There are some breads in life that are designed to fulfil a prophecy bigger than it’s intended bake. A big, pillow rustic loaf of white bread, for example, is a stalwart bread. It’s eager to be toast, it’s ready for sandwiches, it wants to be fried, it’s hoping it’ll be soaked in a boozy custard and baked for pudding.
But other breads can’t be bothered for all that. Actually, other breads are stubborn. They say ‘take me as I am because I won’t be anything more than what you see’.
Focaccia is that bread; and I am forever indebted to it’s obduracy.
Focaccia is what it is. It will make terrible toast, has no desire to be a sandwich, will get annoyed if you fry it and has no desire to be a custardy pudding. That’s why we need to accept it for what it is – a tear bread that is BURSTING with flavour and to be enjoyed in it’s original form.
Thank you focaccia.
For that reason, I find focaccia to be the flavour playground that regular white loaves could never be. Focaccia can hold so many different flavour combinations and because there is very little rise to the bread, you can add in other ingredients to vary up the texture to each bite, meaning you never really have to worry about whether or not your bread will sink in the oven. For that reason, focaccia is what I turn to when I want to have a play around in the kitchen.
I’ve read so many recipes that say you need extra strong bread flour for this, which is probably (definitely) true, but I had plain flour in the house and that’s what I used. And it turned out fine. So use the fancy bread flour if you want, but breathe easy knowing that I didn’t and I still had focaccia.
I eat this with nothing but good extra-virgin olive oil and some balsamic vinegar to dunk it in and some cheese and pickles on the side. However, I must say, I did have some sauce leftover from my meatballs the other week and I used it as a dipping sauce for the bread. WHEW. I would make the meatballs again, just to have another reason to bake focaccia.
You may see from the image below that the famous focaccia dimples appear filled. They are. I wanted to flavour this loaf from top to bottom to make sure that each morsel is soaked with deep, herby saltiness so I make a fabulous milk brine which is brushed over the dough before baking – so the dimples are actually filled with olive spiked morsels of milk which delivers so much more than it promises on the flavour front. But if you want to see your dimply dough, replace the milk with a little splash of water instead.
Makes 1 big loaf
400g plain flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 x 7g sachet of yeast
A handful of green olives – from a jar
300ml full fat milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
A dusting of flour for kneading
For the brine
2 tablespoons full-fat milk
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for drizzling
2 tablespoons brine from the jar of olives
A handful of fresh rosemary
- Put the flour and semolina in a very large bowl and put the salt on one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other.
- Spoon some of the green olives out of their brine in the jar (put keep that jar out for later) and chop the olives – don’t be too prescriptive with the chopping, you just want a mixture of finely chopped olives and halved olives.
- Make a hole in the middle flours using your hands and tip the olives into the middle.
- In a jug, combine the milk and olive oil and pop in the microwave for a few seconds, just until slightly warm. Gradually pour the warm milk and oil into the hole in the flours and using a spoon or a dough whisk, gently combine the flours into the milk. Keep going until you have used up all of the milk mix and the dough is coming together to create a wet but shaggy dough.
- Sprinkle some flour on a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Knead for 10 minutes, pushing the dough away from you with the bottom of your palm and pulling back with your fingertips. I did this for the length of Toto’s ‘Africa’ played twice back-to-back, for reference.
- Pop the dough back in it’s bowl, cover with a tea towel and put in a warm-ish and draftless place for 1 hour. An airing cupboard or clothes cupboard is fine.
- Meanwhile, oil a rectangle tin (I believe mine was 25 x 35cm but if it’s slightly smaller you’ll be fine)
- Take the dough from it’s hiding place and take out of the bowl. Using your hands, stretch it a little and put into the tin. Using your palms, gently coax, push and manipulate the dough into the corners of the tin so that it fills it as best as you can.
- Pop a tea towel over it and put back in it’s hiding place for about 30 minutes, and in this time, preheat the oven to 200C.
- Once the half hour is up, take the tray from it’s hiding place and either using your fingers or the pointy end of a wooden spoon, gently stab dimples into your focaccia, but not too deep, just 1/3rd of the way down. Do this all over the dough.
- Combine the brine ingredients in a small bowl and using a pastry brush, gently paint your dimpled dough with the mix. You could just pour it over and gently coax the brine over the surface of the dough with your fingers, but I like the brush. Makes me feel artistic.
- Finely chop the rosemary needles and scatter over the surface of the dough. Once the dough is evenly covered with the brine and the rosemary, pop it in the oven for 30 minutes until slightly risen and golden.
- Remove from the oven and while it’s still hot in the tin, drizzle over a little more olive oil.
- Allow to cool slightly before carefully removing from the pan and cutting into squares.