Cheese focaccia – This past Christmas, my youngest brother Matt got me a very thoughtful gift: a cookbook entitled Savory Baking From the Mediterranean — Focaccias, Flatbreads, Rusks, Tarts, and Other Breads. I spent quite a bit of time just reading through the book and just getting some new ideas. I’ve wanted to try something from the book for quite some time, and this past Sunday I finally got off my butt and tried a recipe from the “Focaccias and Pizzas” section. The official name of the recipe is “Cheese Focaccia from Recco,” or “Focaccia di Formaggio di Recco,” but I took quite a bit of liberty with it, so I’m just going to call it “Cheese Focaccia.” One thing I should note from the start is that, unlike most of the recipes in this book, this focaccia is unleavened.
Enough with the introduction—let’s get baking.
Here are the initial ingredients: 1 1/3 cups of all-purpose flour, 3/4 teaspoon of fine salt, and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. I have a hard time understanding why bread recipes measure flour by volume. To measure flour by volume, you’re supposed to sift the flour first, then scoop it with the measuring cup, and then push the excess off the top of the cup with the back of a knife or other flat surface. You can’t shake or tap down the flour, which is a pain when you get air pockets and thus don’t have an accurate measure. Measuring by weight, though, is simple. You just dump flour into a container until you reach the weight you need.
I have weighed the various different types of flour I use (I have seven or eight different kinds of flour), and a cup of all-purpose flour comes out to 140 grams. So I went with 187 grams of flour and added the salt and oil to that. Next came the water—1/3 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon of warm water—and the initial mixing.
As you can see here, the dough is not really kneaded yet, and it’s way too wet. I found out later, when I reread the beginning of the cookbook, that the author’s cup of flour is 150 grams. No matter—I just dumped what I had onto my floured work surface and added flour as I kneaded until I had the right consistency. After the first knead, which lasted about three minutes, I ended up with this.
You can see that it’s still not fully kneaded, but it is the right consistency and it’s halfway to where it needs to be. After a fifteen-minute rest, I kneaded for another three minutes until I got a much smoother dough.
This was left covered for an hour to ferment. Even though there is no yeast, the dough did expand a little during this time. At the end of the hour, I removed the dough from the bowl and folded it. This is an alternative to “punching down” (where you literally punch the dough to release the gasses) that I learned from my Cordon Bleu bread book. It’s supposed to make a stronger dough.
First you flatten out the dough into a circle, and then you fold it by thirds like a letter: fold one third over, flatten it, and then fold the opposite third over to form a rectangle. Then you fold it by thirds again, taking the long ends of the rectangle and folding them toward the center.
After the folding I returned it to the bowl, covered it, and let it ferment for another hour. The book says that the dough should double in volume, but I’m not sure what the author was smoking when she wrote that. It definitely increased in volume, but double? With no yeast? After an hour? I think you’d have to leave it for much longer than an hour if you want it to double.
Even though it didn’t double in volume, it did recover from the stress of folding and became very smooth and even. Smooth, even dough is a good thing in baking. So I wasn’t too worried about it not doubling.
OK, here is where things get a little... frightening. This is the part where children weep in fear and women cry, “Dear God what is that thing?!” If you have a weak stomach or a weak heart, you might want to stop here or skip to the end. I don’t want anyone to say that I didn’t warn them, OK?
Now, the recipe calls for a specific type of Italian cheese. The original focaccia is apparently made with a local cheese called “formagetta” or “formaggio ligure.” And apparently this cheese is hard to get, even for people who have access to a wide variety of cheeses. The author recommends substituting taleggio, which she describes as “a soft cow’s-milk cheese.” Cheese.com lists taleggio as a semi-soft cow’s-milk cheese and describes it as a “Buttery, delicate, semi-soft and subtlety (sic) sweet cheese from Italy.” Of course, I have no access to taleggio. I had never even heard of taleggio before I read this recipe. So I made do with what I had in my refrigerator.
What you see here is camembert, a soft cow’s milk cheese. It is probably softer than tallegio, but it has a similar fat content. It was hard to cut, as I expected, but I managed to get a good number of slices out of this round (after I painstakingly shaved off the white skin). I’m sure this is an affront to Italian cuisine, and I expect that my life on this Earth will come to an abrupt end the day that this page is discovered by a native of Recco (or anywhere in Italy, for that matter), but what was I to do? As blasphemous as this may sound, I thought, “It’s baked cheese in a thin bread crust. What could possibly go wrong?” Well, we’ll find out soon enough.
The next step in the process, rolling out the dough, proved almost as difficult as slicing the camembert. The problem is that my work surface (a large tray) has raised edges, and it’s only wide enough to fit the rolling pin in one direction. This means that I can’t just roll the dough out evenly in all directions. I have to roll it in one direction, physically pick it up and turn it, and then roll it in the other direction. Needless to say, this does not make for a very even circle. I also didn’t reach the recommended diameter of twelve inches—I only managed 25 centimeters, or approximately ten inches. But again, it’s baked cheese in a thin bread crust. What could possibly go wrong?
Here we have the bottom layer of dough topped with the camembert slices and some Grana Padano I grated in a desperate attempt to return to the Italian roots of the recipe. I rolled out the other half of the dough into roughly the same shape and placed it over the top. The recipe said to “press on the edges to seal,” but experience has taught me that you can never seal well enough. So, both to ensure a good seal and to even out the differences in shape between the two dough layers, I folded over the dough and pressed down to make something similar to a pie crust.
I turned the oven on to 250 degrees Celsius—the temperature listed in the recipe and the highest the oven will go—and then prepared the focaccia for baking. I brushed the top with olive oil (the baking pan was brushed with oil before the lower layer of dough went on) and then pressed down on the dough to make dimples all over. Finally, I sprinkled it with very coarse salt (what we call “wang sogeum,” or “king salt,” in Korean). Then it went into the oven for a twelve-minute bake. The recipe called for eight to ten minutes, but I suspect that our oven doesn’t get as hot as it is supposed to, so I left it in for a little longer.
The introduction to the recipe said that the dough would bubble up as it baked, even though it was unleavened. I had never baked unleavened bread before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but sure enough little bubbles started to form. Then more bubbles formed and joined together, and soon the whole thing had swollen up into a big balloon. It swelled so much that the edges of the focaccia lifted up off the pan. I suspect that it might not have swollen so much if I hadn’t sealed the edges so well, but I thought it was pretty neat. Finally, it was time to remove it from the oven.
I don’t know if you can tell from this angle, but the whole thing has swollen quite a bit (you should be able to see the curve in the dough if you look toward the top of the photo). I quickly removed it to a plate and cut it into quarters like a pie. Steam and the smell of baked cheese rose from within. We quickly dug in and the focaccia began to disappear with frightening speed. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to take a few close-ups of my piece before I had devoured it completely. I didn’t want to use a flash, because I knew it would ruin the shot, so I had to try to keep as still as possible. This photo was the best of the bunch.
And now to answer the question that I asked myself throughout the entire process: what could possibly go wrong? To be honest, I wasn’t too surprised at the answer: “absolutely nothing!” That’s right—despite not having anything remotely like the cheese called for in the recipe, it turned out wonderful. The bread was light, crispy, and flaky, and the cheese had melted to perfection.
This is the final piece of the focaccia, saved for Hyunjin’s father. Fortunately, he got home shortly after this photo was taken and before the cheese cooled. He enjoyed it so much that he scraped together the crumbs left on the plate and then raised the plate to dump them into his mouth—very uncharacteristic of him, and it convinced me that the focaccia was a success.
Like all breads, this focaccia was a bit on the time-consuming side to make, but most of that time is taken up by waiting for the bread to ferment and then bake. Actual work time probably ended up being under an hour. Most importantly, though, it’s a very easy bread to make. I suppose it might be more of a challenge for someone with no bread-making experience whatsoever, but if you have a basic feel for dough it’s a walk in the park. I’ll definitely be making this again. Next time I’ll go with more flour from the start and try to find a work surface that allows me to roll the dough out better, but ultimately those are minor details. It may not have looked pretty, but it sure was tasty.
There are three hundred pages of recipes in this book, and hopefully I will get a chance to try some of the other breads. I think I might go for a more traditional (i.e., leavened) focaccia for my next effort. This may have to wait, though—we’ll be moving this weekend, and our new place doesn’t have an oven. With luck we will be remedying this shortly I’ll be able to return to my baking.