I am officially declaring November "The Month of Bread." Now that I have one bread course under my belt and will soon be completing my second bread course at George Brown College’s Culinary School, I really have no excuses for not putting my newly learned schools to good use.
In a further bit of excellent timing, the generous and talented Linda Haynes, owner of Toronto’s ACE Bakery, kindly sent me a copy of her second cookbook: More from ACE Bakery. In 2003, when Linda published her first book called The ACE Bakery Cookbook, I greedily snapped it up. Even then I was a big fan of ACE’s bread, due mainly to the fact that I’d been enjoying it for years. The ACE Bakery facilities are conveniently located very close to my family’s shoe company. Easy access means lots and lots of ACE bread and believe me no one around here is complaining.
So here we are. It’s November. For the first time I’m featuring two cookbooks as the Flavours of the Month for November 2006. And it’s all about the bread.
I must tell you that I’ve been enjoying my bread classes immensely. The feeling of creating and kneading dough is endlessly pleasing and satisfying. And now that I have a better understanding of how the combination of yeast and flour works, I want to learn more and more.
It’s my wish that you’ll join me on this journey in the hopes that we’ll all learn just a bit more about baking bread. Of course being a Cream Puff, you can expect the usual assortment of sweets from me as well.
To kick things off, I decided to try my hand at focaccia. While I haven’t done any research on the difference between focaccia and pizza, my understanding is that focaccia tends to be breadier and thicker than your average pizza crust. To be honest, I don’t make focaccia often because I’ve never had much success. It usually ends up looking at tasting very much like a pizza crust that’s risen a bit more.
But in another example of worlds colliding, Linda’s recipe for focaccia (from The ACE Bakery Cookbook) brought to mind an interesting lesson from one of my bread classes. While I’ve been a bit slow to update you on what I’ve learned in bread class (I’ll catch up on those posts I promise), you should know that recently we practiced making bread with what the instructor referred to as a "sponge." It’s a combination of yeast, flour and water that’s allowed to proof or ferment until it doubles or triples in size. This sponge is then used to make bread.
In The ACE Bakery Cookbook, Linda Haynes uses a "biga" or "starter" to make focaccia. Her biga is made with active dry yeast, warm water and unbleached hard white flour. Once mixed, the biga must ferment for 12 to 14 hours, which of course means that you have to plan ahead. But believe me the results are worth it!
I made the biga on a Saturday night and then picked up the recipe on Sunday morning. Before working with the biga, I mixed flour, water and olive oil and allowed it to rest for about 30 minutes. The recipe refers to this process as "autolyse," which means that you’re giving this part of the dough time for the gluten to develop. In bread class, we’ve never taken this step when using a "sponge" or starter. But because it was relatively easy and because the end result was so good, I will definitely try it again at home.
Once the dough rested, I mixed it with more yeast and water, the biga and salt. After allowing the focaccia dough to rise for a few hours, I shaped it, bathed it in olive oil and let it rise again for an hour or so. A sprinkling of sea salt and the addition of rosemary were the final steps before my focaccia went into the oven.
The fragrance alone made this entire process worth it. But the end result was fabulous. A firm crust, a light and tender interior, the flavour of olive oil mixed with sea salt and rosemary … it was beautiful and I was so proud of my accomplishment! I cannot wait for the weekend so that I can try this recipe again.
For the time being, I’m not going to post the focaccia recipe. I’m not comfortable doing so because to be honest, I did not adapt the recipe in any way. For my first time, I wanted to follow the instructions in detail. As I try it more and more, I have no doubts that I’ll adjust the recipe to further suit my tastes. So while there’s no recipe for now, please feel free to send me any questions you have about this particular focaccia.
It seems incredible that a simple focaccia baked on a quiet Sunday afternoon could bring so much pleasure. But it did. A warm kitchen … a beautiful offering from the oven … the simple things truly do make the difference.