I GET WHY everyone was tending sourdough starters last year, but I’d like to nominate a different bread for living your best pandemic (or even, hopefully, post-pandemic) life: Here’s a round (or sheet pan) of applause for homemade focaccia.
Sourdough’s fine, but you can buy a good sourdough in grocery stores. And, much like pandemic puppies, sourdough starters require consistent attention and long-term commitments. They need regular feeding and can create a lot of waste.
Focaccia, that dreamy, oily, crisp-bottomed, dimple-topped slab, is a simpler and much shorter-term obligation. But it’s still well-suited to quarantine, work-from-home or expand-your-horizons goals: Focaccia takes time, but most of it is hands-off. It’s also flexible, forgiving, enjoyably tactile and a lot cheaper to make yourself than to order in a restaurant.
For those who have forgotten what restaurant ordering is like, focaccia is an Italian bread sometimes compared to a toppings-free Sicilian pizza. The “Modernist Bread” cookbook — full disclosure: I was an editorial contributor — sees focaccia as “an ancestor of pizza,” and technically classifies it under flatbreads despite its springy nature. The name derives from the Latin word for hearth. Recipes vary, but typically include a long overnight rise, meaning you need to predict a day ahead whether you’ll want it with dinner, not that this is usually a serious question. The various recipes all require a few stops by the kitchen between start and finish — easy when home, but unworkable for a typical day at the office.
I didn’t need any convincing about the benefits of fresh focaccia; I just hadn’t thought about it as a home baking project. Oily hands and pan aside, I was surprised to conclude that focaccia was easier to master than a lot of yeast loaves, less fussy and less prone to errors. So why does it tend to be more expensive to purchase?
Friends who have worked in the restaurant industry had some thoughts: Focaccia requires a lot of olive oil, which is pricey (though some other breads call for butter and eggs, which pencil out to more in my own Kirkland-brand-olive-oil kitchen). Focaccia stales quickly and can’t be saved for second-day restaurant use the way a sourdough loaf could. It sometimes includes spendy add-ins or toppings. Maybe most of all, it’s often made in-house at restaurants rather than purchased wholesale, adding on a pile of labor costs and space requirements that affect a restaurant’s bottom line a lot more than mine.
As with many other cooking projects, Samin Nosrat (author of “Salt Fat Acid Heat” and the Netflix show of the same name) has drawn attention to the joys of focaccia. Her version takes more time and attention than some I’ve tried, but tastes wonderful, partly from the addition of a saltwater brine. (Find it at saltfatacidheat.com/fat/ligurian-focaccia.) For a shorter and local version, try Ben Campbell’s focaccia in the new “Getaway” cookbook by Renee Erickson, which is also wonderful (he developed the recipe for Erickson’s Willmott’s Ghost restaurant). Added bonus: If you’ve had it with all baking projects at this point, it’s expected to be on the menu at his upcoming Ben’s Bread Co. cafe in Phinney Ridge.
Ben’s Focaccia al Sale
Makes one 9-by-13-inch focaccia
2 cups (480 ml) warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
5 cups (675 g) bread flour
2½ tablespoons sugar
2½ tablespoons milk powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons olive oil (175 ml) plus more for greasing and serving
1 tablespoon crunchy sea salt
1. In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the warm water and yeast. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, milk powder and salt. After about 5 minutes, add the olive oil to the yeast mixture. With the machine running on low, gradually add the flour mixture. Continue mixing for about 2 minutes, until it comes together. Dump out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead by hand for about 2 minutes.
2. Grease a large bowl with olive oil. Dump the dough into the bowl, and cover with a towel. Place the dough in a warm, draft-free spot, and let it rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
3. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with about ¼ cup (60 ml) of the olive oil. Dump the risen dough into the pan, turn it to make sure the top is well-oiled, and use a combination of pressing and pulling to get the dough to the corners of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
4. Two hours before serving, bring the dough out of the refrigerator to rise. Set a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 500 degrees F, using a pizza stone if you have it — you’ll get much better spring in the focaccia.
5. When the dough has doubled in size, about an hour or so, push it down with outspread fingers, making dimples in the dough. Drizzle with another ¼ cup (60 ml) of the olive oil, and generously sprinkle with crunchy sea salt.
6. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. If you can, wait until it’s cooled to dig in. We serve this with plenty of extra oil poured on top, too.
— From “Getaway” by Renee Erickson with Sara Dickerman (Abrams, $40)