Some foods seem to survive and thrive throughout time. Who can say why? Probably because they fulfill a human need, are flexible and easily riffed on and may be simply prepared with few ingredients.
Italy’s beloved focaccia (fuh-KAH-che-ah) is a shining example.
Flatbreads date back many millennia. On an early dig in Pompeii archaeologists unearthed flatbread still caked in ash from the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In 16th century Naples, port workers were known to dip their crusty lunchtime flatbread into (unpolluted) sea water to season it. On a 2018 dig in Turkey, archaeologists discovered flatbread nine millennia old.
Thus preparing and consuming flatbreads, like Italy’s beloved focaccia, might be considered ingesting history.
Although focaccia originated on the northern Mediterranean coast, it spread to Greece, Tuscany and Rome where it was embraced and cherished. Focaccia was first baked on hot stone tile or on a hot hearth fire thus its name from Latin “panis focacius”or bread from the center of a hearth or fireplace.
Bakers around Italy have always prepared focacce from flour, water, yeast, salt and the very important olive oil. It is a method that works. For untold decades, cooks prepared focaccia topped with olive oil and herbs until the bread eventually splintered off into pizza. Focaccia remained unaffected and on course.
Of course that’s not to say that Italians in various regions of Italy didn’t appropriate and modify focaccia to their own tastes with various savory and sweet ingredients like herbs, cheese, pork cracklings, pancetta, prosciutto, tomatoes, olives, honey, eggs, butter, sugar, lemon or orange peel, grapes or raisins. We Americans like focaccia savory with olives, herbs and olive oil. Foccacia from Liguria or Genoa is thick, soft inside, sprinkled with salt and brushed with olive oil. Ligurian recco focaccia has two thin layers with soft fresh cheese in between. Focaccia Genovese col cippola is served with a thick topping of onions and focaccia melanzane features eggplant.
Sicilian focaccia alla messinese is a thick and fluffy focaccia topped with fresh tomatoes, shredded endive, Tuma goat cheese and anchovies. Focaccia sardenaira originating in Sanremo, has a topping of anchovies or sardines.Venetian Easter focaccia is prepared with sugar and butter. Cooks in Puglia prepare focaccia barese with durum (hard) wheat flour, salt, rosemary and tomatoes or olives. Some cooks put cooked mashed potato in the dough.
Tuscan cooks use fingers to flatten and dimple schiacciata or “squashed” focaccia. This medium-thick(there is a thin version) focaccia is soft inside but crisp on the outside due to liberal lashings of olive oil, salt and rosemary. Cooks like to use it to prepare panini with cheese and sliced meats. In September during grape harvest, Tuscans prepare a sweet grape focaccia called schiacciata all’uva.
Food joins us. Allow yourself a magical moment to imagine back through time the baker in Pompeii, the port workers in Naples and the family in Turkey each time you consume a piece of focaccia. Italians are responsible for the creation of countless kinds of luscious, unctuous-crusted and interior-tender flatbreads. I hope you’ll take some time this winter to connect with our flatbread forebears and prepare your version.
Potato, Rosemary and Olive Focaccia
Potatoes rule as leftovers. They add a nutty, lightness to this focaccia. There are many versions of focaccia, and all of them are some combination of flour, water, yeast and olive oil. Topping treatments usually set them apart, but in this case it’s the potato.
Adapted from Nick Malgieri
1 envelope (2-1/2 teaspoons) dry yeast
1 C. warmed mashed boiled or baked starchy potato
2 C. warm water
1/2 C. extra virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoons
5 C. all-purpose flour
1 t. kosher salt
2 T. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/2 C. pitted Kalamata or other olives
1/4 C. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. water
Extra kosher or coarse salt if desired
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook combine the yeast, potatoes, water and 1/2 cup oil. Add flour and salt; mix at low speed for several minutes. The dough will be sticky and rough.
Remove bowl from mixer and cover it. Let it rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 45 minutes to one hour. Coat a commercial half sheet pan (12-inch-by 17-inches) with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Press dough evenly into the pan. If dough feels elastic-y, let it rest a few minutes, it will soften again.
Press rosemary and olives evenly into the surface of dough. Allow dough to rest in a warm spot another 30 minutes. Press fingers lightly into dough at 2 inch intervals. Mix 1/4 cup olive oil with 2 tablespoons water and sprinkle across dough. Shake pan to moisten evenly. Bake dough until golden, 25 to 30 minutes.
Schiacciata All’Uva (Grape Focaccia)
This focaccia employs an overnight rise, which enhances its flavor. You may use this method with any bread dough to up the flavor and digestibility. Substitute fresh blueberries for grapes.
Adapted from Aida Mollenkamp
Yields 9- by 13-inch focaccia, 8 to 12 servings
1/2 C. warm water
1/2 t. sugar
1 t. active dry yeast
3-1/2 C. all purpose flour
1 C. whole milk or water
1/2 t. kosher salt
7 T. extra-virgin olive oil, divided plus more for garnish
1 lb. (about 4 cups) small grapes like concord or Champagne(large grapes are too juicy)
4 T. granulated sugar
Maldon sea salt or other flaky salt, for garnish
Optional: 2 to 3 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped, for garnish
Stir together 1/2 cup warm water, sugar and yeast; set aside until it starts to bubble, about 5 minutes. Combine flour and milk or water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed until a shaggy dough forms.
Stop a few times to scrape down inside of the bowl to incorporate dry flour.
Stop mixer, pour in yeast and water mixture plus salt. Mix on low speed until dough is evenly hydrated and moistened. Mix in 2 tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon at a time. Mix on medium until mixture comes together (when you add the oil it will look like it won’t combine, but keep going). Continue to mix on medium until dough is smooth and does not stick to the sides of bowl, 5 to 8 minutes.
Remove dough to a lightly floured clean countertop and bring together into a ball. Coat a large mixing bowl with olive oil, add dough and turn it to coat in the oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and refrigerate 8 to 24 hours. This longer, cool rise allows the yeasts to break down starches in the dough, which results in a more digestible and flavorful dough.
When you are ready to bake the focaccia, remove dough from refrigerator and rest in a warm place 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F, arrange a rack in the middle. Place a baking stone on it, if using.
Divide dough into two equal parts. Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil onto a 9-inch-by 13-inch rimmed baking pan. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll one piece of dough into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Place dough in baking sheet and push dough into the corners. Use three middle fingers on each hand to create dimples in the dough to make indentations 2/3 down (don’t hit the bottom of pan or tear dough).
Scatter half the grapes on dough. Leave a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons sugar. Top with flaky sea salt. Repeat to create a second layer (to top the first) with remaining dough, grapes, 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place focaccia in oven on baking stone if using or place pan on oven rack. Reduce temperature to 425 degrees F, and bake until golden-brown with minimum internal temperature of 190°F, 35 to 40 minutes. Turn pan or focaccia on the stone halfway through baking.
Remove pan (or focaccia) from oven and set aside to cool 10 minutes. Remove focaccia from pan and place on a rack set inside a baking sheet to cool. Brush or drizzle with more oil and sprinkle with more salt. If desired, scatter chopped fresh rosemary over the top. Serve while the schiacciata is warm or room temperature. In Italy, you’d eat this focaccia on its own. You may serve it in small squares or with blue cheese, goat cheese, prosciutto, ham or crispy bacon or as an accompaniment to an antipasto platter.