Learning to make yeast bread from a professional baker is one of those experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. What surprised me most was the emphasis on feel, rather than science and exact measurements. Yeast, like human beings, likes warm temperatures and needs food and water to live. Pressing dough with your finger will tell you whether it has been mixed enough or whether it’s rested long enough to be handled again. The tell of a great loaf of bread is its weight, feel and sound when squeezed. It’s these sorts of descriptions that resonate best with me because they can be acted out, and once you have the hang of them, they’re always the same. This takes the intimidation factor out of making yeast bread.
One complaint my husband and close friends have gotten tired of hearing is how much I hate baking bread in my home oven. Not only do home ovens not get nearly as hot as professional ones, but they also lack a system for injecting steam inside the oven during the first few minutes of baking, which makes for better browning of the crust and helps the dough rise.
Professional bakers swear by placing a soaked brick in the bottom of the oven to add moisture. Others recommend spritzing the inside walls of the oven with water just before sliding in the bread. I haven’t yet invested in a clean brick for bread endeavors–Sean frowned on my plan to take one from the demolished warehouse next door. And I forgot to buy a spray bottle at the grocery store when I was picking up bread flour, so I settled for spritzing the inside of the oven with an unplugged iron. It worked quite well in a pinch.
Regardless of whether you are using a lowly home oven spritzed with water from the iron, stone hearth or professional-grade convection oven, I think the best way to create delicious focaccia is to add a preferment to your dough. A preferment (also called a starter, sponge or biga) is a fully formed dough–made ahead of time from flour, yeast and water–that is added to bread dough just before kneading.
I promise, taking the time for this this small extra step will give your bread a much more complex flavor and that slightly tangy quality that is a signature of great artisan yeast breads.
Salt and rosemary speckled focaccia
I’ve done this recipe–as I do all my baked items–by weight because it’s much more accurate and a lot easier. If you haven’t already, invest $20 in a digital scale. It is a wonderful kitchen tool that will help you tackle those oh-so-exact baking recipes without fear.
6 ounces warm water
0.06 ounces active dry yeast
8 ounces bread flour
1 pound 4 ounces bread flour, plus a handful more for kneading
14 ounces warm water
0.06 ounces active dry yeast
0.5 oz. salt
1 ounce good quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
4 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
4 tablespoons cracked sea salt or other coarse salt
Method: Mix together the ingredients for the sponge. Allow to ferment, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place for 8 to 16 hours.
Blend together the water, yeast and some of the flour in a standing mixer fitted with the hook attachment. Add the salt and preferment, and mix on medium speed until the dough becomes very elastic, about 7 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a counter sprinkled with flour, and knead for a few more minutes (the dough will be quite sticky at first). Press your finger lightly into the side of the dough, if it springs back, the dough is ready. If not, keep kneading until you’ve reached this point. Brush the inside of a large bowl with olive oil, place the dough inside and cover it with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Ferment in a warm place for about 1 hour (or until roughly double in size). Punch the dough down with your fist to de-gas it, turn it out onto the counter and cut it into 2 equal pieces.
Meanwhile, oil 2 sheet pans generously with olive oil. Stretch each piece of dough into the pans. Be patient; you might have to work a bit to get the dough spread out.
Allow the dough to ferment for another 30-45 minutes, until it has doubled in thickness once again. While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 400°F. using a pastry brush, spread the top generously with olive oil, and poke holes at even intervals all over the top with your fingers.
Sprinkle all over with salt and chopped rosemary.
Just before you’re ready to bake, spritz the interior walls of your oven with water. Slide in the pans, and bake for 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Place on a rack to cool completely.
Note: If you want to store the bread longer than a day or two after cooling, cut it into the desired portion sizes, wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap then foil, and place in the freezer. The bread should maintain its quality up to 10 days or so. Thaw portions on the counter as you need them.