You guys. I am fascinated by bread. It’s like magic. Really! Flour (essentially ground up grass, people), water, salt, and yeast magically combine and transform each other into the most basic food there is. I mean, think about it. There are as many recipes, flavor profiles, and add-ins as there are people on the planet. You can go in any direction you want and it’ll still probably turn out delicious. And yet, it’s one of the most terrifying things to make… at least the first time. Yeast is intimidating to a lot of people. I think it’s fear that you’ll kill it off in the beginning and then do all that work just to pull a dense, flat, flavorless loaf from the oven.
The first bread I ever made was the famous, Jim Lahey No Knead Bread. You know, the one every food blogger alive has posted about. It was so simple, and it’s a great way to sort of jump in to bread baking, but you know, only in the ankle deep part of the shallow end of the pool. It was a great confidence booster when it turned out not just edible, but actually tasty. So once I realized that I could totally handle this, I started to branch out a little. I made white bread, and wheat bread, and dinner rolls… And then I discovered focaccia. Focaccia is like that super fun friend you have that is up for anything. The laid back one who goes along with whatever and who always has a great time. Really! It’s the most straightforward dough to make, but then you can add whatever you want to it, and I don’t think you could mess it up.
Um, Emily? That kind of sounds like pizza… I know, and it’s actually like pizza’s cousin. You don’t usually add as many toppings to focaccia as you would to pizza, but the dough is very similar. You’re just sort of seasoning focaccia, so you have a bread that will (hopefully) accent your meal, rather than be a meal, like pizza. Focaccia should be fairly flat, and have a delightfully crispy, crusty outside with a tender, rustic inside. It’ll usually rise a little more than a pizza-type dough since you’re not weighing it down with as many toppings; and it’s a more substantial bread since most of the surface area will be exposed and will bake up crusty and golden, unlike with pizza where we cover it with sauce and cheese so the crust is only really crusty on the bottom and the edges.
If you have any inclination at all to get into bread baking, you should definitely try focaccia. I most often make it very simply with just sliced olives, rosemary, salt and olive oil. It makes a great appetizer, or addition to your meal – I’ve even sliced it and used it for sandwiches. I found this particular recipe a couple of years ago when I was looking for something a little more creative for having guests over, and it has become my favorite thing to make to impress people. The original recipe was for strawberries and maple balsamic onions (a divine combination, you guys. Divine.), and I have made that several times with excellent results, but figs are in season right now so I substituted them in for the berries. I actually like the strawberries a little better since they are a little more tart than figs, which I think balances out the sweet onions a little better, but it was still delicious. I love cooking things like strawberries and figs, etc, in the oven – the flavors get a little deeper, a little more intense, and they get all crispy edges and soft insides… In other words, they get perfect.
So, go forth and knead! If you’ve never tried a yeast bread before, I encourage you to give it a go. It’s really pretty simple, and it’s very satisfying to turn that dough up above into this:
And don’t be afraid to get creative with your toppings – I’d love to hear about your favorite focaccia bread, so please share!
Strawberry Focaccia with Maple-Balsamic Onions
1¼ oz package dry yeast
1 cup warm water (100–110 degrees F)
1 teaspoon honey
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup plus 5 Tbs olive oil, divided
1 medium sweet onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2½ teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1½ teaspoons pure maple syrup
1 cup strawberries, hulled and sliced lengthwise into 1/8–inch pieces
8–10 fresh basil leaves, sliced chiffonade
Coarse sea salt
Combine yeast, water and honey in a medium bowl; let rest for about 5 minutes, until bubbles form on the top. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and kosher salt; set aside. Add ¼ cup of olive oil to the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour wet ingredients into dry. Stir well to combine, then turn dough onto a lightly flour surface and knead until dough is smooth and supple, about 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and place it in a bowl greased with ½ tablespoon olive oil. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let rest until the dough approximately doubles in size, about 1 hour.
Brush a 9×13–inch baking sheet with ½ tablespoon olive oil. Remove dough from bowl and press it into the sheet with your fingers until it touches the edges. Using your fingers, gently press indentations into the dough, all over the surface. Gently brush the dough with 2 tablespoons of olive oil; let rest, lightly covered, until it puffs up slightly, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and caramelized, 15–20 minutes. Stir in balsamic vinegar and maple syrup; let cook until liquid is evaporated, 2–3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly press figs into the top of the dough, then scatter onions and basil evenly across the top. Drizzle remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top and sprinkle with sea salt to taste. Bake until the focaccia is golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting into pieces. Serve drizzled with more olive oil or spread with fresh goat cheese.
*As I mentioned above, I have also used strawberries here. I really think you could substitute any number of things with outstanding results, so if you don’t have/like figs use whatever you want.