When I lived in Italy, I was more homesick for the States than I’d expected to be, but one part of Florentine life that kept me cheerfully distracted from those pangs was the reverent culture toward food: simple, delicious, classic foods that feed the soul. I especially looked forward to my almost-daily marketing trips to the nearby Mercato Centrale—I had my butcher, my fishmonger, my fruit vendor and the woman who dished up the most divine homemade pasta for nights when I didn’t feel like cooking much. But carb-lover that I am, I particularly bonded with my various bakers; bakers of sweets and special pastries and sellers of basic breads alike. Now, much of the bread in Tuscany is unsalted—a regional distinction that’s become tradition, and a ridiculous one if you ask me, because it only dates back to World War II when salt was strictly rationed—and it takes some serious getting used to. But ciabatta and focaccia, thankfully, are spared from inclusion in that bland school of baking, and are wonderfully flavorful multi-taskers. Perfect warm out of the oven, dipped in some olive oil drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a little parmesan cheese as an appetizer or split in half and used as a robust sandwich bread, this herb-infused dough is easy to make. And there’s nothing like the yeasty smell of homemade bread filling the house. This focaccia is a delightful homage to my best memories of my time, youthfully skipping through the streets of Firenze as if I were in my very own Merchant Ivory tableau, munching on a snack from the bakery.
- 2 packages active dry yeast (or 5 teaspoons yeast)
- 1¾ cups warm water (between 105° and 115° F)
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- ¾ cup plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
- ½ teaspoon granulated garlic
In the bowl of a stand-mixer, dissolve the yeast and the sugar in the warm water. Allow it to stand, until foamy, about five minutes. Meanwhile, combine the minced herbs. Remove about teaspoon of the herb mixture and set it aside. Once the yeast has proofed, to the bowl of the mixer add ½ cup of the olive oil, the flour, herbs, pepper, garlic, and the salt. Attach the dough hook, and stir to combine. Knead on low speed until the dough is smooth but elastic, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add additional flour as necessary, up to about a ½ cup, to keep the dough from sticking. Form the kneaded dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise in a warm, draft-free spot for 1-1½ hours until it’s doubled in bulk.
Use ¼ cup of olive oil to evenly coat a half-sheet pan. Turn the dough out into the pan and press it evenly into the corners. Allow it to rest for a few minutes if it’s too elastic to spread without springing back. Cover the pan loosely with a clean, dry kitchen towel and allow the dough to rise again in a warm, draft-free spot until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450° F. Dimple the dough by pressing your fingertips into it at 1-inch intervals over the surface. Using a pastry brush, paint the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil onto the surface of the dough and sprinkle with sea salt to taste, and the reserved herb mixture. Bake the focaccia until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Allow the focaccia to cool in the pan, on a wire rack.
Tomboy’s Guide Old Fashioned Proofing Hack:
Okay, so let’s say you don’t have a fancy oven that has an official “proofing” setting (cough cough, I don’t either). If you were to just find a warm spot in your home for your dough to rise, you could be waiting all day! Instead, here’s a handy trick from the olden days: when you’re ready to proof your dough, boil a kettle of water. Position the racks in your oven such that you can fit the bowl your dough is in above another rack holding a pie pan or similarly sized dish. Pour the hot water into the dish, shut the oven door, and allow the warmth from the steam to proof your dough to perfection!