Crisp, golden, light, salty & oily

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Making a Focaccia Genovese in a commercial bakery

(originally published in British Baker)

Focaccia has a home, in Italy, and a birthplace in the town of Genoa. That’s what Italians from Genoa tell me. But then as every man, woman and child of Italian extraction seems to have a slightly different take on their homeland’s culinary traditions, it is only right that there are many versions of the crisp oily Italian flat bread.

In the most general terms, a focaccia is a thin sheet of bread dough, probably made with Italian ‘00’ flour, dimpled with the impressions from the bakers fingertips, and washed with oil, salt and a little water before baking. There is a tradition of topping the sheets of dough with a simple herb, vegetable or cheese (rarely more than one), but purists deny these variations exist, and prefer the dough kept simple.

There are many recipes for the perfect focaccia, and many bakers who will insist there is only one. So we should look at the possible ingredients, and find the recipe that works best for your bakery. Below is a simple recipe I’m using at the moment, and following that, thoughts on the ingredients used.

The dough

1000g Italian 00 flour (100%)
325g sour starter (32.50%), made with 50% flour to 50% water
7.4g slow-activity yeast (Craftbake) (0.74%)
22.4g fine sea salt (2.24%)
25g dark dry malt (Edme) (2.50%)
50g extra virgin olive oil (5.00%)
50g refined pork lard (5.00%), optional
650g water at 10ºC (65.55%)

final dough temperature around 22ºC

Mix on first speed for 3 minutes, then on second speed for 12 minutes (until very elastic and forms a fine membrane when stretched between the fingers). Tip into a tray brushed with a liberal amount of good olive oil (500g per 10kg of dough), cover with a plastic sheet, and leave at 22ºC – 25ºC for 2 hours, turning the dough every 45 minutes, and using more oil where necessary. Pin out into an oil brushed 4-sided tray, short prove to recover, dimpled with fingertips, brushed with oil/water/salt mixture if desired, sprinkle with extra flaked sea salt, and bake in a hot 230ºC deck, top heat 7–8, bottom heat 2-3, for 30+ minutes, until a good golden brown on top.

The ingredients and method

Firstly, the flour for any flat bread has slightly different requirements to that for a 400g round English loaf. We’re not looking for too much oven spring, perhaps more generous extensibility than strength in the available gluten, and above all we want tenderness rather than toughness. One popular recent characteristic, though perhaps not entirely traditional, is for the crumb to display a wild, open texture. New Zealand baker Peter Burge, formerly of the Exeter Street Bakery, London, created a dramatic open texture in the sheet Focaccia sold at their high street bakeries with strong flour and long fermentation. By cutting a traditional ‘00’ Italian flour with another stronger white flour, such as Dove’s Farm’s excellent Biobake Strong White Bakers Flour, a similar result can be achieved.

However, be careful in using very strong flours. Sometimes the flavour can be a little thin, and with strength comes a tough bite, so consider their use carefully and reduce the amount of strong flour in the mix until you achieve the result you require. Strong white flour added up to 30% of your total flour weight should suffice. My own preference lately is to use a single Italian flour with a slightly higher strong gluten content.

In this way you get a result made entirely with Italian flour (a selling point), together with a bite and texture that seems appropriate. There is a slight loss in crumb aeration, but the dough flavour is enhanced. Other flours can be used, if labelling with origin of ingredients is not a selling point or concern. A mixture of baguette flour (T55) or traditional baguette premix (such as Moul-bie’s Campaillette) and strong white flour, could be used and will given rather striking results, though might struggle to claim any authenticity.

But one of the key factors that affects crumb aeration is water content. Simply put, the more water the more holes. Firstly, remember that the available gluten in a flour is activated when water hydrates the strands of protein (gliadin and glutenin) which bind to form gluten, and their individual qualities of strength and elasticity will combine to give the final gluten its final characteristics. So different levels of gliadin and glutenin will result in different characteristics to the final available gluten. Make sense? Generally speaking, if a flour can hold a greater proportion of water, its ability to extend and hold carbon dioxide created by the yeast will be greater. And with it, the possibility of more holes in the final dough. How much water? If you’re using 100% Italian ‘00’, then probably not much more than 65%. If using a mixture of Italian and strong white, then up to 68%. If using a t55 and strong white up to 50%, then that can be increased to 70+%.

Other ingredients typical would be malt (2 or 3%), yeast (up to 1% if using a souring with an extended prove, without the souring up to 1.5%), salt (less than 2% if you are salting the top of the focaccia), and some sort of fat (5 – 10%). In the north of Italy, rendered pork lard is used commonly, and it is a flavour that is particularly suited to the bread. However, given many customers dietary restrictions, the addition of a small amount of olive oil into the mix will be enough. The combination of malt and fat help to colour the bread quickly in the oven, and stops the thin dough drying out too much during the baking. Given the old links between brewing and baking in Europe, the use of malt is also quite authentic in most of our fermented breads. I also add a sour starter to the mix at 30 – 35% of total flour weight.

But it’s also important to fully work the dough during the mixing and to aerate the focaccia dough during the bulk fermentation if this capacity is to be utilized. In a small plant or bakery, where hand skills can be employed, I find that turning the dough in a tray spread with good olive oil, as you would turn puff pastry, helps to introduce more air pockets throughout the dough. Every 40 minutes or so, the dough is very roughly pinned out in the tray, dimpled with the fingertips but not really degassed, then folded upon itself in thirds. The oil helps protect the focaccia dough from the rigors of the stretching. If you get tearing on the dough surface, then use more oil.

To achieve that final open texture in the sheet focaccia, there is one more technique to remember. By stretching the dough into the sheet corners gradually, with short rests in-between handling, small air pockets will also be stretched into long elliptical pockets, which will expand upwards in the oven heat into large holes. Dimple the surface with your fingers while you push the dough out into the tray, but do not go so far as to degass the dough. Rest the dough then stretch it finally into the corners of the sheet. Then let the dough have a short final prove for 15 minutes at a warm temperature (28C+), before baking in a hot (230C) oven, with a little steam, top heat high (7 or 8) and bottom heat low (2 or 3).

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