When I was in high school, my friends and I all had those typical jobs that sixteen year olds have – fast food, retail. Yep, that about covers it. Those two hired a lot of goofball, unqualified kids because we were cheap. Little did they know. While I was folding jeans over and over and over at The Gap, my friends were making sub sandwiches, working the town drive throughs and rocking really ugly brown polyester uniforms at Taco Bell. Several of my good pals worked the local Dairy Queen – jackpot! I’d order small fries and get a heaping tray full served with a big grin. A simple ice cream cone? It was always bigger than my head. Sometimes I got both, without asking. (How did these owners ever make any money?) Ah, those were the days!
A few friends worked at Pizza Hut where in addition to getting extra gratis toppings and free pizzas, I learned that every pan got several large squirts of vegetable oil before the dough went in. The crust essentially sizzled and fried in the oil as it baked. It was heavenly (as most things dosed in oil are. Am I right?)
Fast-forward many years. I can’t even remember when I last had a Pizza Hut pie – probably in high school. I live in a good pizza town and my favorite now is very different and a far far cry from those high school pizzas. These days, it’s all about wood fired ovens for charred, blistery crusts and fancy artisanal ingredients. You put burrata on a pizza and I will be there in 1.2 seconds flat, let me tell you what. My tastes may have changed but I still remember that crispy, oily and utterly delicious crust.
Recently, I was at an Italian restaurant with a surprisingly good breadbasket and was reminded again of that crust. In addition to the usual bread options, there were long thin slices of outstanding foccacia. Dusted with sea salt, rosemary and enough oil to leave a slick on your fingers, I ate it all and asked for more. (I’m dainty that way.) The bottom was brown, crunchy and very reminiscent – oh I hate to say it – of those Hut crusts. There was a lot of olive oil at play here. Right on!
So I decided to try it. After a couple failures, I got back on the horse today and gave it another whirl. Do you have recipes that have worked for years and then suddenly don’t? That’s my foccacia. What the hell is up with that? For my final go I mustered up the energy today and tweaked the quantities, stared at my yeast intently, willing it to bubble. I made a half batch, gave the pan a really good shot of oil then more on top, crossed my fingers (and toes) and popped it in the oven. Almost a half hour later, out came a golden, beautiful crusty pan glistening with a bit of oil and salt crystals. And it was damn good. Exactly how I remember but 400 times better.
A couple things to keep in mind. The potatoes give this bread a great texture. I’ve tried all kinds of focaccia recipes and have discovered that I vastly prefer those with potato in the dough. It keeps the dough soft and toothsome and seems to make it keep longer. I use a regular old Idaho spud, peeled and boiled until tender (10-15 minutes) then run through a ricer. I’m a big fan of the ricer – it makes the smoothest mashed potatoes ever. If you don’t have one, just make sure to mash them really well. Leftover mashed potatoes work too – that’s what my nonna would do (uh, if I had one of those.) Just don’t pack them into the measuring cup – you want a loose cup and a half.
The dough starts out with a sponge – just mix some yeast, flour and water – for a pre-ferment before making the rest of the dough. It gives the yeast a nice little jump-start. If you use instant yeast rather than active dry yeast, things will move a bit faster so just keep an eye on it.
If you want to jazz it up – do it! But please keep in mind that this is not a pizza. Use an easy hand. Fresh chopped sage in the dough is lovely, as are most herbs. If you want to put cheese on top – goat or parmesan are nice – go easy and add it toward the end so it doesn’t burn. Same with garlic and fresh herbs. Oh, keep in mind that stale focaccia makes a great stuffing so you may want to make extra. I’m just saying.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: MOLTO BUONO! I’ve said it before; baking bread is extremely relaxing and satisfying, especially if you do if completely by hand. The kneading, the smell, the satisfaction of seeing a dough rise is good for the soul. Eating fresh bread will warm you from the ends of your earlobes to the tips of your toes. If you’re feeling a bit blue, bake some bread. I do it all the time and I swear it works. Then I have a sandwich. Or two.
Makes ½ sheet pan, so what’s that … something like eighteen 3”x3” pieces?
1 ½ teaspoon active dry yeast
½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
½ warm water (about 100°F or warm to the touch)
1 ½ cups mashed potato (about an 8 ounce potato)
3 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
2/3 cup warm water
2 ¼ teaspoons olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
for the pan:
scant ½ cup olive oil for the pan + more for drizzling on top
1 Tablespoon dry rosemary, crumbled
2 teaspoons coarse-grained sea salt (or so)
- For the sponge: in a mixing bowl, combine the yeast, flour and water and stir to combine.
- Let sit, uncovered, until puffy and bubbly – about 15-30 minutes.
- For the dough: to the sponge, add the remaining ingredients – mashed potatoes, remaining flour, water, 2 ¼ teaspoons olive oil and kosher salt.
- Fit a standing mixer with the dough hook and mix on low until the dough comes together.
- Once the dough comes together, increase the speed to medium or medium-high until you have a smooth dough, about 4-5 minutes. (You can absolutely do this by hand too – add all the ingredients and begin to bring together with your hands, turning out on a work surface to knead. Knead until smooth.)
- Turn the dough out and give a few kneads on a lightly floured work surface.
- First rise: Spray the same bowl with cooking spray, place the dough back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
- Place in a comfy, warm spot and allow to rise until doubled – about 45-60 minutes.
- Shaping: pour about ½ cup olive oil into a ½ sheet pan and swirl it about to coat evenly. Set aside until needed.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and gently stretch it into a rectangle, about the size of the pan.
- Place the dough in the oiled pan, stretching gently to fill out the pan.
- Spray the top of the dough with cooking spray (to prevent sticking) and lightly cover with plastic wrap.
- Second rise: again, place in a warm, comfy spot and allow to rise until double and puffy, reaching the top of the pan – about 45-60 minutes.
- About 15 minutes before the final rise is complete, place a rack in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Remove the plastic wrap and using your fingertips, dimple the dough over the entire surface. Careful not to be too aggressive – you want to dimple, not deflate.
- Drizzle the surface with olive oil – a Tablespoons or two, then sprinkle the dried rosemary and sea salt on top.
- Bake: until golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Check the bottom, it should be nice and golden brown. If the top gets too brown, cover with foil and continue to bake.
- Let cool (if you can) then slice and enjoy. Best enjoyed the day it’s made but if there are any leftovers, wrap tightly and store at room temperature.