Italy's aromatic flat bread, focaccia, soaks up favor as it soaks up sauce

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First we discovered pasta (as opposed to spaghetti), then moved on to tiramisu, osso buco and polenta. Americans have gone bonkers for Italian food.

Now we've found the world's best way to sop up the sauce -- focaccia.

The Genoan flat bread is chewy and aromatic, about as far removed from sandwich bread as sauce Bolognese is from Ragu. Restaurants -- even non-Italian -- have been offering it in bread baskets and using it for high-class sandwiches. It also turns up as an appetizer with toppings of herbs, black olives, tomatoes and cheese.

At home, you can make a meal of it by adding anything from sauteed vegetables to chunks of pepperoni. If you're picturing pizza, you're close. Focaccia is pizza's first cousin, and originated in Italy, too. The most famous comes from Genoa, where a bit of wine is added to the dough to produce a slightly sweet flavor.

According to Carol Field in her book, "Focaccia," the rustic bread was first made centuries ago as a spur-of-the moment treat on baking days, when village women made bread for their families for the week. They would pat out small rounds of dough and drizzle them with olive oil and a few herbs as a treat for the children.

The dough is easy to make, and usually includes only flour, water, yeast and olive oil. After rising, it is patted onto oblong baking sheets or in round cake pans, and dimpled by pressing the fingers deep into the dough. It then is drizzled with olive oil and coarse sea salt -- and just about anything else that suits the baker's fancy.

The resulting loaf is about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick, burnished golden by the olive oil and aromatic with herbs. Unlike pizza, it usually is eaten at room temperature.

That makes it great for potlucks or after-work suppers if you plan.While testing recipes, we discovered that the dough can be mixed the night before serving, and left to rise in the refrigerator. After work, press it into oiled cake pans and add the topping. It requires a second rise of just 30 minutes before baking.

You can make the dough with a heavy-duty mixer but when you consider the cleanup time, it's just as easy to mix it by hand with a wooden spoon. The soft, moist dough is kneaded only six to eight minutes before the first rise. The dough should be glossy and resilient after kneading, but not nearly as stiff as regular bread dough.

Use unbleached flour instead of bread flour or all-purpose flour. It has a higher protein content than all-purpose but lower than bread flour -- just right for soft focaccia dough.

The amount of flour called for in recipes is approximate. Europeans measure flour by weight, which is much more precise than our cup measurements. Due to humidity, temperature and other factors, a cup of flour one day can equal 1 1/4 cups the next. When we made the bread, we used 1/4 cup less flour than the recipe calls for. Stop adding before the dough becomes stiff.

Some recipes call for setting the pans on a baking stone in the oven, but our loaves turned out just fine when the pans were placed directly on the oven rack. Those who want to be authentic can buy baking stones in some cookware shops. Or visit a tile shop with oven rack in hand, and ask that unglazed tiles be cut to fit your oven.

Here are recipes for two focaccia doughs -- a basic dough and a Genoese dough flavored with wine, from Ms. Field's "Foccacia." We're also offering recipes for rosemary, Provencale and Gorgonzola-walnut toppings, inspired by recipes in the book.

Basic Focaccia

Makes 2 loaves

SPONGE:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water, 105 to 110 degrees

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

DOUGH:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sea salt

TOPPING:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt

For the sponge: Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a large mixing bowl. Whisk it in and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand until bubbly and doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.

For the dough: Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a small bowl. Let stand until creamy, about 5 to 10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir the yeast mixture and the olive oil into the sponge and mix well. Stir in 1 cup of the flour and the salt. Stir in enough of the remaining flour to produce a soft dough. Knead on a lightly floured board until soft and smooth, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Or let rise in refrigerator overnight.

Divide in half and press into two lightly oiled, 9-inch-round cake pans. If dough shrinks from the sides, let rest a few minutes and then stretch it again.

Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place for 45 minutes, or until dough is full of air bubbles. Just before baking, press your fingertips deep into the dough all over the surface to evenly dimple the loaf. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, until top is golden. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Focaccia from Genoa

Makes 2 loaves

SPONGE:

2 1/2 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast

2/3 cup warm water, 105 to 110 degrees

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

DOUGH:

1/2 cup water, room temperature

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sea salt

TOPPING:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 to 1 teaspoon sea salt

For the sponge: Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a large bowl. Whisk it in. Let stand 10 minutes, until creamy. Stir in the flour and beat until smooth. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until puffy and bubbling, about 30 minutes.

For the dough: Add water, wine and olive oil to the sponge. Stir in 1 cup flour and the salt with a wooden spoon. Add enough remaining flour to produce a very soft, sticky dough. Knead on a lightly floured board for 6 to 8 minutes, or until dough comes together nicely and is silky and shiny. It should be soft but not wet.

Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Or let rise in refrigerator overnight. Divide in half and press into two lightly oiled, 9-inch-round cake pans. Dimple it well with your fingertips, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Once again dimple the top of the dough with your fingertips. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden. Remove from pans and cool on a wire rack.

Focaccia with Rosemary

Makes two 9-inch-round loaves

1 recipe focaccia dough, basic or Genoese

3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

sprigs of fresh rosemary

Make dough, adding the minced rosemary during the initial mixing. Proceed with the rising and shaping. Just before baking, dimple top of the dough with your fingertips and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Press a few sprigs (2-leaf sprigs, not branches) of rosemary into dough. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from pans and cool on a wire rack.

Focaccia Provencale

Makes two loaves

1 recipe focaccia dough, basic or Genoese

1 can (14.5 ounces) plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin

1 can (2.25 ounces) sliced black olives, drained

4 teaspoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

Make focaccia dough according to the recipe, through the rising and shaping. After dough is stretched into two 9-inch-round cake pans, dimple deeply with fingertips.

In a small bowl, stir together the chopped tomato and basil. Spread half of the mixture over each loaf. Cover with a towel and let rise until puffy, about 45 minutes.

Dimple loaves again and top with garlic, olives and oregano, gently pressing in olives. Drizzle evenly with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 400 degrees 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from pans and cool.

Focaccia with Walnuts And Gorgonzola

Makes 2 loaves

1 recipe focaccia dough

1/2 cup walnut pieces

1/4 of a large red onion

4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil

Make focaccia dough according to the recipe, through the rising and shaping.

Spread walnut pieces in a baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 7 minutes, or until fragrant and golden. Cool. Slice onion very thin.

After patting the dough into two 9-inch-round cake pans, dimple with your fingertips and scatter walnuts over the top. Separate onion slices into pieces and scatter over top.

Break Gorgonzola into small pieces and scatter over top. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake 10 minutes longer, taking care that toppings don't burn. Remove from pans and cool.

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