Saturday, May 16, 2009

My Idea of Resting: Focaccia and Bocconcini Tomatoes

I have lost my bread-baking virginity!

In my last post, I mentioned a focaccia that was in the process of rising. It was my way of celebrating the fact that I finally get to take a break from work, at least for a few days. It's been a busy school year, and I could feel myself starting to burn out during the last couple of months. But I made it, and one of my rewards (apart from sleeping and idly watching TV) was to spend as much time in the kitchen as I wanted.

So on Wednesday, the day after I got home from my last set of conferences, I pondered on what to make. Ideally, it would be a project which would require lots of time, as opposed to the quickie projects I've been doing recently. And it would have to be either a side dish or a dessert, because Laurent had already planned to make me something for dinner that night.

And so, I decided to tackle a project that had been lingering in my mind for a while: baking bread, all by myself.

Bread baking has always seemed incredibly intimidating to me, because it is a process I don't fully understand. Actually, to be honest, I am still awed, even today, by the baking process in general. I can understand cooking; but it still amazes me how flour, eggs, and butter can turn into cake, or cookies. And when it comes to bread, where rising is involved... well, I'm just floored by that. Even though I've read up on gluten, and how yeast works, and so forth, I still find it magical.

To be honest, I had made one type of bread before: pizza dough. Pizzas are normally Laurent's territory, and he really makes the best ones I've ever had. But one day, I was ticked off because he'd made fajitas in my absence, which are normally one of my specialties... so I decided to steal one of his recipes, and made pizza on my own. (As you can see, we're both a little territorial in the kitchen - but it works, in a weird, paradoxically dysfunctional kind of way.) And I did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

Nonetheless, I perceived a difference in making pizza, which rises at first but remains almost completely flat in the oven, and making a bread which rises and yields actual crumbs. I was worried about how the inner texture would come out. A foccacia seemed like a good compromise: it's technically a flatbread, but it is still much puffier than pizza bread.

So, with that in mind, I found an alluring focaccia recipe in Marcy Goldman's A Passion for Baking. I love this book. It's very versatile, with many different types of recipes in it (breads, cakes, muffins, cheesecakes, scones, doughnuts, tarts, cookies), and the instructions are limpid - perfect for a rookie like me.

Unfortunately, I won't give a recipe today, because, although the focaccia came out very nice, it's not quite perfect yet. Since I was making it to go with dinner, I decided to forgo the rather strong toppings which Marcy Goldman used (which included onions, black olives, and tomatoes), and went with more neutral flavours: olive oil, salt and pepper, dried oregano, and a dash of dried chili pepper. However, I should have put more salt in the dough to counter the absence of strong flavours, as it was a tad bland coming out of the oven (like the salt-free bread my grandmother eats for her blood pressure). And it's possible that I overkneaded the dough and put too much flour. So I'd like to try it again and tweak it a little, before posting a recipe.

The recipe yielded two 20 cm (8 in) breads, and I had enough leftover for two individual breads, which I experimented a little on: I topped one with truffle oil and oregano, and the other with sliced green olives and thyme. The truffle aroma evaporated in the oven, but the olive one tasted great, which proves that the original recipe really called for stronger toppings.

But... My focaccia rose! And it had crumbs and a fluffy interior! And my kitchen smelled like a bakery for a few hours! That alone made this first-time experience a success in my eyes!

Also, it went well with what Laurent had prepared for dinner: a classic tomato and bocconcini dish. I really feel like I don't need to give a recipe for this either, because it is so simple to make: get the best fresh bocconcini available (we use Saputo-brand Mozzarina), along with ripe, sweet tomatoes, slice them up, arrange them prettily with fresh basil, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (or, in this case, balsamic glaze) to taste, sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and fleur de sel, and presto! You can add some slices of prosciutto and parmesan shavings for a heartier meal.

To me, this dish signifies the return of summer - which is probably why we tend to eat it very often between May and September, in an effort to keep that summer vibe going for as long as possible.

And, because Laurent knows me so well, he had bought a bottle of Muscat Beaumes de Venise, my favourite sweet wine, which I also associate with leisurely sunny days.

So, between a new challenge and an old tradition, I'd say my first day of rest was absolutely perfect!


  1. Great job! I still haven't tackeled bread yet either but my brother has started to make this no knead bread with olives that I think I will start with. You have given me the confidence to take on bread! The focaccia looks great, let me know when you have perfected it. Oh, and that dish that Laurent prepared for dinner is one of my absolute favourites!

  2. Oh yeah, so I have to tell you about the beans... they were a BIG hit! Some people had never had black beans before, how wierd is that. I bought a bag of dried beans but when you soak and boil them they increase by 4X and I had so very many beans! Thank you so much for the recipe, it was a great addition.

  3. Oh, right, I'd forgotten about this! I'm so glad it worked out! I've only ever used canned beans so far (too lazy to soak the dry ones overnight), but it's probably more worthwhile to use dry ones if you're cooking for a lot of people.

    Good luck with tackling bread! It's really a lot of fun, and kneading is a great way to blow off some steam!

  4. Here's my theory developed over my life time - articulated only recently: everyone of these things/recipes/techniques we're intimidated by originated in a very crude kitchen and have been made by millions of men and women leading incredibly busy lives for hundreds (even thousands) of years. You can read, you can cook.
    (ok, quietly steps down off soap box)
    Your bread looks lovely and my goodness yes that baking bread aroma is just tops isn't it!
    Knead on! I'm still surprised and pleased with each loaf out of my oven.

  5. What a fine foccacia & what a divine buffalo mozerella salad: lovely flavour combination: MMMMMMMMMMMM,....!!!!