My grandmother was a wonderful cook. She spent countless hours in the kitchen preparing meals for her family, meals reminiscent of her homeland-Calitri, Italy. I loved everything that she made and at the time I didn’t really understand how special it was to have homemade bread. I just assumed that everyone had a nonna in the kitchen mixing, kneading and baking.
The bread my grandmother made was a big round, country-type loaf that she held under her arm as she sliced it. I was fascinated watching her draw the knife through the loaf and ladled extra sauce on my plate in anticipation of using the bread to sop it up. As much as I loved the bread that she served with meals, it was her foccacia that I craved. I’m not even sure she ever referred to it as foccacia, but thinking back, that’s exactly what it was.
Her focaccia was never served with dinner. It’s something I remember just eating as a snack. It was best right out of the oven and what made it so delicious was the layer of melted cheese running through the center. I’ve tried to replicate it and have come close using this recipe from Carol Field’s book “Focaccia” to which I added sharp provolone cheese. I’ll have to ask my mother what type of cheese my grandmother used, but provolone seemed close to the flavor that I remember.
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Sponge (above)
- 3-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1-1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt
To make the sponge, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large mixing bowl. Whisk and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until bubbly and doubled, about 45 minutes.
To make dough, sprinkle yeast over the warm water in a small bowl and whisk. Let stand until creamy, about 5-10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir the yeast mixture and the olive oil into the sponge and mix well. If making the dough by hand, stir in the flour 1 cup at a time along with the salt. When all the flour is mixed in, knead the dough until soft and velvety, about 8-10 minutes. If using a mixer, add all the flour and salt to the sponge mixture and with dough hook knead at medium speed until dough is soft and slightly sticky, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle some flour onto a board and knead the dough briefly.
First rise: place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1-1/4 hours.
Shaping and second rise: dough will be soft and delicate. Flatten it on an oiled 11 x 17 baking pan and press dough out. The dough will be sticky and may not cover the bottom of the pan. Cover with a towel and let it relax for 10 minutes, then stretch it again, until it reaches the edges. Cover with a towel and let rise 45 minutes to 1 hour. Just before baking, dimple the dough with your knuckles, leaving indentations. Drizzle olive oil over the dough, being sure to fill some of the little holes. Sprinkle with the sea salt.
Baking: about 1/2 hour before you plan to bake, preheat the oven to 425 degrees with a baking stone inside, if you have one. Place the pan directly on the stone and spray the oven walls and floor with cold water from a spritzer bottle 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Bake until the crust is crisp and the top is golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately and place on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Best eaten the same day as baking.
* If you want to fill the basic foccacia with cheese, thinly slice a good Italian provolone, then place over half of the stretched dough. Fold the rest of the dough over the top and pinch the edges closed. Your focaccia won’t fill the whole pan, but it will be tasty!
As I sit here writing this, I just remembered a visit I made to my grandmother back when I was in college. I was getting ready to take the train back to school and as I hugged her to say goodbye, she slipped a package into my hand-half of a freshly baked loaf of her cheese bread. Needless to say, that was one delectable train trip .