The genesis of the flatbread called focaccia is lost in the dawn of history. Some food historians credit ancient Etruscans for having discovered how to form a dough into a flat round and bake it on a hot stone under a coating of hot ashes. Given that the Etruscans resided on the northwestern coast of what is now Italy, it’s not surprising that Italians have made focaccia a national bread.
“Focaccia” is derived from a Latin word meaning “hearth.” However, today’s focaccias often are made in pans, allowing their finished shape to be more controlled. Depending on the region, Italians have variations, including Florence’s schiacciata, a thin, dimpled sheet, and Sicily’s sfincione, a thicker version that doesn’t qualify as “flatbread.”
Although it’s hard to nail down exactly what focaccia is, it’s easy to define what it’s not: it’s not pizza. Focaccia starts with a richer dough incorporating a generous amount of olive oil. It uses a process more common to bread baking — it’s allowed to proof before baking. Focaccia is usually dimpled, then washed with olive oil before — and often after — it’s baked. Finally, unless you make a focaccia-based pizza, focaccia is never embellished with tomato sauce. Instead, other ingredients such — salt, garlic, sage, thyme, rosemary, basil, or oregano — lend it flavor.
Over the years, different regions of Italy developed focaccia specialties. The simplest version comes from western Liguria and calls for a dough made only with flour, water, yeast and extra-virgin olive oil. After proofing, the dough is shaped, or flattened, then dimpled with a spoon, or by oiled fingertips. Flavor comes from the additional coating of extra-virgin olive oil and coarse salt added before baking in a steam-filled oven.
A version developed in Italy’s mountains, where residents fled with flour, cheese and olive oil to avoid Saracen invaders, is a specialty in the city of Recco. Focaccia al formaggio consists of two thin layers of olive-oil-washed dough that encase shredded stracchino, pecorino, or other meltable cheese. Made in a larger size and cut into wedges, or formed from 3-inch squares for individual servings, this appetizer can tempt diners into ordering more and making a meal of it.
Another traditional Italian way to prepare focaccia calls a finely sliced onion to be added about 3 minutes before the end of baking for tempting aroma and delicious flavor.
Owner’s Roberto and Paulette Pizzo serve focaccia mostly as an appetizer at Doc’s Trattoria and Pizzeria in Lake Waramaug, Connecticut. Chef Michael Rossetti says, “We use our pizza dough, but we don’t stretch it. Instead, we form 8 ounces of dough into an oval, almost like sandwich bread, and let it rise on a sheet pan for an hour. Before we put it into the oven, we top it with cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. Before baking, ‘plain’ focaccia gets a mixture of salt and pepper, and a dusting of herbs (rosemary is popular). We add more olive oil and flavorings when the focaccia comes out of the oven.
“For another focaccia, we add fresh basil and tomato slices about 3/4 of the way into baking. If customers ask for additional ingredients, such as olives or goat cheese, we can add them. Focaccia is pretty versatile, and we have four or five popular combinations.” On the pizza menu, focaccia is topped with olive oil, garlic, oregano and Romano cheese.
At Bambino’s Pizzeria in Colorado Springs, Colorado, owners Suzette and Kevin Megyeri serve complimentary focaccia so customers can “break bread” before their meal, similar to how Mexican restaurants offer chips and salsa.
After proofing, they dimple the dough with their fingers and add olive oil, roasted garlic and an herb mixture they developed. The Megyeris combine granulated garlic, kosher salt, black pepper, parsley and oregano for basic focaccias and for the 5 1/2-ounce sandwich size. But, Suzette notes, Bambino’s has all types of focaccias available; including those topped with sun-dried tomatoes or anchovies.
“We prefer a salty, garlicky taste,” she says. “We also serve a dipping sauce made by marinating chili peppers and lemon zest in extra-virgin olive oil.”
Dimpling is one common characteristic of focaccia, but Eric Duff, chef and catering specialist for Marino’s on 5th Avenue, New York, has a unique way of achieving it. “Instead of making the dimples with a spoon,” he explains, “we oil the dough, then add about 20 grape tomatoes.” About two or three minutes before it is finished, he removes the roasted tomatoes, which are used to make a sauce.
Duff prepares three different focaccia doughs (including a whole-wheat version), and makes a roll size for sandwiches, as well as rounds and squares. “We serve focaccias as appetizers and main dishes, and in sandwiches for an extra charge,” he says. “The regular focaccia dough has rosemary in it and on it, and our ‘pizza’ focaccia doesn’t, but both have more olive oil than our pizza dough. In fact, focaccia is more popular for pizza, even though we charge more.” To prevent focaccia bottoms from burning during baking, Duff double-pans them, using water in the bottom pan.
Marino’s focaccia-based appetizers include “brioche”, bruschetta, and garlic bread. “Brioche” are individual triangles of rosemary focaccia brushed with pesto. For bruschetta or garlic bread, Duff uses freshly baked focaccia, but allows it to dry a little on top of the oven to crisp the crust to support the toppings. For bruschetta, he slices focaccias in half, spreads on “focaccia sauce,” then adds a mixture of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and roasted peppers, and tops it with a little shredded fresh mozzarella. For garlic bread, Duff recommends olive oil, garlic, parsley, and a little paprika. “You don’t want to dry out the garlic focaccia,” he says, “and paprika helps to turn it a golden brown more quickly.”
Garlic and Olive Focaccia
6 ounces Yeast
1 pound, 8 ounces warm water (120 F)
11 pounds, 10 ounces bread flour
3 pounds, 12 ounces water (var.)
1 pound, 8 ounces whole eggs
1 pound, 6 ounces olive oil
5 ounces sugar
5 ounces salt
2 pounds, 2 ounces chopped garlic
2 pounds, 2 ounces chopped ripe olives
Stir yeast into warm water and let rest 4 to 5 minutes. Add the flour, water, eggs, olive oil and sugar, and mix into a well-developed dough. Add the salt, garlic and olives and mix only enough to disperse evenly in the dough.
Allow the dough to ferment to a full rise, punch down, and continue fermentation for about 1/3 the time it took to reach full rise. Scale into 12 ounce units and round.
Cover, and rest 10 to 20 minutes.
Sheet or press out into rounds or oval-shaped loaves. Proof, then, using a sharp knife, slash the top diagonally. Wash with a generous amount of olive oil, and sprinkle on coarse salt.
Bake at 400 F for 18 to 22 minutes, or until done.
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