Sunday, September 6, 2009

Post-birthday Baking Bash - Peter Reinhart's Poolish Focaccia

It was my birthday last week. 26. The year you officially turn closer to thirty than twenty. It wasn’t as traumatizing as I thought it would be. After all, getting older also means I’ve had more time to accomplish things; and I’m looking forward to getting more things done for the year to come.

Laurent made me a scrumptious dinner to celebrate, and most of his presents also reflected my interest in food, as well as this blog. I’ve actually been using one of the presents for a few weeks now: a Lowel EGO light, for food photography. I’m still learning to use it optimally, but it has definitely made taking adequate pictures much easier: I don’t have to wait for the sunlight to hit my window anymore!

I also got Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes. I don’t make cupcakes very often, but I’ve always thought of them as a handy treat to bring to a party or gathering, and I have long thought I should learn to make good ones. I haven’t tried a recipe yet, but I will soon!

And the other cookbook I received was one I had been anxiously expecting: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Finally, the secrets of bread baking would be revealed to me!

Well, they may have been revealed, but I’m not sure I absorbed them all. I got the gist of what enzymes do, and why bread formulas are useful, but a lot of details were lost on me. But rather than go over them again, I decided to just go for it and try one of the recipes. I couldn’t wait to get my hands in the dough.

Well, I did have to wait a little bit, because I chose to make the poolish focaccia, which takes two days to make. I wanted to make a type of bread which I had already baked at least once, so that I could tell the difference between Reinhart’s version and the others. Also, Nicole at Pinch My Salt had so much praise for this particular focaccia, that I had to try it out for myself.

So, I made the poolish, which is a very wet pre-ferment composed of water, yeast and flour, and let it hang out on the counter for a couple of hours, as indicated. It bubbled and foamed so much that it looked like it was trying to escape from its bowl and eat my pet rabbit. I then let it chill out in the fridge overnight.

The next day, having dreamt about dough all night (yes, I was that excited), I got to work bright and early. Well, the first step consisted in bringing the poolish back to room temperature – which meant more waiting. After an hour out of the fridge, the poolish had definitely woken up, and was bubbling and trying to push its way through the plastic film I had covered it with. Scary!

After that, I was finally allowed to actually make the dough. I mixed it by hand, and felt that particular glee that you can see on little children’s faces when they’re playing in the mud. It took me a while to accept that cooking and baking are messy businesses – but now that I have, I revel in the clouds of flour and the sticky hands.

There wasn’t much kneading involved for this recipe, as the dough had to remain soft and sticky. I transferred it to the very large brand-new cutting board I had just bought, and proceeded to stretching and folding it every 30 minutes, three times over. Then I let it ferment and grow for an hour.

And boy, did it ever grow.

While that was going on, I was busy in the living room, garnishing the raspberry macarons I had baked the previous day (I literally spent two whole days in front of the oven). Laurent walked by while I was doing that, and gasped in delight at the sight of the lovely little bright pink jewels in front of me (which I will post about some other day). Then he walked into the kitchen – and gasped in shock.

The focaccia dough had risen to ridiculous proportions. I had already noticed that it seemed rather larger than the pictures in the book to begin with, but now it was officially a monster. I still have no idea what could have made it so… alive. Maybe it all started with that freaky poolish… But how would I know?

I transferred it to an oiled baking sheet, and let it proof. The point of this last rise was to have the focaccia fill the baking sheet entirely; but to be honest, it practically filled it from the moment I put it there – it was that big. Still, I let it proof some more, for as long as I could without panicking that my bread would come out too yeasty. But when it looked like this:

even after I had seasoned it and dimpled it with my fingers (a sensual experience if there ever was one), I decided enough was enough, and pre-heated my oven.

So much for Peter Reinhart’s preference for a flat, cripsy focaccia. I knew this was going to be a puffy beast (or, in Reinhart's words, "obnoxiously thick") before I even put it in the oven.

Although, to be fair, it did come out quite crispy – at least on the outside. It had a beautiful colour, and a nice, thin crust. The whole thing was very puffy, to be sure, but it wasn’t as overly chewy as I had feared. And the crumb? It was without contest the best I had ever made: cool and flavourful, and full of airy holes. So really, it doesn’t matter so much that I didn’t get this exactly right the first time: it was still a damn good bread.

I chose not to use overly strong toppings, so as not to mask the taste of the bread itself. I just drizzled on some extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled some fresh rosemary, fleur de sel, dried red pepper flakes, and freshly ground pepper. But this is definitely a bread I will make again and again, with endless variations. It’s certainly a lengthier process than the focaccias I’ve baked before, but the improvement is noticeable. Not that the previous focaccias were bad (I will happily continue making them on days when I’m short on time) – but this one is better.

The first third was eaten with vegetable soup. The second was eaten two days later, in delicious BLTs. I’m not sure what will happen to the last third, but I have a feeling we’ll be fighting over it: even though the bread isn’t quite as good as on the day it was made, it will still make killer toast.

I am one spoiled kitchen princess.


  1. Happy belated birthday. 20 to 30 wasn't bad for me. Closer to 40...well, today I'm not thrilled with it.

    The focaccia looks delicious.


  2. Happy Birthday! The poolish looks delicious =D. I love breads like that, especially with herbs on top!

  3. Oh my goodness. This looks so carbohydratey-delicious. The herbs make it sound (and look) absolutely tantalizing.

  4. I love a good foccacia & tyours looks delectable!!

    I just gave you an award, Valérie!! Please come over @ my blog & pick it up!! Why? You can read it over there!

  5. Happy belated birthday! I'd be thrilled with either of those cookbooks--lucky you!

    Looking forward to meeting up with you on Saturday...see you then.

  6. Mmm looks delicious - I love focaccia! Happy Birthday!

  7. Premièrement, Bonne Fête Valérie!
    Wow, tu as vraiment été choyée, n'est-ce pas! J'adore les 2 livres que tu as reçus. Je te souhaite une bonne lecture et plusieurs heures de plaisirs dans ta cuisine. J'ai aussi une lampe Ego depuis peu, et j'éprouve quelques difficultés à l'utiliser adéquatement...

    Ta poolish focaccia a l'air délicieuse et elle a une très jolie mie! J'en prendrais bien une bouchée:))

  8. Happy belated birthday!! You're still so young... lol... I wish I was 26 again!
    I love your focaccia and your description of the scary monster it was becoming. Hilarious. I can almost see it creeping out of the bowl and getting a life of it's own! (my imagination can sometimes go wild... haha) It looks delicious though. I might have to get myself a good breadbaking book too.