I rarely bake; by that I mean, I don’t make cakes (except the family favourite Torta Caprese for special occasions) and bread I mostly gave up on long ago. However, I did manage a pretty passable soda bread a little while ago, courtesy of the Fabulous Baker Brothers when I reviewed their book – and I do love making focaccia.
There were a few of us for dinner on Tuesday: Jonathan and Lyndsey (who have temporarily moved in with Zeph, their puppy), daughter Nicola and also my goddaughter Emma came with husband Ben. It seemed a good time to make focaccia and serve it with antipasti to begin the meal.
Focaccia is great party food. We may not have quite constituted a ‘party’ on Tuesday, but making a couple of these flat breads when you have a few people to feed is great. They look fabulous and you can top them simply with fresh herbs as I did on Tuesday, or tomatoes, onions or other things – much as you might top a pizza. If you have leftovers, or are planning a picnic, it will make brilliant sandwiches if you slice across pieces in half and fill with gorgeous things like prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, red onions … whatever you like best.
Focaccia is very quick and easy to make. I always use Antonio Carluccio’s recipe in My Favourite Italian Recipes.
Sift 500g strong white plain flour into a bowl. Mix 15g fresh yeast (or dry equivalent) with 300ml lukewarm water. Make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the yeasty water with 10g sea salt and 2 tablespoon olive oil. At this point you could use a food processor with a dough hook but I prefer my hands – and, to be honest, that always works best for me. I love the way you can feel the dough change texture as it becomes smoother and smoother, until you can judge with right consistency. And it only takes about 10 minutes of kneading. This is the soul of cooking, bringing yourself to what you cook and taking the time to feel it coming right. When your ball of dough is smooth you can check it’s elastic enough by pressing a finger a little way in and if the dip bounces back again, your dough is ready; if the hole stays visible, then knead for a while longer.
Put the dough in a bowl, cover with oiled clingy film and leave in a warm place for about an hour to rise to double its size. Then knock it down, knead just a little more, then flatten it out onto an oiled baking sheet – whatever shape you fancy, round, oval or square. Use your knuckles or fingertips to press little indentations into the surface. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons olive oil and spread, so it falls into the dips in the dough; now sprinkle over some coarse sea salt. I also put on some freshly chopped rosemary and thyme, but use any herbs you fancy. Leave it for another 30 minutes to rise again and then put into a hot (240C) oven for about 15 minutes. It will be nice and golden brown and the base, when tapped, should sound hollow. Sprinkle over another 2 tablespoons olive oil and your focaccia is ready – to eat more or less straight away warm, if you like, or it will keep nicely for later in the day.
Antipasti can be as simple or complex as you like: you can just use bought ingredients, if you prefer, but make sure you buy the best quality you can. If you’ve more time, you might like to cook some of the things.
On Tuesday I had a mix: some bought mozzarella and prosciutto but I also slow oven-roasted some baby tomatoes with olive oil and fresh thyme and I made some Peperoni alla Piedmontese – Piedmontese Peppers. These wonderful sweet peppers stuffed with small sections of fresh tomatoes, slices of garlic, a little chopped anchovy and some olive oil and seasoning and roasted till al dente for about 30 minutes have been one of my favourite dishes for over thirty years. I discovered them in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food and the delightful garlicky sweetness of them never fails to please me. They are best served cooled to room temperature – which is an added bonus when entertaining as they are actually better made (a little) in advance. The focaccia, of course, was great for mopping up the wonderful juices from them.
Despite the heavy rain outside, Jonathan insisted he still preferred to barbecue the koftas and marinated butterflied chicken rather than use the oven. So with a big umbrella (ostensibly for keeping the sun off in summer!), he gamely braved the bleak weather as we watched from inside. Thank you, Jonathan! The meat certainly tasted better for being barbecued. I’d used recipes from my ever-favourite Moro East book, roasted some baby new potatoes and made a big green salad. At least we could be summery inside the house!
Dessert involved some more baking … well, The Single Gourmet Traveller was going full guns on the baking front that day …. but dessert will be another blog post tomorrow … it deserves a post all of its own.