Project Cook: Garden Focaccia

A garden path sentence is one in which the reader is misled, usually by a word or two that function(s) as a different part of speech than the reader expects, making the rest of the sentence seem incomplete or nonsensical when it is in fact grammatically correct. It takes its name from the idiom “to lead [someone] down the garden path”: essentially, to mislead or deceive them.

Here’s an example: “the old man the boat.” We initially see the phrase “the old man” and think that’s the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the ending “the boat” makes the sentence feel incomplete. But when we realize “man” is actually the verb and the subject is “the old,” suddenly it makes sense: this ship is being sailed by retirees.

Here’s another: “the horse raced past the barn fell.” Here, everything makes sense up until the last word if we’re reading the sentence with “the horse raced” as an active phrase. But it’s not, and it’s not the barn that fell either: the sense of the sentence only emerges if we understand what’s really being said is “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Garden path sentences were introduced to me by one of my students a few years ago, and they blew my mind a little, but they shouldn’t have. Not only do I know full well as a student (and teacher) of words that sentences haven’t truly completed their meaning until their final punctuation mark is reached, but as a lover of food, I know that an expected direction, or perhaps being “led down the garden path” with an illusion or a twist, sometimes makes the dish that much more enjoyable.

It seems a bit cruel, perhaps, in a world in which the baking aisle of so many grocery stores has been ransacked, to show you a loaf of bread, but I was so taken with the images of decorated focaccias my Pinterest page was suddenly showing me, as taken as I was with the idea of garden path sentences, that here we are: a loaf literally studded with deceptive visuals, turning carefully placed herbs and vegetables into an edible flower garden.

I started with Anne Burrell’s recipe, making only the smallest of adjustments: she uses AP flour; I went with bread flour, reduced the olive oil a touch, and subbed in honey for the sugar used to start up the yeast. As for process, I added a step I’ve always done with my mom’s challah, letting the mixture – more batter than dough at that point – rest for 15-20 minutes after adding about half the flour. I think this gives a truer sense of how much flour is really needed, since the initial addition has a chance to start hydrating. It’s not 100% necessary, but I notice it means I wind up using a bit less flour overall, and that’s not a bad thing these days.

The real magic here – where we verge into complexity and deception – is during the rising: while the first rise is standard, letting the dough swell and double in a bowl, the second requires more unusual methods. You spread the risen dough out on an oil-drenched baking sheet (be sure yours has sides!), coaxing it with your fingers to spread reluctantly all the way into the corners. You press and stab your fingers all the way – all the way! – through the dough, making dozens of small holes straight down to the baking sheet below, to create that characteristic bubbled texture of a focaccia, before allowing it to rise again.

Halfway through this second rise comes the fun part – or the fiddly part, depending on who you are. Assorted herbs, thinly sliced vegetables and citrus zest, get pressed gently but firmly into the partially risen dough to form whatever patterns you desire. I used chives, parsley, and dill for “stems” and leaves, and then slender segments of olives and cherry tomatoes for “flowers,” and some curls of lemon zest for extra flair. I tried to roll a few tomato roses, but for me at least, cherry tomato skins provided not quite enough material to work with.

The finished loaf is quite the spectacle – the brightness of your “garden” fades a bit in the baking (there’s a metaphor here for spring into summer, perhaps), but the bake isn’t quite long enough for the delicate herb stems and leaves to burn – instead they crisp and frizz as residual oil soaks into the bread. You have to saw carefully with a bread knife to keep everything in place as you carve off big slices perfect with a salad, or a bowl of soup, or the base of a sandwich, or just straight out of hand. There’s a joke here about a garden variety of options, but I’ll leave you only with this: as he baked the bread disappeared.

It must have been delicious.

Project Cook: Garden focaccia
Adapted from Anne Burrell
Makes 1 large 9×13 inch loaf
1¾ cups warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 TB honey
4 ½ – 5 cups bread flour
½ + ⅓ cup olive oil
1 TB kosher salt + more for sprinkling
Assortment of herbs, vegetables, and/or edible flowers to decorate
  • Mix yeast, water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit 10-15 min, until the yeast is foamy and puffed. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and ½ cup of the olive oil, beat on slow speed with the paddle attachment just until the mixture comes together, then loosely drape with a clean kitchen towel and let sit 15-20 min. This allows the flour to begin hydrating and the yeast to start working.
  • Add 1 cup more flour and 1TB salt, then knead at medium speed with the dough hook 5-7 min until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle in remaining flour ¼ cup at a time if dough seems very sticky while kneading. I ended up using the full 5 cups of flour.
  • Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour in a warm spot. “Punch down” the risen dough by gently depressing your fist into the middle.
  • Pour the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil onto a 9×13 inch cookie sheet with sides and tilt the sheet back and forth until the bottom and sides are well oiled. Flop the risen, punched down dough onto the oiled sheet, then use your fingertips to coax it toward the sides. As you stretch the dough, create focaccia’s characteristic dimples by pressing and stabbing all the way through the dough all over its surface. You have to create actual holes, not just depressions, to retain the texture. Some of the olive oil from the baking sheet will lap up over the surface of the dough – that’s okay.
  • Cover the dough with your towel again and let it rise for another hour.
  • 30 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 425F and add your decorations to the loaf: press in herbs, vegetables, and/or flowers in a pleasing pattern. Finish the rise, sprinkle on some kosher or coarse salt, then bake in the preheated 425F oven for 25-30 minutes until bronzed and crusty. Mine was quite well browned after 25 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack to cool before slicing carefully and devouring.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia

Are you as obsessed as I am with the Great British Baking Show / Great British Bake-Off? Originally aired on BBC, a few precious seasons have traveled across the pond courtesy of PBS (seriously, how great is PBS? Let’s keep it, even if that means making a few phone calls). I devoured the first season that became available in the U.S., then was forced with the second (which PBS called season 3) into consuming only in bite-size chunks, since I watched as it aired week by week. It was excruciating – all I really wanted was to binge. So when our friend D. told me she had bought season 2 (in Britain, season 4 [yeah, we’ve made the numbering all kinds of weird]), I couldn’t resist but do the same (and then, of course, it became available on Netflix a week or two later. Typical).

I won’t tell you who wins, in case you haven’t watched it, but I quickly developed some favorites, and one was Beca, the Welsh army wife who spun beautiful homey recipes into her bakes. One week, the bakers were asked to create breads with unconventional flours, to test their skills when gluten development was off the table. Beca made a focaccia using spelt flour and mashed potatoes, topped with rosemary sprigs and more potatoes, and I couldn’t hold myself back from the kitchen.

My version goes back to standard old bread flour, since when I wanted the bread I wanted it nowthankyouverymuch, and wasn’t willing to wander the grocery aisles looking for spelt. I’ve simplified just a touch, using the same kind of potatoes for both the dough and the topping, and I’ve replaced her suggestion of gorgonzola with whole cloves of roasted garlic. Upon consultation with another recipe or two, I bumped up the quantity of olive oil for a lovely oily crustiness that is a good reminder that focaccia really is just an extremely thick-crust pizza.

Including cooked and mashed potatoes in focaccia is not unusual, resulting in a dough with some heft and stickiness, but it bakes into such a satisfying, warm, golden rectangle that the clingy dough is ultimately worth dealing with, especially if you use a stand mixer to knead it. Unlike a regular loaf, this focaccia gets spread onto a well oiled baking sheet after its first rise, and prodded and stretched over the course of half an hour or so as it settles across the tray. As you persuade it to spread, you also aggressively stab at it with your fingertips to give it that classic dimpled look, which is somewhat satisfying if you’re, I don’t know, going through withdrawal because you don’t have any more episodes of a certain show to watch…

Since I ended up irregularly shingling the top of this bread with potato slices, I was a little bit concerned that it wouldn’t rise well in the oven, and that the moisture of the potatoes would make the spots underneath them seem a bit doughy and under baked (Paul Hollywood would not be pleased). Delightfully, the whole thing rose nicely, and yes, the surface underneath the potatoes did look a little anemic compared to the well browned exposed parts in between, but it was cooked through and made for a pleasant textural contrast with the crunch of the bread and the crispness of the baked rosemary sprigs.

Since it is – perhaps with the addition of some cheese – a near equivalent of a pizza, focaccia is practically a meal in itself. But it also pairs well with roasted chicken, or a bowl of soup, or a crisp salad. We even sliced the last few pieces horizontally, toasted them for a few minutes, and used them as the base for sandwiches. Much of the stress of shaping, scoring, and steaming associated with a boule or baguette is eliminated, making this a perfect project for a slow, easy day, and perhaps a glass of sparkling wine or an amber ale as an accompaniment for the warm, well-oiled square you can hardly wait to cut for yourself.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia
Makes one 9x13x3 inch loaf, depending on how much yours rises
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly (about ¼ inch)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3-4 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary sprigs, divided
1 bulb garlic, bashed into separate cloves
1 cup warm water reserved from cooking the potatoes
¾ cup olive oil + 2 teaspoons, divided

 

  • Cook the sliced potatoes in plenty of boiling water until they are tender but not falling apart, 10-15 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside half of the potato slices to cool. Mash the other half as smoothly as possible (I leave the skins on, so there will always be some shredded potato skin in there; that’s okay).
  • Once the potato water has cooled to just warm or room temperature (110F at the hottest), stir in the yeast and the sugar and let it sit about 10 minutes to dissolve and bubble.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the bread flour, the tablespoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of the rosemary leaves, finely chopped, in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running at low speed and the paddle attachment affixed, drizzle in ½ cup of the olive oil. Add the bubbling yeast mixture and 1 cup of the cooled mashed potatoes and mix with the paddle attachment to bring together.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth but still slightly sticky, around 5-8 minutes. If the mixture is not smoothing out or coming together, or it looks impossibly wet, add more flour ¼ cup at a time, mixing well in between additions.
  • Once the dough has come together into a smooth, slightly sticky ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at warm room temperature for about 1 hour, until it has doubled in size.
  • While the dough rises, heat the oven to 300F, put the garlic cloves in a small, oven-safe dish and drizzle them with salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, then cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the garlic cloves are soft and aromatic, around 20 minutes. Set them aside until they are cool enough to handle, and raise the oven temperature to 425F.
  • When the dough has risen, oil a 9×13 inch baking tray with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil (I know, it sounds like a lot of oil, but this is that sort of bread. Trust me). Spread it out with your fingertips to evenly coat the tray, then tip in the risen dough. Stretch and push it out over the width and length of the tray, dimpling it with your fingers as you do so. It will be reluctant.
  • Let the dough rise on the tray for 30-45 minutes, stretching it and prodding it and dimpling it as it rises. Though it will spring back at first, after the first 15 minutes or so it will relax and stretch more willingly as it puffs. You want to encourage it all the way into the corners, and be aggressive with your dimpling, stabbing right through the dough with your fingertips, otherwise the impressions will bake right out and you will end up with a smooth loaf, not focaccia’s characteristic cragginess.
  • After 30-45 minutes when the dough has puffed and stretched to fill the baking tray entirely, peel the roasted, cooled garlic cloves and press the whole cloves into the bread at random intervals. Add the reserved potato slices, leaving some space in between them, then add the remaining 1tablespoon of rosemary in small sprigs or individual leaves. If you wish, a final drizzle of olive oil over the top and a sprinkle of coarse salt is a nice final touch.
  • Bake in the preheated 425F oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is nicely puffed and a tawny golden-brown color in the spots between the potatoes.
  • Let it cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes before slicing in.

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