January 14, 2008

Focaccia 2008

Pesto, Mozzarella, Tomato, Focaccia

We love this sandwich.

One of the most popular photos I’ve ever uploaded to Flickr is this photo of a focaccia I baked in January of 2005, almost exactly 2 years ago today. I posted about it here. That focaccia was a messed-up and doctored version of an Alton Brown recipe from “I’m Just Here For More Food.” We got a lot of mileage out of it, but I have since learned that it’s best to get bread recipes from the best bakers, because making bread is more than recipe.

I’ve learned a whole heck of a lot more about baking in two years. What I liked in 2005 would now sorely disappoint me today if it came out of my oven. That goes especially for focaccia. If you look at that old photo, you can see that the focaccia had a somewhat dense crumb. When it was very fresh (which is how I served it to friends) it was decent and hearty. But it wasn’t chewy enough, nor moist enough; it was too heavy.

Today I make a more open-crumb, moist and chewy focaccia, mostly thanks to Peter Reinhart’s excellent book “Bread Baker’s Apprentice. And the one most valuable piece of advice there was that good bread takes time to develop excellent texture. Not work, but time.

I’m not using Reinhart’s focaccia recipe here. As usual, I’ve got a mix of stuff going on. If you’re interested in making a sandwich like the above mostly from scratch1, I’m including the recipe at the end of this entry off the main page). But, here is a description of the sandwich, first.

When I was between jobs and first baked bread, I struggled with sandwich loaf. I imagined that making a good loaf of bread meant making one that could be used for sandwiches. And I decreed that no white bread would ever be bought in my house! And I never bought a loaf of bread after that… for about a month until I rejoined the workforce.

I was never completely happy with my sandwich loaf, but what I know now is that it’s much easier to make sandwiches the old fashioned way. A much flatter bread like a focaccia, cut into squares and then horizontally, like a bun, is much easier than trying to get your white bread loaf to “bloom” and make perfectly sliceable bread.

So, here’s our favorite sandwich.

Mozzarella Pesto Sandwich

Slice a 4-5 inch square piece of focaccia horizontally so that you separate the top crust from the bottom crust. Toast top and bottom in a bagel toaster. I like to just toast the inside, like a bagel, but you could toast all sides of your sandwich. While the bread is toasting, slice a ripe tomato. Also, slice enough cheese off a fresh ball of mozzarella so that you have enough to make a 1/4 inch layer on your sandwich.

I’m going to assume you have bought or otherwise produced a container of pesto. Spread a layer of pesto on the inside of both pieces of (now toasted) bread. Layer the tomato slices and the mozzarella on the bread according to the size of your mouth.


This sandwich is perfect for whenever you want a pesto, mozzarella and tomato sandwich. On focaccia.

Continue reading to learn the secrets of baking your own focaccia.

Focaccia 2008

If you’re not using a mixer, you’ll need to adjust slightly. Here are the quick and dirty details2.

Takes 2 days. Prepare and ferment dough on the first day, bake and assemble sandwich on the second day.

(volumes in parenthesis) [baker’s percentages in braces]

  • 27 ounces of bread flour (6 cups) [100%]
  • 0.56 ounce salt (2 1/4 tsp.) [2%]
  • 0.19 ounce instant (rapid) yeast (1 3/4 tsp) [0.7 %]
  • 20 ounces cool water (2 1/4 cups) [approx. 79.6%]

Combine all the dry ingredients. Weighing the flour works better than cup-measuring. Add the water and mix until a dough forms. Switch to bread hook and machine knead for 5-6 minutes on medium. To get the moisture level right, at the end of 5 minutes you should have a ball of dough sticking to the bottom of the bowl but cleaning the sides. If it’s too sticky, add a pinch of flour and observe. If it’s too dry, add a teaspoon of water and observe. Repeat until dough is the right moisture level.

Form the dough into a ball and place in an olive-oiled zippered plastic bag with the air mostly squeezed out (a gallon bag should do3). Place this in your fridge and let it ferment overnight.

The next day, remove the dough from the fridge about 3 hours before you want to bake it. If you can’t bake the next day, the dough can probably wait and will be good in the fridge for another day4. The dough will have expanded somewhat.

Cover the bottom of a 12 in. x 17 in. rectangular sheet pan with parchment paper and dump the dough out into the middle of the pan. Let it rest for about 5 minutes, covered with a towel. It should flatten out slightly. Sprinkle spices to cover the surface of the dough (see suggested spices below) and then drizzle olive oil on top.

With the tips of your fingers, poke dimples into the dough while pressing it to an even thickness. The idea here is to get it flatter, fill the pan with the dough, dimple the dough and avoid pressing all the pockets of air out.

Once it is sufficiently stretched, you may want to sprinkle on more spices, since you’ve increased the surface. (The reason I do the spices in two steps is that when you poke with your fingers, you’re pressing some of the spices below the surface of the dough, which is better than just having the spices on top.

Here are the spices I’ve been using, but I’m still experimenting and you should, too, to find out what you’d like.

  • crushed rosemary (pretty much essential, IMHO)
  • garlic powder
  • dried onion
  • onion powder
  • paprika (I go light on this)
  • kosher salt
  • cracked black pepper (light on this)
  • “Italian Seasoning” mix, often sold to sprinkle on pizza5

Here are things I haven’t tried yet, but would like to:

  • Caramelized onions (I’m afraid they might overcook, but perhaps I can just soften some onions and let them darken in the oven on the bread)
  • Dehydrated, roasted garlic. (This stuff is magic, but I don’t know where I can buy it. Local place doesn’t carry it anymore)
  • Roasted or smoked peppers

Back to the recipe.

Cover your dough in plastic wrap to prevent drying and let it proof for 2-3 hours. It should double in size.

About 1/2 hour before you’re planning on baking, preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Then, turn it down to 450 degrees and pop the pan in the oven on the center rack. Bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes until the crust is golden brown. Sometimes, I will slip the bread out of the pan and onto the rack or a baking stone for the last couple of minutes to darken the bottom crust.

Remove the bread to a cooling rack and wait at least 20 minutes before slicing.

Now, go make your sandwich.

1 I wouldn’t make pesto from scratch unless I had a basil harvest from the garden. Off-season I just by the spread from the supermarket. I consider the fresh bread much more important to the recipe!

2 I’m rushing through this. If you want a detailed recipe, follow the recipe instructions for Reinhart’s Pain a l’Ancienne until you take the dough out of the fridge, then shape, proof and bake it according to his focaccia instructions in the book referenced above.

3 You can re-use gallon bags for this purpose if you turn them inside out and wash them.

4 I haven’t tried that with this recipe, so I cant’s say for sure.

5 I feel a slight urge to justify this list of spices, or at least explain a bit. People might be taken aback at the use of dried anything when I could use fresh onion. Dried garlic? How could I call myself a garlic lover and still use that? “Italian spices?” Why not know the individual spices and use those? I use things like dried onion and garlic powder because I like the way they taste. They’re different from fresh onion and garlic. Chopped or minced garlic, IMHO, doesn’t always deliver the flavor I’m looking for when I put it on top of a focaccia. Some wet ingredients just don’t bake right. So I use what I know works for me. As for “Italian Seasoning” — it’s usually basil, oregano, thyme, and a few other things. It’s got a nice mix, and it was right there when I opened up my spice cabinet.

Posted by James at January 14, 2008 12:17 AM
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