Although I am a rather good cook, I must admit that making bread (other than dessert pumpkin and banana loaves) has always been a scary prospect for me. Memories of yeast gone awry mingle with those of the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel use too much yeast and create a monster bread that invades all of the Ricardo kitchen and most of the apartment before it is stopped by a quick-thinking Cuban playing the drums. I lived in Italy for several years and ate many a focaccia in my day, but dealing with yeast and its consequences were foreign and alien territory until I made my very first focaccia a few months ago.
Focaccia (for those out there who might not know) is an Italian peasant bread that doesnt require a loaf pan or fancy ingredients. It is designed to be eaten without utensils and, like the French crepe and Mexican taco, is a way to make use of fresh produce and to get rid of leftovers. Its made with yeast, formed into flat loaves and brushed with olive oil, herbs and sometimes vegetables. It is tasty, easy to dress up and very versatile. It can be sweet or savory, served with a meal, as a snack or as the base for its more famous second cousin twice-removed, the pizza. The name derives from the Latin word for focus, meaning hearth.
The beginnings of focaccia are linked with those of pizza, but there is no question that focaccia came first. (Pizza as we know it did not evolve until the late 1600s when tomatoes burst upon the Old World scene via the Conquistadors, and the Neapolitans began to cook them with their breads.) In prehistoric times, bread was cooked on flat, hot stones. Roughly 1,000 years ago, herb and spice-covered "circles" of baked dough became very popular in Naples, Italy. (This was BTVASL, unlike BC, and refers to the time period before the Vespa and Sophia Loren.) These rounds were known as focaccia and served as an appetizer or snack. In The Middle Ages, dough was patted into flat rounds and then baked in ashes or on a hearthstone. Today it can be baked in your own oven on a baking sheet, pizza stone or even in a cake or casserole pan. It cannot, however, at least as far as I know, be delivered to your home as yet. (Its second cousin appears to have a family monopoly on that aspect of production!)
So how is it done, you ask? Well, I will include the recipe I used at the end of the article (page 2), but a few things about procedure need to be covered first. There is much debate within the culinary world as to what defines a true focaccia. Some say its all in the shape, some claim its the olive oil and still others swear that the ceramic tile or baking vehicle determines its pure status. As the creator of seven or eight of these wonderful breads in my lifetime, I am certainly no authority. I can say, however, that a better quality olive oil will yield a better tasting focaccia. Extra virgin is best. Add the flour one half cup at a time. Use lots of garlic (to ward off vampires and non-Italian evil spirits), and let your imagination run amuck and anon. For example, the recipe calls for olives, which I dont particularly care for. I used red peppers instead and cooked them with the onions. A word about that process as well. The recipe calls for 15 minutes to sauté the onions, but it really takes about an hour for them to turn golden brown and caramelize. Prepare the onions ahead of time. That way, they will be ready when you need to add them.
Perhaps some clarification concerning some of the terms used in the recipe might be useful here. To proof the yeast has nothing to do with lawsuits, attorneys or scientific studies. It means to dissolve it into another liquid (water and sugar) until it foams. To dimple the loaf with your fingers means to do to the bread what the movie industry did to Shirley Temple. Instead of just her face however, the entire body of the bread must be dealt with.
So try one today! You wont be sorry, but dont blame me if suddenly your kitchen is filled with all the wonderful aromas of the Italian country side, not to mention every hungry person who lives anywhere near your house. Close your eyes while it is cooking you will be transported to the green fields of Tuscany and Umbria. Perhaps you will find yourself romping through villas and museums in search of whatever Dante Alighieri lost and found. Or maybe all you need is just a little respite from all the people that are now waiting to eat in your house. But be careful within your reverie. Make sure to open your eyes again before you take that fine, fresh focaccia out of the oven!