My first baking job, during my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, lasted about three months. Our shift began at 4 am and often as I left my on-campus apartment, frequently still drunk from the night before, my apartment mates, who hadn’t yet gone to bed, would set down their joints and pipes to wave goodbye. I’d work until 11 am or so, then go straight to a day of classes and a night of partying, to repeat the scenario again at 3:30 the next morning. This all makes me sound rather un-bojon and go-getterish, which I assure you is not the case. About once a week, I would turn off my alarm clock in my sleep and be awakened, either naturally or by a phone call, around 9am, 5 hours late for work. Needless to say, my roommate hated me, but my boss let me continue to work there, probably because I was the only female/person under the age of 40 out of the dozen or so employees in the bakery.
Working at College 8, which provided baked goods for the entire campus’s cafeterias, was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. Most days, my tasks consisted of mixing canned bright red cherry goo into a waiting hotel pan of muffin batter, then scooping out six hundred muffins; or operating the “cookie machine,” which, when it wasn’t getting jammed, spat out a dozen balls of cookie dough at a time onto waiting sheet pans.
My favorite part of the job was dimpling out the oiled, herb-coated focaccia dough as it slowly rose in multiple hotel pans. But my least favorite part of the job was hearing my burly, mulletted boss pronounce the word “focaccia”. He’d start in with a sort of growl (fuuuhhhh…), then add a hacking sneeze in the middle (“GAH-tchuh”), followed by a redundant, polysyllabic description of what focaccia means in English (“BRAY-ed”). Sort of endearing, I suppose, but the defilement of such a beautiful language made me want scream “Focaccia you! Eh?”
Since that trauma, I’ve managed to avoid early morning jobs for the most part. But I still enjoy making “fuh-GAH-tchuh bray-ed” in the quiet and grammatically correct comfort of my own home. This recipe came about a couple years ago when I wanted to bake a sourdough focaccia but didn’t have the hours and hours to wait for a dough leavened soley with wild yeasts to rise. I tinkered with a recipe for yeasted focaccia, adding sourdough starter and tweaking the rest of the ingredients accordingly. What I pulled out of the pan that day was the best focaccia I’d ever eaten or made; (pathetically) one of my more triumphant moments in life.
Because the dough uses commercial yeast, this is a great way to use up starter that isn’t strong enough to raise bread on its own, such as young or neglected starter, or what you would throw away while feeding your starter to build it up. Just be sure the starter still smells nice. I’ve experimented with a few different flours and found that all spelt makes a spongy, springy focaccia, while bread flour makes a chewier dough with bigger, more irregular air pockets, as shown in these photos. You can vary the herbs and toppings to your liking. I plan to try pressing whole, roasted garlic cloves into the top next time. The dough is extremely wet, and probably impossible to knead by hand, so use a stand mixer for sure.
1 teaspoon instant, rapid rise yeast (or 1 Tablespoon fresh yeast)
1 cup (4 1/4 oz.) whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cups (8 oz.) all purpose or bread flour
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) water, lukewarm
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 cup good olive oil (I like Sciabica’s)
1/4 teaspoon or so crunchy salt, like malden or fleur de sel
optional toppings: 1/2 cup halved pitted black olives; chopped thyme, rosemary, or sage; whole roasted garlic cloves; anything else you can think of
Combine the starter, yeast, water and flours in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low a couple of minutes until combined, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then increase to speed 3 and beat for 8 minutes. The dough should be very wet and sticky, almost batter-like, but not liquid. Add more flour or water as you knead if the dough seems overly wet or dry. Sprinkle on the salt, and beat on 3 for another five minutes. The dough should still be sticky, but should pull away from the sides of the bowl while it’s mixing. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and let rise 1-2 hours until doubled or tripled in bulk.
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a baking stone on top, if you have one. Place a sacrificial metal or cast iron pan on the floor of the oven – you will put ice in it to steam the oven, and it will become rusted and nasty. Preheat the oven to 500º.
Line a 9×12″ (1/4 sheet) pan with a sling of parchment paper (the paper should lay flat in the bottom with the long ends sticking out.) Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil all over the bottom and sides of the paper. With a plastic scraper, turn the dough over in the bowl a few times, tamping out some of the air bubbles, then blob it onto the center of the oiled parchment. Drizzle the remaining oil on top and use your fingers to dimple the dough outwards towards the sides and corners. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour, until it mostly fills in the pan, dimpling out the dough a few more times to fill in the corners. The olive oil will pool in the corners, so use a teaspoon to “baste” the top of the focaccia with that oil. Sprinkle a bit of crunchy salt over the top, and any other toppings you like, and give the dough a last dimpling.
Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly place the focaccia pan on the baking stone and toss the ice cube into the sacrificial pan on the floor of the oven. Close the door and don’t open it again for the next 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, rotate the focaccia, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake for another 15 minutes or so, until golden and lovely on top. Remove to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then lift out of the pan and cool completely before snarfing.
Store the focaccia at room temperature in a plastic bag for up to a few days (but I doubt it will last that long!)