Simple as Sunshine Focaccia

January 19, 2011

Everyone’s heard of painting yourself into a corner, but how about painting yourself out of a corner? I’m not particular about all my corners, just the one my computer is in. And yes, in painting the floor (with primer, to seal the um… funk into well-aged press board before we put new flooring down), I cut myself off from my computer and all the pictures that make a blog more pleasant to read. Well, even a wet, Oregon winter can’t keep paint from drying or me from posting a blog, albeit a few days late…

Focaccia. In America, it almost always seems to be billed as a bread. In Italy, however, it’s more like a thick-crusted pizza and often served like an open-faced sandwich. The focaccia I’ve been served here is more or less plain with a an herb or two sprinkled on top, and it’s lovely just like that. But in Italy, there’s much more variety: thinly sliced potatoes seasoned with rosemary and extra virgin olive oil; sweet, browned onions or, my personal favorite, soft stracchino or crescenza cheese melted into a speckled brown and creamy crust.

Focaccia with Potatoes and Rosemary

I have yet to make cheese focaccia here in the states. The one time I found imported crescenza cheese in an uppity New York shop, it was two days past its expiration date and well on its way toward wedding-mint pastel. Maybe the author of this cheese-making blog could help us out with a recipe for a nice, soft, focaccia-worthy cheese, but until that happens, I’ll make do with my usual herbed or plain focaccia. It’s always a favorite, even if it does turn out like the bready, American version.

I never considered making homemade focaccia until I received a recipe book and focaccia pan one birthday. I’m not so good about adhering to recipes, and one of the biggest deterrents is when a recipe gets complicated for something that seems so simple. It was the sponge that turned me off — making a yeasty mix and waiting for hours and hours before I could even start the dough. Years later, I did delve into that yeasty, spongy world with my chewy Italian Ciabatta, but a dozen years ago, I wanted something manageable, quick, and fail safe. Simple as Sunshine Focaccia was born.

Simple as Sunshine Focaccia

This recipe is so easy, even my friends that swear they can’t bake bread can make this. It’s a pretty soft and sticky dough, and I find it easiest to use a kitchen-aid type mixer, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be made without one. You’ll also need a deep dish pan. In a pinch, a large pie plate would work, as would a Pyrex casserole dish. Best is a deep-dish pizza pan like this one:

 

Focaccia Pan (aka Deep Dish Pizza Pan)

As written, the recipe takes about 4 hours between mixing, rising, and baking. But I’ve also made it in barely over an hour. See Speed Focaccia below.

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • olive oil
  • salt, rosemary, or…(see Toppings below)

Kitchen Aid Mixing Method

  1. Pour the water into your mixer’s bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top and add the salt and sugar. Don’t worry about waiting for the yeast to dissolve.
  2. Dump the flour in and mix it in with the paddle until all the ingredients are incorporated — a couple of minutes at most.
  3. Remove the mixer, drizzle a bit of olive oil on the walls of the bowl, and swirl the dough around with a rubber spatula until it and the bowl are coated with oil. Cover and let sit for an hour or two in a warm spot.
  4. Punch down with the rubber spatula. Cover the bottom of your baking dish with a table spoon or so of olive oil and plop the dough on top. Use your fingers to spread the dough into a flattish form and let rise for another hour or so.
  5. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
  6. Just before placing the pan in the oven, dimple the top with your fingers or with the handle end of a wooden spoon.
  7. Drizzle with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake for 25 to 35 minutes (depending on how hot your oven really is). The sides and bottom should be nicely brown, and the top should be golden — especially where the olive oil was drizzled. If it’s not turning brown after 25 minutes, crank the heat up to 400 degrees. (This can also be baked on a barbecue, but you’ll need to start with a cool pizza stone so the bottom doesn’t burn. See my Chewy Italian Bread post for more info on baking bread on a barbecue.)
  8. Remove from the pan promptly, using a spatula to carefully loosen any area that sticks to the pan. Cool on a wire rack and serve, preferably warm.
  9. Doesn’t keep more than a day or so, but no worries. It rarely lasts that long.

Hand Mixing Method

  1. Pour the water into a deep bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top and add the the salt and sugar. Don’t worry about waiting for the yeast to dissolve.
  2. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time. Mix with a wooden spoon for as long as you can, then use your floured hands to mix until all the ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the walls of the bowl, and swirl the dough around until it’s coated with the oil. Let sit for an hour or two in a warm spot.
  4. Follow from step 4 above.

Speed Focaccia

  1. Preheat oven to 100 degrees (or the closest you can get).
  2. Mix all the ingredients as in steps 1 and 2 above.
  3. Oil the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise in the oven for 20 minutes.
  4. Remove the dough, and raise  oven temp to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, put dough into oiled pan and spread. Drizzle with more oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake as explained above.

Toppings

  • Fancy Salt: whatever you pour or spread on top, don’t skimp on the salt. I like to use some chunky orange salt someone gave me as a gift some years back.
  • Rosemary-Infused Oil: saute a couple of tablespoons of fresh,chopped rosemary in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over low heat for a few minutes and drizzle over dough just before baking.

    Ingredients for Caramelized Onions

    Caramelized Onion Ingredients

  • Caramelized Onions: caramelize onions and spread over the top just before baking.
  • Olive: Use your finger or a small spoon to dunk halved olives in the dough just before baking. My favorite are the black, semi-dry Greek olives. Save a few to scatter on top.
  • Fresh cherry tomatoes: Just spread them on top and sprinkle with salt just before baking. Chopped, fresh basil is a nice addition to sprinkle on top just before serving.
  • Potato and Rosemary: Slice potato into thin rounds — no more than 1/8″ thick, preferably less. Boil for 4 – 8 minutes (depends on how thinly you sliced them) just until a fork pierces the center without breaking it. Strain and fan across dough just before baking. Top with chopped, fresh rosemary, olive oil, and salt.

The possibilities are endless. Travel through the Italian countryside, and you’ll find focaccia with fresh grapes, sweet figs, or savory sage. And every single one of them goes perfectly with a nice glass of red wine.

Go ahead. Experiment.

Buon appetito ~

Canoodling with Caneles

January 10, 2011

I am in love — with a dessert! Not surprising with my sweet tooth, but I can’t believe I made it four-plus decades and living/traveling on four continents without ever having the pleasure of meeting this lovely French specialty, the Canele.

It’s like creme brulee in a caramelized crust. A magical custard baked in its own dish. Crunchy on the outside. Creamy in the center. Absolutely delicious.

Canele

 

I first came across them at the Oyster and Champagne benefit for Slow Food Eugene that I attended this past summer when I brought a “doggy bag” of them home for my husband. He raved about them for days. I intended to seek out the patisserie that made them — Eugene’s Caramel French Patisserie — but never quite got around to it.¬† And then, one day, there they were, right in front of me, at the holiday version of the Eugene Farmer’s Market’s. For five weekends of the Holiday Market, I visited the French proprietress, Barbara, and loaded up on multiple packets of these addicting delicacies, and they would all disappear within minutes of my arrival at home. Then the Holiday Market ended, and my husband and I were left going through withdrawals. I started researching recipes immediately.

Talk about overwhelming. There are dozens and dozens of recipes out there. Many of them use the same few ingredients, but the ratios are vastly different, as is the method of preparing the batter. Then there was the slight discrepancy in cooking temperatures and the huge discrepancy in cooking times — from 50 minutes all the way up to two hours — both versions at 400 degrees! Why? I’m guessing it’s because there are a lot of people out there trying to get this just right. I’ve never come across a dessert that has so much history and secrecy (the official recipe is reportedly locked in a vault in Bordeaux). Nor have I come across a dessert that could be so expensive to make! Twenty bucks for a single copper and tin mold at Amazon. !!! Fortunately, there’s a less expensive silicone version. Purists would surely scoff at the idea of using it, but at 1/8 of the price, we decided we could make do — at least until we find ourselves in France again and can import our own copper molds.

All that was left was to pick a recipe and start baking!

canele ingredients

So far, we’ve experimented only twice. Although neither was perfect, they were both a pleasure to consume. First thing we realized is that one silicone mold (8 pastries) would not suffice. The folks at Amazon were happy to oblige.

 

Silicone Canele Mold

Silicone Canele Mold

The ingredients are basic: milk, sugar, eggs, butter, flour, fresh vanilla bean, and rum — the latter being the only thing I didn’t have on hand, so I substituted amaretto. The first recipe I tried called for nearly a cup of butter — so much that the resulting caneles ended up being boiled in butter. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, it just wasn’t the result we were looking for. We ate them, of course, and enjoyed every bite, but I started sifting through additional recipes online. The next version we tried called for only 3 tablespoons of butter, which worked out well. But it also called for a little less flour, which left the custard a little on the dense and moist side. I also think it could use a whole vanilla bean rather than just a half. And I’d like to have some rum for the next try, but I’ll have to decide whether to go for the 1 tablespoon in some recipes or the 4 tablespoons in others.

I should note that I’m not trying to improve on a centuries-old recipe — especially since I doubt any of the recipes online will perfectly match that secretive concoction. But I do plan on experimenting with versions and tweaking them until I come up with a personal favorite.

One thing I noticed is that the pastries aren’t as tall as they should be (and therefore denser), which I have a feeling is due to the custard not holding to the silicone mold as it bakes as it might on the copper and tin molds. Until I have $300 to invest in the fancy molds, I can deal with dense. On this last batch, I took one tray out of the oven after 80 minutes at 400 degrees (left) and baked the second tray in for the full two hours (right). (Other recipes call for 75 minutes at 375 on convection.)

 

Experimenting with Cooking Times

Experimenting with Cooking Times

My husband preferred the less-cooked version; I preferred the more-cooked, crustier version. Perhaps next time I’ll try somewhere in the middle…

Canele Crust

 

No matter what, all 15 of them went down very, very easily over the course of an afternoon and evening. (Yes, 15 of them, the entire batch, between the two of us! Perhaps we shouldn’t have procured that second mold. I’m writing this morning while exercising off a small portion of the calories from my treadmill desk — 342 calories burned and counting!) We tried them 1/2 an hour out of the oven and again at one hour (supposedly the preferred cooling time).

 

A Tray of Canele

A Tray of Canele

The few that remained after dinner, even though well past that 1-hour “optimum” cooling time, were perfect when paired with a glass of tawny port.

Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port

Needless to say, more experimentation is in order. I’ll gladly sacrifice myself (and my waistline) to this endeavor and eventually post a recipe. In the meantime, if you’ve never had the pleasure of eating a canele or two or three… I highly recommend Caramel in Eugene. (I didn’t see them on her website, so you might call first.) I also read raves online about Ken’s in Portland.

Bon appetit!