bread basics: focaccia with sun-dried tomato pesto and mozzarella
baking bread was something that i considered, until a few years ago, reserved for professionals, or at least obsessed amateurs. to put a bunch of ingredients in a bowl – one of which is living – and use the science of a 400 degree oven to turn a lump of dough into a staple of world cuisine seemed daunting. but when it comes down to it, all bread is 3 (or 4) basic ingredients. all other bread recipes simply build on those ingredients. let’s take a closer look at what those basics are:
flour is the basis for your bread. there are hundreds of thousands (not really…ok, probably really) varieties of flour, from whole wheat to unbleached to enriched and so on and so on.
it’s very easy to get confused and intimidated, especially when cook books recommend different kinds for different recipes. on the left is bread flour because it’s what i happened to have in the apartment, but i have also used straight up all-purpose flour with no trouble.
especially as you are starting out, all-purpose flour is totally fine. it’s cheap, easy to find, and CHEAP. did i mention it’s cheap? seriously, baking gets expensive, so if you’re going to try it out, and you happen to screw up, screw up cheaply. then try again.
avoid using cake flour, as it has low protein content and your resulting loaf of bread will likely fall in the oven.
even cheaper than cheap flour, water is essential to your bread. water activates the yeast and dissolves the other ingredients. when you dissolve yeast in a bowl of water, the water should be warm.
i’ve read that the exact temperature of your dissolving water can directly affect your final product, and while i’m sure that’s true, i’ve never had a problem just using lukewarm tap water.
since yeast just needs moisture of some kind to activate and make the bread rise, water is not always the liquid in bread recipes. other recipes use milk or barley water – but what’s most important is the amount of liquid added.
the liquid also helps make the loaf more tender by creating steam in the oven the bread bakes. less water will result in a harder bread while more water will result in a fatter, stickier bread.
water is added to…
yeast makes bread rise. simple.
again, there can be a bunch of types of yeast, but this active dry shown here has never let me down. you can get this at any grocery store in the baking aisle (thought it’s sometimes also stocked in the refrigerated section.
i don’t have the expertise to go into everything that yeast does for bread, but the idea is that yeast is a microscopic plant that uses available sugars in water to multiply, giving off carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol in the process. the carbon dioxide fills up air bubbles in the dough and inflates it.
in addition, the fermentation strengthens the gluten bonds in the dough (what you get when you mix flour and water) and can also contribute to the flavor of the bread.
when you let dough rise, you’re really letting the yeast feast on more sugar and continue to grow.
at this point, you could stop right now. you could combine flour, water and yeast, let rise, shape and bake to get a fine loaf of bread.
however, for a more flavorful and even loaf, we add salt. table salt will do in most recipes, but kosher or coarse salt may provide a bit more flavor.
salt also controls yeast development and keeps the bread from over-rising or rising too quickly, so your finished product has a good texture.
some people say that salt is absolutely essential to bread making, but to be honest, you could make a loaf without it. it wouldn’t quite have the flavor that we expect from even simple breads, but it would be bread none the less.
but salt is cheap and in this recipe we actually sprinkle some on right before baking. and in case you’re watching your salt intake, most bread recipes don’t use more than a teaspoon or two of salt total.
we’re going to add one more ingredient to this recipe that will take it from a simple white bread to a focaccia.
if we add just a bit of olive oil to the dough, we can get a great pizza dough recipe. if we add more, we get an even lighter, softer bread that works great for sandwiches or just for snacking.
olive oil has tons of great health benefits, and i use extra virgin unless i’m cooking something in a pan, in which case extra virgin can burn too quickly.
this bread not only has 3 tablespoons of olive oil in it, but is also coated with it before it is baked. the result is a soft crust. the olive oil also helps hold the salt that we sprinkle on.
as for quality, the greener the olive oil the better. that said, i’ve never run into a problem buying supermarket brand olive oil. again, if you’re going to screw up while making something, screw up cheaply.
i use olive oil in bread, but never in a cake. i just can’t bring myself to do it.
there’s an incredible moment when you take the bread out of the oven and realized you did it right – i still get a bit giddy when i succeed at bread making.
i guess adding pesto and mozzarella cheese sort of makes this a pizza, but serving it in little finger long strips somehow makes it more refined.
from mark bittman’s How to Cook Everything
1 tsp instant or rapid-rise yeast
3 cups all purpose or bread flour
2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt (plus extra for sprinkling)
1 to 1 1/4 cups water
3 Tbsp olive oil (plus extra for greasing)
1. dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of water and let rest for 5 minutes.
2. mix the salt into the flour, set aside.
3. add the olive oil to the yeast mixture.
4. mix the flour into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon until it begins to form into a ball. you will soon be able to mix with your hands, using a tiny bit of extra flour as needed, until the dough is smooth, but still moist.
5. kneed into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface. sprinkle with a little more flour, cover with a towel and let rest for 20 minutes.
6. grease a 11×17 inch baking sheet. after the 20 minutes is up, press the dough into a small rectangle on the pan and stretch a bit. let it rest a few minutes and press out toward the edges of the pan again. if the dough resists, let it rest a minute and then resume pressing/stretching.
7. cover the dough and let it rise for at least 30 minutes. meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 F.
8. uncover the dough, dimple with your fingertips, and drizzle the dough with olive oil and coarse salt.
9. place in the oven, lower the temperature to 375 F and bake for 30 minutes. the focaccia should be golden – don’t let it bake too long or the edges will harden. remove and cool on a wire rack. the bread will keep in the freezer, wrapped first in plastic and then in foil, for about 2 weeks.
sun-dried tomato pesto
i threw this together based on a jar of classico sun-dried tomato pesto. the actual measurements i give are pretty loose because with pesto i tend to just put a bunch of everything in the food processor and add more of this and that to taste.
3/4 cup fresh basil
3-4 oz sun-dried tomatoes (soak in warm water if you buy them completely dry)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1-2 cloves crushed garlic
1/4-1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp tomato sauce or plain pasta sauce (i used canned, it was fine)
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
1. put the basil, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and pine nuts into your food processor. pulse 5-6 times until everything breaks up, slowly adding the olive oil through the feed tube of the machine.
2. add the tomato sauce and sprinkle on the parmesan cheese. pulse a few more times until the pesto forms up. you may have to stop and scrape some of the ingredients off the side of the bowl so everything gets chopped.
put it all together
after the focaccia has cooled, preheat the oven to 350 F. put the bread on a baking sheet, spread the pesto on top in a thin layer and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. bake until the cheese melts a bit and begins to turn golden.