Baker, writes that the thin, chewy bread that Italians call focaccia “may have been the first national dish of the country. Remains of carbonized focacce as old as Neolithic man indicate that even before recorded time, Italians were grinding grain between stones, mixing it with water and boiling it into a mush... an adventurous Neolithic baker must have decided to cook it under the embers or roast it, pancake style, over the stones.”
In southern France, we ate a bread related to focaccia called fougasse, a striking flatbread formed in decorative shapes like leaves and ladders and flavored with olive oil. The bread is less common in the rest of France, and outside the country it is much less familiar than baguette, pain de campagne (country French bread) and brioche.
Focaccia has become very popular since we first tasted it. In the US it is a favorite even at eateries that are not Italian. In the deli departments of upscale American supermarkets, focaccia is often used as a sandwich bread.
The words “fougasse” and “focaccia” are derived from focus, the Latin word for “hearth.”
“The fougasse of France and hearth cakes of England share the same ancestry,” writes Field, “for as the Romans extended their empire, they brought with them not only their carefully reasoned city plans, their temples and amphitheaters but their focacce and flat disks of bread as well.”
Numerous variations of fougasse and focaccia abound, which differ in thickness, richness, degree of crispness and baking technique. The fougasses that we have eaten have been firm and rather crisp, while the focacce we savored tended to be more moist.
Field flavors her basic focaccia with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, and she tops variations of the bread with fresh sage leaves, black or green olives or Gorgonzola cheese.
“Focacce are usually savory,” writes Field, “seasoned with oil or other fats, but there are sweet ones as well, such as the focaccia from Bologna made from simple briochelike dough that becomes the envelope for ice cream sandwiches, Italian style... Focacce can be soft or crisp, thick or thin, light and almost plain or topped with any number of condiments, but they are always rustic, a convivial treat eaten as a snack.”
Fougasse uses many of the same flavorings as focaccia. “The lyrical, ladderlike bread known as fougasse is my Provençal pizza,” writes Patricia Wells, author of At Home in Provence. “I take my favorite bread dough, shape it into individual breads, then flavor them with whatever delicious toppings I might have on hand – black or green olives, home-cured anchovies, marinated baby artichokes, capers, a bit of fresh goat cheese, a touch of hot pili pili oil [hot pepper oil] or simply a brush of olive oil and a scattering of fresh thyme and coarse sea salt... One also finds sweet versions prepared with a butter-rich dough or briochelike butter and egg dough flavored with orange flower water.”
When I taught a class on baking pizza and focaccia, I used the same dough for both (the recipe is below). Although the flavorings of focaccia and fougasse are similar to topping elements for pizza, these breads are less substantial.
Fougasse and focaccia are most popular as snack breads but can be served with a meal instead of ordinary bread. Field recommends serving focaccia at country outings and picnics, for children’s lunches and snacks or to eat with salads, cheeses, roast chicken or meat, along with a glass of good, earthy wine.
Bernard Clayton Jr., author of The Breads of France, writes that ladder- or tree-shaped fougasse “has an informal look about it that makes it a happy choice and a conversation piece of a barbecue, a spaghetti dinner or whatever. To serve, just break off a limb or a rung as wanted.”
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
This is the recipe for basic focaccia from my cooking class. You can vary the toppings to your taste.
“Focacce are simplicity itself,” writes Field in The Italian Baker. “Herbs of the countryside and the golden oils of Liguria flavor the interior, while a little local garlic or tiny savory olives stud its surface.... The bakers of Italy... are always using their fertile imaginations to create other possibilities; you, too, should combine appealing ingredients... grated cheeses, shreds of basil, or sweet onions sweated in oil – according to your own desires.
“Bakers sometimes tuck flavoring right into the dough, and sometimes they only dapple the top.
The dough is always stretched in a well-oiled pan, then dimpled with the fingertips, leaving little indentations to collect the oil and salt on top... the focaccia emerges golden, moist and perfectly cooked from the oven.”
✔ 11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
✔ 21⁄4 tsp. (7 gr. or 1⁄4 ounce) dry yeast
✔ 1⁄2 cup lukewarm water
✔ 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for dough) plus 1⁄4 cup for topping
✔ 3⁄4 tsp. salt
✔ Sea salt to taste (for topping)
✔ 1 tsp. dried thyme, basil or oregano; or 1 Tbsp. fresh basil, shredded
To make dough by hand: Sift flour into a bowl and make a well in the center. Sprinkle yeast into the well. Pour 1⁄4 cup water over yeast and let stand for 10 minutes.
Stir until smooth. Add remaining water, oil and 3⁄4 teaspoon salt and mix with ingredients in middle of well. Stir in flour and mix well, to obtain a fairly soft dough. If dough is dry, add 1 tablespoon water.
Knead dough vigorously, slapping it on working surface until it is smooth and elastic.
If it is very sticky, flour it occasionally while kneading.
To make dough in a food processor: Sprinkle yeast over 1⁄4 cup water in a cup or small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. In food processor fitted with dough blade or metal blade, process flour and 3⁄4 teaspoon salt briefly to mix them. Add remaining water and oil to yeast mixture. With blades of processor turning, gradually pour in yeast-liquid mixture. If dough is too dry to come together, add 1 tablespoon water and process again. Process for 1 minute to knead dough.
Transfer dough to a clean bowl and sprinkle it with a little flour. Cover with a damp towel and leave to rise 45 to 60 minutes or until doubled in volume.
Oil a baking sheet. Knead dough again briefly and put it on baking sheet. With oiled hands, pat dough out to a 25-cm.
(10-inch) circle. Dimple the dough with your fingertips, leaving deep indentations.
Sprinkle dough lightly with sea salt, then with herbs. Pour olive oil evenly over all, making sure rim of dough is moistened with oil as well. Set oven at 205ºC (400ºF).
Let bread rise for about 15 minutes.
Bake focaccia in preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm but not hard. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 1 loaf
This recipe is from Great Breads by Martha Rose Shulman. “French bakers often add anchovies, olives, nuts or herbs to their fougasse dough. My version incorporates a small amount of whole wheat flour into the dough, giving it a nutty flavor,” writes Shulman.
✔ 21⁄2 tsp. active dry yeast
✔ 11⁄2 cups lukewarm water
✔ 1 Tbsp. olive oil
✔ 21⁄2 to 3 cups unbleached white flour
✔ 11⁄4 cups whole-wheat flour
✔ 21⁄2 tsp. salt
✔ 2⁄3 cup imported black olives, pitted and chopped; OR 1 can anchovy fillets, drained, rinsed and chopped; OR 1⁄2 cup chopped walnuts, OR 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh rosemary or thyme (optional)
✔ Cornmeal (for dusting baking sheet) Dissolve yeast in the warm water in a large bowl and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes until creamy. Stir in the olive oil.
To knead by hand: Mix together 21⁄2 cups of the white flour, the whole-wheat flour and the salt in a medium bowl. With a wooden spoon, fold flour mixture into yeast mixture, 1 cup at a time. As soon as dough holds together, scrape it out onto a floured work surface. Knead, adding white flour as needed, for 10 minutes.
To knead with an electric mixer: Combine 21⁄2 cups white flour, the wholewheat flour and the salt in a medium bowl. Add flour mixture all at once to yeast mixture. Mix together with the paddle. Change to the dough hook and mix on low speed for 2 minutes. Mix on medium speed for 8 to 10 minutes. If dough seems very wet and sticky, sprinkle in up to 1⁄2 cup more white flour.
Scrape out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute or so by hand.
Shape dough into a ball. Rinse, dry and lightly oil the bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn to coat it with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and set in a warm place to rise for 11⁄2 hours or until doubled in bulk.
Scrape out dough onto a floured work surface. Moisten your hands. If adding any of the optional ingredients, sprinkle them over the dough and knead in for a couple of minutes.
Press or roll out the dough into a rectangle, about 30 cm. (12 inches) long and 15 to 21 cm. (6 to 8 inches) wide. Place the rectangle with the long sides in front of you on your work surface. Starting 5 cm. (2 inches) from the top, make 3 parallel incisions, spacing them evenly, and cutting to within 5 cm. (2 inches of the edges of the dough). Pull the dough apart at these incision so that it looks like a ladder.
Oil a baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal.
Transfer the bread to the baking sheet, lifting it gently by the ends. Cover with a damp towel. Let rise for 45 minutes or until nearly doubled.
About 30 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF), with a rack in the middle.
Bake the bread for 45 minutes, spraying with water a couple of times during the first 10 minutes until it is golden and crusty and responds to tapping with a hollow sound. Remove from the pan and cool on a rack.
Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.