There is literally *nothing* that I find more repulsive in terms of food than ONIONS. Except maybe a slab of pork or a can of tunafish. Fortunately neither of those are found in any recipes within the Baked Elements cookbook! When I saw this week’s recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings, I was not thrilled: Cheesy Focaccia with Caramelized Onions and Sautéed Spinach. Ugh. I have never made focaccia, I adore Italian food, and I’m all about cheesy bread, so I was excited for this challenging experiment, but the onions would definitely have to go!
Focaccia is one of my favorite breads in existence. Any time I sit down to a nice Italian meal, if the waiter puts down a basket of piping hot, fresh focaccia, I can bet that the forthcoming food is going to be great. I feel like fresh, hand-crafted bread at a restaurant is the ultimate demonstration of creating food with love. This attention to detail shows that the kitchen cares about every crumb that gets puts on the table in front of a customer. I’ve always assumed that focaccia must be complicated to make, and even in reading over this recipe, I was a little concerned; but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the greatest skill you need is… patience.
I am a wee bit intimidated by bread-baking and working with yeast, as I don’t have a lot of experience in this baking discipline. But as always, I reminded myself that that is one of the best things about Baked Sunday Mornings– trying new, interesting techniques and recipes! Bread always seems like such a hassle and a major project, but I learned this week that it doesn’t have to be.
I debated whether or not I was going to embark on this recipe, because although it isn’t that difficult (despite my initial trepidation), it does take several hours from start to finish, as the dough needs to proof/rest several times. No matter, I was able to make dinner and wash dishes while waiting for the dough in its various stages. I haven’t yet wrapped my head around how AWESOME this recipe is– Quite frankly, I am utterly shocked that this gorgeous pan of Italian bread came out of my oven! (*beams with pride*) As I said, I don’t consider myself a bread baker; I generally stick to baking desserts. However, this gem of a recipe may have actually changed how I perceive my baking style and preferences– I’m already trying to think of occasions to make focaccia again!
Now, I say all of this in retrospect; even once I had started making the dough, I almost threw in the towel because it seemed that I had ruined it almost immediately. Much as I adore all the BAKED cookbooks, I have to say that the dough instructions are a little vague here, especially for a newbie bread baker. Thanks to a pep talk from my trusty Baked Sunday Mornings crew, I didn’t give up! I believe that this dough must be very forgiving, because I probably overworked it while trying to figure out if I had messed it up.
The focaccia dough is made by mixing all-purpose flour, bread flour, instant yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer, then adding warm water and olive oil to activate the yeast and form a sticky dough. The directions say to mix the dough with a dough hook until it begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it doesn’t pull away, you add flour a couple of tablespoons at a time. However, the recipe doesn’t indicate how long this process might take. Not having much experience with making bread, I had no idea if it would take five minutes or half an hour. After about ten minutes, the dough was still quite wet and sticky; I added flour, but this didn’t help. I ended up adding a total of 8 tablespoons, and still… no change. At this point, the dough had probably been mixing for about 15 minutes, and I was fairly certain that I had made a mistake. Wrong water temperature? Mismeasured ingredients? Incorrect mixer speed?
Not knowing what to do, I walked away from the dough, assuming it was ruined– surely it couldn’t take this long. I felt really discouraged, and I didn’t have time to start over; I figured there would be no focaccia after all. However, after consulting my fellow bakers, I learned that the mixing times vary wildly depending on your mixer (mine is a 2005 KitchenAid), so even though my dough had been sitting in the mixer bowl idle for a good while, I turned it back on to see if it could be rescued. To my relief, after a few more minutes of mixing, the dough finally started to pull away from the sides of the bowl! It probably took a total of 20 minutes or so, and it was still quite sticky when I turned it out onto my wooden board. I had no idea how the dough would behave after my interrupted mixing process, but I took it one step at a time…
The next step is to stretch the dough into a rectangle, then fold it over itself in a “letterfold”, tuck it into a ball, and place it in an oiled bowl to rest for 30 minutes. This was to be done three times. I couldn’t resist peeking at my dough in its covered bowl, and I was thrilled to see that it was, in fact, expanding! Each time I took it out to stretch and fold, it got easier to handle, smoother, and more elastic. Score! It was then time to stretch it out on a half-sheet pan sprinkled with cornmeal for more proofing; despite the promising evidence thus far, I still wasn’t sure if the dough would cooperate.
Lo and behold, my dough rectangle was gradually growing taller and puffier– in spite of the earlier problems it appeared that I would actually end up with a bread resembling focaccia! In the meantime, I heated the oven (along with a baking pan filled with water to create a moist baking environment), chopped the fresh rosemary and thyme, shredded the cheeses, and sautéed the spinach. No onions need be cut and cooked.
The dough then gets stretched to the edges of the pan and rests briefly before being brushed with rosemary-olive oil and sprinkled with thyme, dried oregano, salt, and pepper. Because I was omitting the onions, I decided to use garlic-infused olive oil as an additional layer of flavor (combined with the rosemary)– this proved to be an excellent life choice. I should mention that chopping fresh herbs is one of my least favorite culinary tasks, particularly thyme, because it’s a pain to strip the tiny leaves from the stems. I suppose one could use all dried herbs to avoid this step, but I imagine that the fresh herbs make a big difference in the flavor of the finished focaccia, so it was totally worth it.
Finally the dough went into a 450°F oven for ten minutes. When I peeked through the window, I couldn’t believe that my dough looked… amazing! It had developed a crust and started to brown, at which point it was time to remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the beautiful focaccia with the cheeses, sautéed spinach, and red pepper flakes. The recipe calls for shredded whole-milk mozzarella and Pecorino-Romano– YUM. I had trouble finding the whole-milk mozzarella, so I decided to substitute one of my favorite Italian cheeses: asiago.
Back into the oven it went for another eight minutes or so. When I pulled the pan out, the cheese was bubbly and lightly browned, and the bread had a crisp exterior with a beautiful golden brown color around the edges. I seriously couldn’t believe I had made this bread masterpiece– it looked like an actual professional focaccia!
My kitchen smelled amazing– bread, garlic, cheese, and herbs! I couldn’t wait to cut into it, and fortunately I didn’t have to, as this bread is best served right out of the oven. The interior of the bread looked just right: soft and rustic with irregular air pockets, neither over- nor under-baked!
I bit into the warm focaccia and was immediately greeted by a lovely marriage of bold flavors: Italian cheeses, garlic, salt, and olive oil. The texture contrast of crunch and softness was fabulous: the bread was oh-so-pillowy with a pleasant chewiness and the crust was perfectly crisp. Also lending wonderful crunchiness was the cornmeal on the bottom, chopped herbs, and the freshly ground sea salt that I used to garnish the top. I highly recommend grinding the salt if you can, as it provides brighter salt flavor in addition to the crunch. Despite using just a small amount of red pepper flakes, the topping had a nice spicy bite due to the garlic olive oil.
There are few BAKED recipes that I’ve made and not enjoyed, but this one is really amongst my all-time favorites. Almost without fail, every time I’ve been skeptical about a recipe, I have been richly rewarded for taking the risk, and this was a shining example– I never thought I’d be making focaccia. In thinking about how close I came to giving up when my dough appeared to be ruined, I am just so glad that I stuck with it. Whether or not you are an experienced bread baker, this recipe is totally doable– give it a whirl. You too can make delicious, artisan Italian bread!
One more thing: the focaccia bread itself is just begging for topping variations. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is change it up and make it my own, so of course my brain immediately jumped to variation ideas. I think pesto with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmegiano-Reggiano or feta would be heavenly, as would roasted garlic with chopped olives and the Italian cheese of your choice. The possibilities are endless… Prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala, anyone??
The recipe for Cheesy Focaccia with Sautéed Spinach (and Caramelized Onions… if you like that sort of thing) can be found at Baked Sunday Mornings. Take a peek at my baking buddies’ focaccias while you’re at it!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.