Focaccia, the gateway bread
The heat of summer seems like an odd time to crank up the oven, but there’s never a better time for chewy, flavor-packed focaccia. This recipe was the gateway bread for me, introducing me to the immense satisfaction that comes from pulling a gorgeous, incredibly aromatic loaf out of the oven. A basket of warm focaccia squares and spreads has become one of my potluck staples, and wedges of pressed sandwiches are perfect picnic fare. And with hungry kids home for the summer, there’s no better substrate for a grilled cheese sandwich or the perfect grilled burger than flavorful homemade bread.
Focaccia is a chewy, olive oil-kissed flatbread of Italian origin and is a simple recipe that should be in every baker’s repertoire. If you can scoop flour you can make this bread. Focaccia can be garnished simply with a sprinkle of coarse salt or fresh herbs, or topped almost like a pizza. My mother would often bring a duet of lavishly topped breads to parties: one topped with sliced red grapes and fresh rosemary, the other showered generously with thinly sliced onion and Asiago cheese.
The versatility and flexibility of this recipe is what makes it so fun to make, especially with kids. Stretch the dough thin for a chewy, crusty loaf, or shape it into a thicker loaf that is softer, yet still toothsome. The dough can be formed into rounds or stretched to fill a rectangular baking pan. It’s a snap to mix in a stand mixer, but totally manageable by hand also. The finished product also freezes beautifully. I like to individually wrap sandwich-sized squares in plastic wrap before freezing in a zip-close bag for quick lunch prep, and larger wedges wrapped in foil, ready to pop in the oven and serve alongside a hasty supper of frozen soup.
Large slabs of herb-and-cheese-topped focaccia are the basis for gorgeous pressed sandwiches that are fancy enough for a party and satisfying enough to pack in a picnic hamper. Slice the loaf in half laterally like a large hamburger bun. If the focaccia is on the thicker side, gently pull out some of the bread away from the middle of the loaf to make room for all the delicious fillings. Layer your choice of meats, cheeses, and vegetables into the loaf, then top and place the sandwich between two baking pans. Place it in the fridge and put something heavy on top like a jug of milk, for 30 to 60 minutes. After the sandwich has been pressed, slice it into wedges. These sandwiches keep well and can be made several hours in advance. Juicy fruits like cucumbers and tomatoes should be sliced, sprinkled with salt, and layered on paper towels to drain before using to prevent the sandwich from becoming soggy.
Some of my favorite pressed sandwich combinations include:
-Rosemary Focaccia with herbed goat cheese and grilled vegetables
-Focaccia topped with “everything bagel seasoning” layered with dill-caper cream cheese, smoked salmon, salted cucumbers and tomatoes
-Herbed focaccia layered with pesto mayonnaise, sliced ham, salami, provelone, roasted peppers, red onion, lettuce and chopped olives
1 cup whole-wheat flour
About 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt (if using regular salt reduce to 2 teaspoons)
2 ¼ teaspoons instant dry yeast
2 ½ cups cold water
1 tablespoon honey
About ½ cup olive oil, as needed
In a large bowl or in a stand mixer combine the flours, salt, yeast, water and honey. Mix with a spoon until the mixture just holds together, then let it rest for five minutes. Using a dough hook on the mixer, mix on low speed for seven to nine minutes, or knead with oiled hands, until the dough is smooth and extremely stretchy.
Generously oil another bowl, then transfer the dough to it and turn around in the bowl to coat it with the oil.
Grasp the dough with one hand and lift it up to stretch it. Fold the stretched dough over itself and repeat this action twice more. Then cover the bowl or container and place it in the fridge to rise overnight.
Remove the dough from the fridge an hour before you plan to bake it. Line a 13x18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and generously coat it with olive oil. Using a spatula or a greased hand, gently pry the dough out of the container and dump it into the center of the baking sheet. The dough will deflate slightly, and care should be taken not to destroy the delicate network of bubbles that was created in the fridge overnight. Using oiled fingers, create dimples all over the surface of the dough while stretching it to fit the pan. (Don’t worry about getting it all the way to the edge – it will fill in as it bakes.) You may also shape to dough into smaller rounds. (Baking time will need to be shortened accordingly.) Cover the dough with an inverted baking sheet and leave the rise at room temperature for about one hour.
When the dough has 30 minutes left to rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Once the dough has risen, drizzle with additional olive oil and toppings if desired, then place in the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, turning halfway through, until the bread is golden brown. It should have an internal temperature of 190-200 degrees on a meat thermometer.
Let the bread rest in the pan for 5 minutes, then lift it out with tongs and place it onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting.