Get to the heart of Italian baking with focaccia

  • Olive oil softens flour for focaccia without compromising gluten development.

    Olive oil softens flour for focaccia without compromising gluten development. ASSOCIATED Press File Photo

 
Posted1/20/2015 5:30 AM

Editor's note: Annie Overboe is taking some time off. This column originally appeared in January 29, 2003.

Look closely into the world of breads and you will understand how ancient cultures left their unique imprint upon our food.

 

Bakers began with the simple ingredients of flour, water and salt. A sprinkle of yeast breathed life into dough while local flavors imparted their distinctive and memorable tastes. From its humble beginnings as a meal accompaniment, bread evolved over thousands of years into diverse textures, exotic tastes and sensational aromas.

At the heart of Italian baking you will discover focaccia. Derived from the Latin word focacia, meaning hearth or fireside, this ancient flatbread originally was made as free-form loaves using scraps of dough pieces from the day's production. Knead the scraps together, add a splash of olive oil and a sprig of fresh herb and the small fragrant rounds crackle in the intense heat of a well-stoked fire.

Surprisingly, this complicated sounding bread hides an easy and forgiving style. The dough pulls together fast despite its varied list of ingredients. A quick 1-minute knead (can this be called kneading?) and you're ready to rise to new heights.

In this recipe fast action yeast works well and does not diminish flavor or texture. When working with yeast, the liquid ingredients must feel warm, not hot, to the touch. High temperatures will kill the yeast and your dough will never rise.

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The secret behind great focaccia lies in olive oil, a fragrant liquid fat. When included in the dough, olive oil softens the texture without compromising gluten development. The end result offers a light and airy crumb highlighting that anticipated chewiness.

In its role as the dominant topping, olive oil partners with garlic to provide intense flavor in each bite. Other additions such as spices, herbs and onions, enhance the multidimensional tastes.

But let's not forget about those signature dimples? Here's my technique and I use it twice in this recipe. To fit the dough into the pan, lightly grease fingers with olive oil and gently stretch to edge. Using a fast motion, punch fingers down until dough fits evenly and reaches the pan sides. To create dimples before baking, punctuate dough with greased fingers leaving deep impressions but not completely deflating the risen dough.

For today's recipe, I chose a pizza pan-style in lieu of free-form or the modern rectangular versions. The large round shape creates an impressive presentation and attractive wedge-sized portions. A sprinkling of cornmeal in the pan provides a firm bottom crust that establishes a contrasting background texture against the light airy bread.

Focaccia can be enjoyed as a cosmopolitan take on garlic bread or adorned with savory toppings to create a meal. Try this versatile recipe and leave a lasting impression with your family tonight.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Oakbrook Terrace. To submit a topic to be addressed in this column, write to Baking Secrets, Daily Herald Food section, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006. Or send an email to food@@dailyherald.com. Questions will not be responded to personally.

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