I have been making focaccia almost as long as I have lived in New York. My first job was at an Italian restaurant (which has since been closed, torn down and made into a parking garage) by Lincoln Center. I knew next to nothing about the restaurant business and I probably even had some delusions about making it somehow in the music business, so I spent my first few weeks there just picking herbs and slicing shoestring potatoes. Eventually they trusted me with some real work – salad dressings, veal meatballs, etc… When an opening appeared in their pastry department I quickly took it and I learned to make ice creams and sorbets, biscotti, pannacotta, and focaccia. Their pastry chef then recommended me for a pastry position at Zoë and I also made focaccia there every day for several years. It has always been my first choice for an easy and tasty bread recipe, and I’m actually surprised that I haven’t made it at home more often.
Do not be intimidated by this recipe. It is broken into several parts, the first is to make what is called a “sponge”, which rises for a bit by itself. More flour and water are then added to that to make the dough, which rises again. It is then placed in the baking pan for one more rising before it is baked. So even though there are three separate risings it can still be completed in about three hours. The dough can be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator, just check on it once in a while so it doesn’t rise too much.
Focaccia (makes one 18″x13″ pan)
1-1/2 cups warm water
2-1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1 package active dry yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
8 cups all-purpose flour
1-3/4 cups water
2-1/2 Tablespoons fine sea salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped mixed herbs
Olive oil for brushing
Coarse sea salt
Mix the warm water, sugar and yeast in the bowl of a electric mixer. Stir until the yeast is dissolved, then completely stir in the flour. Let it rest in a warm place for at least 30 minutes, until it starts to rise noticeably. Add the remaining flour and water, plus the salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, and the herbs. Mix on low speed with the dough hook attachment in your electric mixer until a dough is formed. Remove the dough from the the bowl and knead it several times by hand. Put the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1-1/2 or 2 hours.
Punch down the dough, then transfer it to a lightly oiled 18″x13″ baking pan. Stretch and push the dough with your fingers until it covers the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Let the dough rise for another 20 minutes or so in the pan until it rises a little bit. Brush the top with plenty of olive oil, and sprinkle with some coarse sea salt. Bake in the oven on the center rack until golden brown on top, maybe about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the focaccia from the pan to cool until you are ready to slice and serve it. I had leftover caramelized onions which I placed on top before baking – definitely a nice addition, but not necessary. We’ve eaten it with salsify puree soup this week as well as the bread for barbeque pulled pork sandwiches.