BakingPhil Project 3: Focaccia (Recipe 7.34)


I’ve reached chapter 7 about yeast breads in the textbook On Baking. This project could have easily been just about this chapter. It is overwhelming and challenging! Oh my…. Thank goodness I don’t have an exam to pass. The biology of yeast and the chemistry of fermentation and baking are complex. There are types of yeast, appropriate water temperature, climate control, hand and machine kneading, shaping etc. to consider. There are 10 production stages: scaling, mixing, fermenting, punching, proportioning, rounding, shaping, proofing, baking and cooling. Each stage has specific requirements. I completely understand why bread making was the first domestic task to be outsourced and professionalized. I am humbled. I have two logistical issues at this point of project:

  1. First, the recipes in the book are aimed for large production kitchens that yield for example 64 rolls. While I’m happy to make, eat and share, I fear my home standing mixer may not be able to technically accommodate the kneading and mixing. Sure I can try to reduce the recipe but I don’t trust my math skills or my understanding of baking proportions.
  2. I don’t have some of the ingredients readily (or specific tools). I doubt any home kitchen would have old dough or sourdough starter.

Based on the limitations I decided to try the recipe for Focaccia (Recipe 7.34) using the straight dough method. I didn’t have fresh rosemary. Sprinkling sesame seeds didn’t work well (just fell off without any agent to help them stick to the bread). Regardless, the bread was delicious. The onions and the brushed olive oil made it savory. The inside was soft and outside crisp. I would make it again. Tomorrow I’ll make fresh tuna salad sandwiches with tomato and lettuce or maybe a melt. Maybe both and have a hot-cold taste test. I’m eager to try other focaccia recipes now. The variations seem endless. The yeasty and oniony scent in the house is so comforting on a cold Indiana day. There is also something intrinsically satisfying about witnessing dough grow and double. Like watching a flower blossom. Despite my earlier laments about the complexity of the process, the play-dough moment of mixing and shaping is so soothing. Maybe I should bake bread once a week for as therapeutic recovery. Speaking of baking for the soul and what I learned……

Every stage of bread making offers philosophical insight. My favorite: the lesson from punching down the dough. Why would we work so hard to develop the yeast only to punch the dough down? According to the text, punching down redistributes the gas pockets, evens out the temperature, relaxes the gluten and it reactivates the yeast. Who among us hasn’t felt punched down on occasion? I can imagine myself as a loaf of rising dough just punched down and ready to be more consistent, relaxed, reactivated. It is hard to imagine a literal or metaphorical punch as anything but violent. But in this case the punch is meant to provoke a second rise. Making anything involves modulated violence, mixing, beating, kneading, whipping, punching, fermenting as much as shaping, forming, resting, blooming. As I said, baking, like life,  is complex.

Credits: Special shout out to yeast, the tiny living creatures that make bread possible, flour, olive groves, olive presses, and oil, salt, flat half sheet pans, Roman culinary history, onions, knives, ovens, cold weather outside, fireplaces inside, stand mixers, counter tops, etc.


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