This is where I admit straight off that I’m not really a bread maker. Making bread at home seems to be one of those things that some people adopt with a passion; for me it’s always been a bit of experimentation from time to time or – as in the case of focaccia – some fun when entertaining.
My bread making experiments began back in the late 1970s/early 1980s when people tried to emulate the ‘healthy’ wholemeal loaves being newly sold in health-food shops. Certainly the kind of bread we bought in bakeries and supermarkets at the time was a long way from the glorious artisan bread that’s been available to us in recent years. The mass-produced version was doughy, rather disgusting slices of bread, heavily laced with nasty additives.
Now in London we’re awash with lovely artisan bakeries selling delicious sourdough loaves and all kinds of variations of bread, and even the bread on offer in supermarkets is healthier and nicer to eat. A few years ago some people became excited by electric bread makers for the home – the kind where you dropped all the ingredients into the machine at bedtime and came down to fresh bread in the morning. A kind of bread slow cooker. As far as I’m aware, most of those machines have been moved to a dark, isolated corner … much like most slow cookers. But there is now a fashion for making real bread; making one’s own sourdough starter and doing the whole thing properly. I’m in awe of this kind of dedication and although I absolutely love good bread, would even admit to an addiction to good bread, I’ve never had any real appetite for making my own.
But now with the pandemic turning our lives upside down and having to rethink not just our whole world but how we eat, bread is something to think about. Now we can’t just pop out for a nice fresh artisan loaf; the supermarket shelves are empty of flour; flour-making factories are working overtime to try to cope. So maybe – if you can get some flour! – it’s time to rethink home baking and decide that perhaps there’s something to be said for it.
I’ve been kept stocked up on lots of things by my wonderful local Italian Deli – Corto Italian Deli Twickenham. Romina posts what’s come in her delivery each day and you can order a home delivery. One day she brought me a large slice of focaccia and I cut it into six generous pieces, putting 5 in the freezer. At lunchtime I can get one out and pop it in my toaster to warm through. Then I saw she had some fresh yeast. Fresh yeast! And flour! Well there was no question of backing off from this opportunity. I would make my own focaccia. I’ve done it plenty of times before and it would be fun in these restricted times. I could put on whatever topping I fancied. And how great it would be to take a slice of my own Italian bread from the freezer at lunchtimes.
For the recipe click here for a previous post that details precisely what to do. Yesterday I decided to go very traditional and make it ‘Focaccia Ligure’ style (for more about this click here – and here). With slices of potato, chopped rosemary picked from the bush in my garden, Maldon sea salt and lashing of gorgeous extra virgin olive oil, this was going to be pranzo superiore (superior lunch).
My first challenge when the flour and yeast arrived was that it had been a long time since I’d used fresh yeast! I was used to those little packets of the dried variety. So I had to consult my ancient Delia Smith’s Cookery Course to check on what to do. Actually it’s easier – you just melt it in the warm water and you’re ready to go.
I decided to do the whole thing by hand and eschew the electric mixer. I mixed the ingredients together and starting kneading. I remembered that I learnt to knead not making bread but making pots! I did O level (pre-GCSEs) Art at school, which included pottery, and we had to prepare our own clay. So kneading was a skill I learnt back in my teens. Kneading bread dough is the same. Really! It did strike me as I was doing it that it was very good exercise for one’s upper body and thus lungs (minor health input here)!
I put the prepared dough in a bowl, covered the bowl with a little cling film and left it to rise. I watched the magic ballooning of the dough. Wow! Really you have to be impressed, even if you’ve seen it many times before. It was close to being ready when the phone rang. I spent the next 45 minutes talking to my good friend Liz. Like others recently, she suggested we FaceTime. When you can’t go out and meet up an normal, and especially if you live on your own like me, it’s great to actually see people. In fact, I said to my daughter that in some ways my life was more social than normal; instead of lots of emails and texts, fixing times to meet up, people are phoning instead and one has the pleasure of a proper conversation.
I was having a lovely chat but keeping my eye on my dough through the doorway into my kitchen. Then suddenly I saw that the dough was no longer rising but seemed to be collapsing. I bid a fast farewell explaining and finished preparing the bread.
I’d already chopped rosemary; I’d boiled three little new potatoes, skinned and sliced. I knocked back the dough, stretched it out into a large oblong shape on a baking tray, put the toppings on and left it for its second rise. Then into a very hot oven for 15 minutes.
It looked good. When it cooled I cut it into 4 generous portions to freeze 3 and keep one for lunch the next day. It looked a little heavy and dense; I tasted. It was OK but not my best. Clearly one must be more attentive to timing! But it’s fresh, made with good ingredients and will still be a good treat. And I have more flour and yeast … Delia suggested freezing small amounts (I managed to get 3 x 15g pieces, the amount needed for the recipe) for up to 3 months. So there will be more focaccia. And next time I’ll suggest ringing back anyone who calls!