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Food & Drink

No-knead focaccia is a gateway into the world of baking bread

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, 1:33 a.m.
Fast Focaccia
Fast Focaccia

One of the wonderful things about living, breathing and working in food is all that is new, or at least new to me. New recipes to try, new photos to drool over, new cookbooks to peruse. My desk is piled with those cookbooks, stacks about as stable as a Jenga tower.

It’s almost impossible to resist bringing some home with me. Sometimes that means I pay less attention to my old reliables.

“Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg was one of the first cookbooks I ever brought home. I baked from it a lot, but at some point my bread output dropped off. And now I’m kicking myself for letting the book collect dust.

I was recently on the hunt for a good, easy focaccia, and after another recipe came up short in both flavor and texture, I decided to try one from François and Hertzberg that came from one of their numerous sequels, “Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day.” (Washington Post Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick just included their “Holiday and Celebration Bread in Five Minutes a Day” in her top cookbooks list of 2018).

What a revelation. Not only was this faster and less fussy than the first recipe, but it was far superior. There was a crispy crust with a pronounced yet delicate olive-oil flavor that encased a chewy, somewhat airy interior. Plus, unlike most breads, which need to cool down for the best texture, this one can be eaten warm.

“I only get invited to a Super Bowl party because I bring this,” Hertzberg says. People find it so addictive, “It barely makes it out of the pan, to be honest,” François adds.

And does it really just take five minutes? More or less, depending on how quickly you can find, measure and mix the ingredients. Most of the time on this recipe is inactive, while the dough is rising. Then it’s just a matter of shaping the dough into a ball and into a flat round, resting it a bit more and baking. And all you need is one bowl and a wooden spoon — no mixer. Also: no kneading!

How can something that requires so little work create something so excellent?

The key is moisture. Hertzberg and François are the first to say they did not invent the concept of a wetter dough that does not require kneading, but they have certainly turned the idea into their bread and butter (I had to, sorry). When you knead, you are helping develop the gluten, which occurs when water interacts with the protein in the flour. Kneading helps align the gluten into a network that gives bread structure. But when the dough is wetter, Hertzberg says, the gluten strands are free to roam around and find each other to align themselves.

“If the dough is willing to do the work for you, then why not?” François says.

I’ve chosen to top this traditional Italian bread simply with rosemary and coarse salt. The recipe posted on François and Hertzberg’s website adds onion to the mix and also features a version with Meyer lemons, thyme and sugar. François is a fan of topping hers with thinly sliced potatoes, grapes, herbs and honey. Feel free to get creative. Just keep in mind that some ingredients should be added after the bread has baked, including more delicate herbs such as basil and other garnishes, such as honey, that might burn in the oven.

François says this recipe is a go-to for people who think they can’t bake bread, a good number of her friends included: “It’s sort of a gateway into the rest of the bread world.”

Using this recipe, you’ll have enough dough for two loaves, which you can bake at the same time if you have two 9-inch cake pans.

The dough needs to rest at room temperature for two hours. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or in the freezer for a few months. The shaped loaves need to rest and rise at room temperature for 35 minutes before they are baked.

If you don’t have a baking stone, you can use a heavy-duty baking sheet instead, or just place the cake pan directly on the oven rack.

Fast Focaccia

Adapted from “Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day” by Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011), as posted on ArtisanBreadInFive.com.

1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)

1½ teaspoons dried instant yeast

2¼ teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary (from one to two stems)

Coarse or flaky salt, for sprinkling

Use a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula to stir together the water, half the oil, the yeast, kosher salt, sugar and flour in a large (five- or six-quart) bowl, forming a rough dough. Transfer to a container with a lid; partially cover and let it rest for about two hours on the counter. (Alternately, if you have a lidded container large enough for mixing, you can assemble the dough in there.) The dough can then be used right away, but it is much easier to handle once it has been thoroughly chilled. The dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough lightly with flour, then pull half of it off. (It will be about a 1-pound portion; the dusting makes this task easier, as the dough is sticky). Dust the half you are using with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go.

Place a baking stone on the middle oven rack; preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Pour the remaining oil into a 9-inch cake pan and evenly coat the bottom of the pan.

Use your hands to flatten it into a half-inch-thick round six to seven inches in diameter. Place the dough top-side-down in the cake pan, moving it around a bit to coat it with the oil. It will not fill to the edges of the pan. Turn the dough over, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

Use your hands to gently push the dough to the edges of the cake pan. Sprinkle with the rosemary and coarse or flaky salt, as needed.

Cover with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rest and rise for 20 minutes.

Place the cake pan on the heated baking stone in the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the focaccia crust is medium brown and feels dry and firm on the surface. The baking time will vary, depending on the focaccia’s thickness.

Use a rounded knife to loosen the loaf from the edges of the pan, then transfer the focaccia to a cutting board. Cut into wedges and serve warm, or allow to cool completely.

Nutrition per serving: 160 calories, 6 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 23 g carbohydrates, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar, 3 g protein

Becky Krystal is writer for The Washington Post.

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