They were the Morengellos, two brothers and a cousin: Dom, Vince, and Joey. It was their grandmother, Rosemarie, who named them the Focaccias because of their dimples. Rosemarie, who loved Italian art songs, encouraged their singing and performing and introduced them to melancholy and angst, the cruelty of love, and that the heart weeps forever – all suitable topics for teenage torment. As the Focaccias, they sang at family gatherings, parties, and street fairs, such as the Feast of San Gennaro, where so thunderous was their performance that when they sang the line Vissi nel tuo respiro (I lived in your breath) fairgoers had to stop whatever they were doing to wipe away tears, using napkins saturated with grease from zeppole that they had just scarfed down, causing them to forever associate that greasy smell with being in love. As the Dimples, they stood shoulder to shoulder on the street corners of Brooklyn, singing doo-wop to the stars and the heavens and to anyone who walked by, burning with the immensity of their dreams. But Rosemarie did more than give them a name. She also taught them that to take a bite of focaccia is to taste the earth and soil, heart and soul of the world. While dimpling the dough that she had stretched out on a baking pan, Rosemarie would teach them about flour, yeast, and water, telling them not to add extra yeast to quicken the rising time because, like love, you should never hurry the dough. Lastly, she told them that when love or life was making you pazzi in testa (crazy in the head) it was time to knead the dough.
That’s one baker’s tale and you can choose to believe it…or not. As for me, focaccia is both doo-wop and Italian art song, the rhythm of the street corner and three voices singing into the night, the laughter of family and the love of a grandmother. Too often focaccia is thought of as bread for beginning bakers. Although there might be some truth to that because it doesn’t involve shaping or rounding or forming baguettes, focaccia is very much like an artist’s palette. What I love about it is its versatility. It’s an improviser’s delight; you can play with different flours, use a biga or a sponge, let it rise in the refrigerator, or it can be ready for your first bite within a few hours after kneading. It can be round or square, savory or sweet. You can dress it up and take it anywhere or keep it as humble as a starched white shirt. Dot its landscape with olives, onions, tomatoes, peppers, potato slices, or fresh fruit such as grapes, or strawberries. Paint it with tomato or pesto sauce. Scatter herbs with a few sweeps of the hand. One of my favorite combinations is Gorgonzola, red onion and walnuts.
I’ve been sworn to secrecy so I can’t reveal Rosemarie’s recipe. However, I encourage you to try Carol Field’s recipes from any of her following books: Focaccia, The Italian Baker, or Italy in Small Bites, especially the onion-covered bread ring. Below is her basic focaccia recipe. If you really want a hero’s welcome, bring one of Nancy Silverton’s focacce to a dinner party or gathering. I have to admit that I do reduce the amount of olive oil called for in her recipe. Amy Scherber’s focaccia recipe also has a special place in my heart, as does her rustic Italian bread. Lately, I’ve been baking breads from Flour Water Salt Yeast, where each recipe make two breads. I’ve been sticking the dough for the second loaf in the refrigerator and taking it out a day or two later and baking focaccia. Removing it from the oven, it looks like it has been colored by the Italian sun and the singing of Brooklyn nights.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water, 105° to 115°F
3/4 cup (100 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, 105° to 115°F
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sponge from above
31⁄4 cup (450 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 11⁄4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
To make the sponge: Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large mixing or mixer bowl, whisk it in, and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until very bubbly and doubled, about 45 minutes.
To make the dough: Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small bowl, whisk it in, and let stand until creamy, about 5 to 10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir the yeast mixture and olive oil into the sponge and mix with a paddle attachment until well blended. Add the flour and salt and stir until thoroughly mixed, 1 to 2 minutes. Change to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until the dough is soft, velvety and slightly sticky, 3 to 4 minutes. Finish by sprinkling 1 tablespoon of flour on your work surface and kneading the dough briefly until it comes together nicely.
First Rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled container, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, 11⁄4 hours.
Shaping and second rise. The dough will be soft, delicate, and full of air bubbles. Flatten it on an oiled 11×17 inch baking pan and press it out with oiled or wet hands. Because the dough will be sticky and may not cover the bottom of the pan, cover it with a towel and let it relax for 10 minutes, then stretch it again until it reaches the edges. Cover with a towel and let rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the dough is full of air bubbles. Just before baking, dimple the dough vigorously with your knuckles or fingertips, leaving visible indentations. Drizzle olive oil over the dough, being sure some of the oil pools in the little holes you have made. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.
Baking. At least 30 minutes before you plan to bake preheat the oven to 425°F with a baking stone inside if you have one. Place the focaccia pan directly on the stone and spray the oven walls and floor with cold water from a spritzer bottle 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Bake until the crust is crisp and top is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. You may remove the focaccia from the pan and bake it directly on the baking stone for the last 10 minutes. remove from the pan immediately and place on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes one 11 x 17 inch focaccia.