Sourdough Focaccia

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I’ve always loved focaccia bread. My dad used to make focaccia (with yeast) around the holidays, which he baked into spiders, giant braids, and witch fingers. Jonji and I practically lived off the stuff when we stayed in Monterosso for our honeymoon. Before, and during, our long hike between the five towns, we took out wax bags darkened with spots of oil and opened them to reveal sandwiches made simply of turkey and cheese hugged between two moist slabs of focaccia, olives dotted along its pillowy surface. We ate happily, looking out on the glittering teal ocean, from a bench nestled on the shore of a little cliff side town, colorful buildings jostling for space behind us.

I made olive focaccia for Christmas this year, cubes of it serving as a backdrop for meat and cheese and pickles. We had a lovely Christmas Eve with the Barbers, Phoebe tottering around in a polka dot dress, her hands in mine as she led me closer to all the little dogs running around. Pop-Pop gave her a little sturdy blue chair, which entertained her for several minutes, as she banged on the back, yodeling.

I woke up early on Christmas, intent on prepping the morning buns before Phoebe woke up, but she cried out ten minutes later. Jonji distracted her while I rolled the laminated dough, sprinkled it with zesty cinnamon sugar, sliced, and put the rolls in a muffin tin to rise. We spent the rest of Christmas morning at home for once, tearing paper off of gifts for Phoebe we’d wrapped a couple of nights before, unwrapping a musical llama, a Playmobil Noah’s Arc, a doll that for some reason smells like cake, and squishy bath toys. She was most interested in pulling herself up on the ottoman, attempting to pull ornaments off the twinkling tree and terrorizing poor Babs. I baked the morning buns while she napped, the house full of the warm aroma of butter and cinnamon.

We drove to my parents’ close to noon, rain lashing the windshield in differing levels of intensity. I sat in the back with Phoebe, dangling different toys in front of her to stop her from squirming too much. We were greeted with merry hellos and small cups of hot chocolate. I peacefully ate my morning bun in the corner while everyone got started on opening gifts, exclamations of delight and wonder pinging around the room. Poppy was most excited about presents, offering to help anyone open theirs once she’d exhausted all of hers. It was a creative year—Dad made drawer dividers for Mom, Matt brought a bin of wooden cat door stoppers he’d made and stained different colors, and I gave each couple a set of hand-printed and dyed napkins. (I spent many freezing nights in the garage, surrounded by the steady dripping of cloth after I’d dunked it all in indigo, wondering why I had decided to undertake an intensive water-based project in winter.) Despite the multitude of gifts and wrapping paper available, Phoebe’s favorite activity of the day was standing at the back door, banging on the glass and exercising her vocal cords. Dinner was fantastic, beef bourguignon with handmade fettuccini, all made by Dad. I made a creme caramel for dessert, which flopped fantastically, coming out like a smashed frisbee. I’d brought lemon-cranberry bars as well, but it was still a disappointment. Fortunately no one was even that eager for sweets at the end of such a feast day, and it didn’t ruin anyone’s Christmas. We drove home with Phoebe asleep in the back, rain still pattering the car, feeling content and full.

I’ve made this focaccia several times now and tried a few different toppings. Once I used a smattering of flaky salt; another time I laid out a mosaic of thinly sliced pink potatoes; I’ve dotted olives in the fluffy dough and sprinkled it with chopped herbs. I’ve seen photos of dough artfully covered in edible flowers, vegetables arranged in patterns or to look like landscapes. Focaccia is a generous canvas and, fortunately, it’s hard to go wrong. (The only time I’ve seen a focaccia catastrophe was in the latest GBBO series, when poor Krystelle essentially drowned hers in olive oil. So use plenty of oil, but don’t soak the bread in it and deprive it of oxygen.) Eat your focaccia sliced with a plate of olive oil to dip in, cut in half to make sandwiches, or toasted for a breakfast with eggs.

This method takes at least a day and a half (or longer, depending on when you feed your starter or how long you leave the dough in the fridge), so plan accordingly.

Sourdough Focaccia

Makes one 9×13-inch “loaf” | adapted from Edd Kimber’s recipe in The Boy Who Bakes blog

Starter feed:
200g cool water
200g 50/50 whole-wheat and all-purpose flour

Base Recipe

425ml cool water
150g sourdough starter at its peak
500g bread flour
10g fine sea salt
Olive oil

Topping, Option 1
2-3 sprigs chopped fresh rosemary
Flaked sea salt

Topping, Option 2
Thinly sliced potato rounds
2-3 sprigs chopped fresh rosemary
2-3 sprigs chopped fresh thyme
Flaked sea salt

Topping, Option 3
1 cup olives of any variety
2 sprigs chopped fresh rosemary
3 sprigs chopped fresh thyme
3 sprig chopped fresh oregano
Flaked sea salt

Feed your starter the night before, if temperatures are cool, or in the morning, if the day is warm. Scoop out all but about 1/4–1/2 cup of your old starter. Using a kitchen scale, pour 200g cool water into your container, then add your 200g 50/50 flour. Stir it all together well, making sure to incorporate the bits on the bottom. Put the lid on lightly (it needs air, so never fully close the lid) and cover with a kitchen towel and secure with a rubber band. Leave on the counter overnight, or for at least a few hours.*

*Your starter is ready when it’s at least doubled in volume. If you want to make sure it’s ready, drop a small spoonful in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s good to go. (If you leave it overnight, it should almost certainly be ready.)

When your starter’s ready, make the dough. Pour 400g cool water into a large bowl, then add 150g starter and mix into the water with your hand until you have a slurry. Measure in the 500g bread flour and mix with a wooden spoon or by hand, squishing the dough until no dry bits remain (the dough will not be smooth at this point). Cover with a lid or towel and set aside in warm spot for 30 minutes.

Add the last 25g cool water, then sprinkle in the 10g fine sea salt. Mix in by hand until all the salt and water is incorporated. The dough will be very wet at this point, which is how it should be (the high water content is what allows for such big air bubbles and irregular texture, hallmarks of a good focaccia).

Every 30 minutes after that, perform a turn, meaning: lifting from the bottom, fold each corner of the dough over itself. Once you’ve completed at least 4 turns (2 hours) and up to 6-8 (3–4 hours), let the dough rest, covered, for 2-3 hours, or until almost doubled in volume.

Grease a 9x13in baking pan with olive oil or (my preferred method) line the pan with parchment paper and then grease that with olive oil. Turn the dough into the greased pan and lightly push it to mostly cover the bottom of the pan. Cover with foil or plastic wrap and leave in the fridge overnight. (You could probably leave it in the fridge for 24 hours or so and it would be fine, but I haven’t tried it.)

In the morning, take the dough out of the fridge and let it sit out at room temperature for 1-3 hours.

Preheat your oven to 440°F. Get your toppings ready.

When the oven reaches the right temperature, drizzle plenty of olive oil over the top of the dough (enough to coat it) and, making sure your fingers are oiled as well, dimple the dough by pushing all eight fingers down into the dough almost all the way to the bottom, starting at one end and working your way all the way to the other end. The whole thing should be dotted with dimples from your fingers. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and add whatever other toppings you’d like, such as olives, potato slices, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, chopped fresh herbs, or anything else you can think of. Just make sure the vegetables are lightly oiled as well, so they don’t get too crispy.

Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 420°F and bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool for a little while in the pan, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool fully.

Focaccia is best eaten within the first couple of days, kept wrapped in bees wrap or something similar.

Enjoy!

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