Saturday, February 19, 2011

getting my hands sticky

I have no interest in no-knead bread.

Don't get me wrong. I love the counterintuitive logic of no-knead bread. As creative thinking in food chemistry goes, it's brilliant, and I can't deny that anything that gets people baking their own bread instead of buying spongy plastic-wrapped stuff at the supermarket is a Good Thing.

As long as I'm the one handling yeast and flour, though, the bread will be kneaded. Call me a masochist, but it just doesn't feel like baking bread if I can't get my hands sticky.

And I do mean sticky. Maybe I didn't play with enough paste and Play-Doh as a child, but for whatever reason, I find wet, recalcitrant doughs more interesting than their well-behaved cousins.

The "wetness" of a dough is its hydration - that is, its flour-to-water ratio by weight. A dough with half as much water as flour is at fifty percent hydration; a dough with equal parts water and flour would be at one hundred percent hydration. The higher the hydration, the stickier the dough.

At eighty percent hydration by weight, focaccia is one of the wettest bread doughs around. Furthermore, focaccia is made with a lean dough – just flour, water, yeast and salt – meaning that it lacks add-ins like fat or eggs, which make dough easier to handle. (Doughs with such extras are known as rich doughs. Challah is made with a rich dough, as is brioche.) It's probably no surprise that many recipes for focaccia begin with references to heavy-duty stand mixers.

Focaccia is a very old bread, however, and the dough has a long history of being worked by hand. The process requires patience, but there's a pleasure in feeling the dough develop as you knead, in learning to gauge when it's ready by touch. The effort shows in the results, too. Maybe I am a masochist, but I think bread just tastes better when you've gotten your hands all sticky.

Rosemary Focaccia
I tend to bake by volume, but bread is finicky. I've offered measurements by volume, and in metric and imperial weights, but for best results, use the metric weights.

(Makes one small loaf – enough for two large or three smallish sandwiches.)

Before you begin, secure your hair and roll up your sleeves. Turn off your phone or set it to voicemail. Scratch any itches that need scratching. Your hands will be coated in sticky, goopy dough for the better part of the next half hour, and you're not going to be a happy camper if you have to stop and scrub your hands midway through the process to deal with something else.

Clear off your countertop and wipe it down well. Measure out a teaspoon of olive oil into a small bowl; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, stir together one-and-three-quarter-cups (two-hundred and fifty grams, eight point eight ounces) all-purpose flour, one teaspoon (five grams) instant yeast, and half a teaspoon (four grams) salt.

Pour in a little over three-quarters of a cup (two hundred mililitres) of lukewarm water. Stick a hand in the bowl and stir until you have sticky, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on your countertop. Kneading time for this dough is about fifteen minutes, possibly longer. Take breaks if you need them.

This is not an easy dough to knead. This dough will start out goopy, with a taffy-like sticky quality.

For the first ten minutes, you won't be kneading so much as smearing the dough all over the countertop and scraping it back together. It will stick to your fingers and palms like crazy. This is all normal.

After ten minutes, the dough will probably start to feel a little less goopy and a little more elastic. It won't gum between your fingers quite so badly. Keep going.

At fifteen minutes, the dough should be less of a mess on the countertop and more of a cohesive blob. As you knead, it should pull away from the countertop. Keep going.

Stop when you can pull your palms away from the dough without it sticking. Gather the dough into a rough ball, and coat it with the teaspoon of olive oil you measured out earlier.

Place the dough back in the bowl. Go scrub your hands, and then cover the bowl with clingwrap. Leave the dough until it doubles in size. (If you leave it in a warm place, this will take about an hour. If you leave it in a cooler place, it can take anywhere between two and three hours.)

Cover a baking tray with a sheet of parchment paper. Gently ease your dough out of the bowl and place it on the baking tray. Shape it into a rough rectangle, about 7 x10 inches; tuck any stray bits underneath to keep the loaf neat. Measure out another teaspoon of olive oil, and smear it all over the dough. Leave uncovered for an hour to an hour and a half.

Preheat your oven – turn it up as far as it will go. (Mine tops out at around 500F.)

Use your fingertips to press dimples in the top of your focaccia. Pour over another teaspoon or two of olive oil. (The more oil you use, the chewier your crust will be.) Scatter with fresh rosemary needles and sprinkle with sea salt.

Turn the oven down to 450F. Transfer the baking tray to the oven. Keep a close eye on the focaccia - it's done when it turns a rich, golden brown all over, which will take somewhere between fourteen and seventeen minutes.

Remove the baking tray from the oven. Transfer the bread to a cooling rack. Allow to cool fully before slicing.


Lisa said...

I love focaccia, and yours looks absolutely fantastic. I like it with rosemary, too; in fact, that's the only way I've ever made it.


adele said...

Lisa - I picked up the rosemary first, funnily enough. When I first saw it at the grocery store, I worried they might not have it in stock again for a while (it happens) if I didn't buy it immediately, and then I had to cast about for something to do with it!