Join resident chef Mario Matassa as he shows us how to make perfect focaccia with step by step instructions!
To say that Italians take their focaccia very seriously would be a simple understatement. Once, a dentist friend asked me if I’d like to take a quick drive with him as he had a hankering for focaccia. “I know a good place”, he assured me. “Why not?” I replied, I like a good focaccia as much as the next guy. As it turned out, the bakery was 80km away! But yes, it was worth it. A good focaccia is highly regarded and Italians will happily travel that extra mile (or 50) to find it. For a stranger in town to be heard asking where they might buy decent focaccia is certainly not uncommon. It’s probably akin to a tourist in Cornwall asking where they can buy artisan Cornish pasties.
At its very simplest level, focaccia is just flour, water and oil, and a little yeast. But there’s more to it than that. There’s an alchemy in the making of focaccia which differentiates one baker’s focaccia from another. This is why it comes in all shapes and sizes: thick focaccia, thin focaccia, crispy, soft, with a topping, or just plain, drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with salt and herbs. Like pasta, most Italians have their own view on the subject. My personal preference is for a focaccia that is crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy in the centre and drenched in extra-virgin olive oil to the point where a napkin is mandatory in the eating.
There was a pizzaiolo from Campania who worked with me for several years. He was passionate about his dough, and for good reason. His focaccia was the best I ever tasted. It took much of that time to prise the secrets from him. Indeed, it was only with friendship that he eventually agreed to reveal to me the alchemy for great focaccia. And here it is.
Focaccia with cherry tomatoes and herbs
Focaccia alle erbe e pomodorini
MAKES: 2 large or 4 small focaccie
PREPARATION: 20 minutes plus time for rising
COOKING: 20 minutes
- 20g (1 cube) fresh baker’s yeast
- 10g sugar
- 500ml water
- 1kg strong white bread flour
- 200ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp softened lard or vegetable shortening (optional)
- 250g cherry tomatoes
- coarse sea salt for sprinkling
- dried oregano
1 Begin by mixing the yeast and the sugar in the water. (The sugar isn’t strictly obligatory but it can make the yeast work better.) Stir with a fork until the yeast dissolves and then allow to sit for about 5 minutes until it starts to get a little frothy. The time it takes will depend on the ambient temperature.
2 Next put your strong white bread flour into a large bowl. Make sure the bowl is large enough because after we add the yeast the mixture is going to double in size. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast solution, the olive oil and the softened lard or vegetable shortening, if using.
3 Start with a large cook’s spoon and begin to mix all the ingredients together. After a minute or so, it’s time to get a little messy and use your hands. The dough will be very sticky at first. Don’t worry, at this stage you are just trying to bring all the ingredients together.
4 Once it comes together, knead the dough. Try not to be tempted to add extra flour. If the dough sticks, use a baker’s scraper to bring it together. Knead for about 10 minutes until smooth, soft and elastic. Place it back in the bowl, cover and let it rise until it has doubled in size. This might take an hour or so.
5 After the dough has doubled in size – and do wait until it has – take it back out of the bowl, place it on your work surface and push out the air with the palms of your hands. Knead for a further 3 or 4 minutes. Divide the dough into even portions and roll it gently into balls.
6 Lightly oil a 23cm (9”) baking pan (or more, if you have them). With the palms of your hands, roll one ball of the dough out into a round and place it in your pan. Using your fingertips, gently encourage the dough around the edges of the dish. The dough will be quite elastic. Persevere. Any extra dough can go in the fridge.
7 Slice your tomatoes in half and gently push them into the dough. Add a drizzle of olive oil and set aside for about 30 minutes, or until you see the dough just starting to rise again. Don’t be afraid to occasionally push the tomatoes down again with your palm.
8 Set your oven to 230°C/Gas Mark 8. While it’s heating, boil a kettle of water. Sprinkle coarse salt and oregano over the dough and another drizzle of oil. Once your oven is hot, add a good splash of boiling water over the dough. This will ensure you get a nice crisp crust. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden.
9 Allow to cool slightly before removing from the tin. Serve while still warm, drizzling over a little more oil if you like. If it lasts that long, it’ll keep for a few days in an airtight tin, or you can freeze it for up to three months. Defrost at room temperature and reheat at 180ºC/Gas Mark 4 for 15-20 minutes.
There are plenty more delicious Italian-inspired recipes here.