Eric Akis: Fabulous focaccia

Eric Akis

When I’m having guests for a meal and want to dazzle them even more, I sometimes make focaccia to serve with it. This Italian-style flatbread is easy to make and can be topped in ways that complement the meal, which is why I’m so fond of it.

Today’s recipe highlights that.

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I provide a basic recipe for focaccia, which is made from a yeast-leavened dough similar to pizza dough. Once the dough is made and formed, I offer four ways to top the bread before and after baking it.

If you’re keen on making the bread, read the recipe first and decide which topping goes best with the food you’ll serve it with.

For example, if you were serving a puréed squash soup for lunch, I suggest you make pear, red onion and blue cheese-topped focaccia. Its sweet, fruity and tangy tastes would pair well with that earthy-tasting soup, and you would end up creating a marvellous meal of soup and bread.

If you were serving Greek-style roast lamb or chicken for dinner, the roasted cherry tomato, feta and oregano-topped focaccia would go well with it. That style of focaccia would also pair well with steamed shellfish, such as mussels or clams.

If you were searing and slicing up a juicy strip-loin steak and serving it on risotto, I suggest you make the chanterelle mushroom and goat cheese-topped focaccia. Steak and mushrooms always work well together and so do risotto and cheese.

If you were dishing up scrambled eggs or a simply flavoured frittata for breakfast or brunch, the smoked salmon-topped focaccia would be a good match. Smoked salmon, bread and eggs all taste great together, and adding even more flavour are the focaccia’s other toppings, including onion, cucumber and cream cheese.

Focaccia with Four Topping Ideas

This recipe provides a technique for making focaccia bread, followed by four ways to top it. Choose the one that appeals most. Or, double the recipe, make two loaves and top them with your two favourite toppings. Because some toppings need to be cooked, you should prepare them before or right after you make the dough. That way, once the dough has risen, they will have cooled down and be ready to set on the focaccia.

 

Preparation: 25 minutes, plus dough rising time

Cooking time: 20 to 22 minutes, plus added time depending on your topping

Makes: One loaf

For the focaccia

2/3 cup lukewarm (not hot) water

1 tsp active dry (traditional) yeast

1/2 tsp granulated sugar

1 Tbsp olive oil, plus some for the other uses in the recipe

1/4 tsp salt

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

 

In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water, yeast and sugar. Let mixture stand five minutes to dissolve the yeast.

Mix in the 1 Tbsp olive oil. If using a stand mixer, add 1 1/4 cups of the flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If it’s still quite sticky, mix in some or all of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Mix and knead the dough for another five minutes.

If mixing the dough by hand, slowly add one cup of the flour, working it into the yeast/water mixture with a spoon until the dough loosely clumps together. Lightly dust a clean work surface with the remaining flour. Gather the dough, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary, and set it on the counter. Dab it lightly in the flour to coat it, and then knead for six to eight minutes, until the dough is smooth, but still slightly sticky.

Lightly grease a large, deep bowl with olive oil. Place the kneaded dough in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 60 to 75 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or lightly oil a nonstick baking sheet, and place the risen dough on it. Lightly coat your fingers with olive oil, and then gently press and stretch the dough into a thin oblong about 28 centimetres long and 13 centimetres wide.

Top the dough in one of the four ways described below, and then let rise on the pan 30 minutes.

Set an oven rack in the middle of the oven, then preheat the oven to 425 F. Bake the bread for 20 to 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

 

For pear, red onion and blue cheese focaccia

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced

16 thin, half, pear slices

50 grams blue cheese, pulled into small nuggets (about 1/4 cup)

2 tsp chopped rosemary

• coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• balsamic crema, to taste (see Note 1)

Place the oil in skillet set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook and stir until very tender and lightly caramelized, about seven to eight minutes. Remove onions from the heat and cool to room temperature.

When cool, spread the onions over the dough. Top the onions with pear slices, and then set on the nuggets of cheese. Sprinkle with rosemary, salt and pepper. Let focaccia rise and bake as described above. Drizzle baked focaccia with balsamic crema, just before serving.

 

For roasted cherry tomato, feta and oregano focaccia

12 to 14 cherry tomatoes, each halved (see Note 2)

1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

• pinch crushed chili flakes

• coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

50 grams feta, coarsely crumbed (about 1/4 cup)

16 to 20 small, sprigs fresh oregano

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the tomatoes, cut-side-up, in a shallow, parchment paper-lined baking dish. Combine oil and garlic in a small bowl; brush mixture on cut side of tomatoes. Sprinkle tomatoes with crushed chilies and salt. Roast the tomatoes 30 minutes, and then remove from the oven and cool to temperature.

When cool, set the tomatoes on the dough, cut side up. Drizzle tomatoes with any oil/juices left in the pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Now top the dough with feta cheese. Let focaccia rise and bake as described above. Top baked focaccia with oregano sprigs, once out of the oven.

 

For chanterelle mushroom herb goat cheese focaccia

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling

1/2 lb. chanterelle wild mushrooms, sliced (see Note 3)

• coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

50 grams fine herb goat cheese (about 1/4 cup; see Note 4)

Heat the 1 Tbsp oil in a large skillet set over medium to medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are tender and the moisture seeping from them has evaporated, about six minutes.

When cool, set mushrooms on the dough and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top the dough with goat cheese. Let focaccia rise and bake as described above. Drizzle baked focaccia with olive oil, just before serving.

 

For all-dressed smoked-salmon focaccia

1/4 to 1/3 cup firm cream cheese, pulled into small nuggets

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

12 thin slices English cucumber

6 thin slices cold-smoked smoked salmon (about 100 grams)

2 tsp capers (optional)

• small dill or parsley sprigs, to taste

 

Top the dough with nuggets of the cream cheese. Let focaccia rise and bake as described above. Top the baked focaccia with smoked salmon, red onion, cucumber, capers (if using) and dill (or parsley), just before serving.

 

Note 1: Balsamic crema is reduced balsamic vinegar found at specialty stores and in the deli or vinegar aisle of supermarkets.

Note 2: If desired, use a mix of different coloured cherry tomatoes on the focaccia, instead of just red.

Note 3: Chanterelle mushrooms are available at some supermarkets, specialty food stores and farm markets. If you can’t find them, try a half-pound mix of assorted, sliced mushrooms, such as oyster, brown and shiitake.

Note 4: Fine herb goat cheese is sold in small logs in the deli section of most supermarkets.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His latest is The Great Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook (Appetite by Random House). His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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