Reasons why I love culinary school:
Endless supplies of the freshest ingredients – tomatillos, plum tomatoes, yellow onions, mangos, grapeseed oil, garlic and mushrooms.
Spices – many! Every! All!
Full. Sized. Burners. Twelve of them, times three stoves. You do the math.
And then, there’s the other stuff.
At the end of last night’s class, Chef Anna surveyed her students, only six of our original nine still standing before her, and said, “Well folks – it wasn’t the best of days today…”
But as I looked around and saw our smiling faces, it was hard to be angry about the evening’s missteps. Like how I dumped that ten ounces of sugar right onto the diced mangos when I was actually supposed to make a syrup with it first. Or how my classmates had forgotten to toast and grind the coriander seeds before adding them to their chutney, or wait to strain their rosemary infused oil until it had time to actually, well, infuse. No – these small slip-ups hadn’t gotten us down.
“I don’t know, Chef,” I replied. “I thought it was one of the best of all our days!”
She just smiled her ironic smile, letting me know as usual that she was the only one in on whatever joke was playing on her mind, and winked.
Despite the fact that we were three men down and had seven contemporary sauces plus a cream of broccoli soup to plow through in just under four hours, it was a pretty good class last night. Somehow, with the absence of a few classmates, the room seemed to open up; tables felt ten times bigger, we could move easily, heat easily dissipated over the stove with fewer bodies to lock it in. Despite the sobering realization that we are a) spoiled, and b) in for a rude awakening once we hit real 5 by 10 ft NYC kitchens, it was lovely to work in such calm confines for a night.
Another benefit of a smaller class – Chef is less on edge, less “ball-bustin'” as she would say. And when she relaxes even just a bit, her true laid-back nature comes through, and you can picture just what she must have been like a Woodstock all those years ago, which she reminds us quite often, she was in attendance for.
So when one classmate asked Chef for some tips on how to make bread in his new KitchenAid mixer, she jumped at the opportunity and started calling out orders. “You, go grab that,” she said, jerking a thumb toward the cage that holds the countertop mixers. “I need 10 ounces of yeast, two cups of warm water – WARM, not hot! – and 28 ounces of flour.” We all instantly sprung into action, hustling determined. At this point responding to Chef’s demands were second nature, and we each called out the task we were taking on, so within minutes the ingredients and supplies were gathered before her.
And so we learned to make focaccia bread. Because, it would have been far too simple for chef to simply tell us how the KitchenAid has innovated, simplified, and enhanced bread making for the homecook, or how to turn a regular oven into a steam-injected oven, or why letting bread rise twice is better than just once. Together we watched yeast feast on sugar and water, saw a dough hook struggle and overcome a too-moist dough, and pounded down an overzealous heap of raw rosemary focaccia. And in the end? It didn’t come out perfect. The oven wouldn’t get hot enough, and thus our bread was missing that quintessential crisp focaccia crust and super moist interior.
I guess some might say that makes for not the best of days. But I say, if we had one hell of a good time getting there, what more can you ask for?
Rosemary Focaccia – Makes 1 large (18 x 24 ‘ pan) focaccia
Note: This recipe is not included the ICE curriculum. It was “made up as we went along” in class.
You’ll need (please note that yeast and flour are listed by weight):
- 15 grams of dry active yeast
- 2 cups of warm water (about 110°F)
- 1 lb, 12 oz (28 oz) of all-purpose or high-gluten flour
- 2 tbsp of sugar
- 1 tbsp of salt
- 1/4 cup of fresh rosemary, chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
To start, measure and prep all of your ingredients. Combine yeast, sugar, and warm water in a bowl and whisk to break up any clumps. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine all of your dry ingredients – flour, salt, and rosemary – and add to the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer (if you don’t have a mixer, just put it in a regular old bowl). The mixer should have the dough hook attachment set up.
After 15 minutes, check the yeast. The bowl should be full of puffy bubbles; this means the yeast has activated and is producing oxygen as it eats the sugar in the water. It also means it’s ready to go. Add your yeast mixture to the dry ingredients, and lock the KitchenAid into its “ready position.” Turn it on slow, and watch the magic happen!
If you don’t have a mixer, again, this is very doable (there’s little that can’t be done in the kitchen without some fancy equipment); it just requires more elbow grease. Combine your wet and dry ingredients in the bowl to start, and once you have a bit of a shaggy ball of dough, turn it out onto a dry surface and knead, baby, knead!!
The more you knead dough, in general, the more the gluten will develop, and more gluten = more flavor. Letting a dough hook do it’s thing (or kneading yourself) for about 15 minutes should get you a great flavor and texture in your finished product, so be patient and put the time in now.
Now it’s time for your dough to take a nap. Turn it out into a well oiled bowl or pan, cover with a towel or some plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about an hour. I know it’s hard. It smells good, looks pretty, and you want to bake it. Patience, friends, is key to bread baking. So set your dough to cat nap in a warm spot in the kitchen, and go take a nap yourself. You know you want to.
Or roast some tomatoes!
Or some corn and tomatillos?!
When you come back, your dough should have risen significantly. Again, the active yeast are creating air bubbles that will create both texture (light and crisp!) and flavor in your bread. If you have the time, you could punch down the dough and let it rise for another hour. But if you’re losing patience at this point, I’m with you. Let’s bake that sucker.
Like pizza, focaccia works best cooked hot and fast, so crank your oven up to 500 degrees (if you haven’t already) and let it get really hot. Meanwhile, spread the dough out in a pan, and give it a good massage with some extra virgin olive oil. Then sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Once the oven is good and hot, pop it in and walk away. The bread should cook for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy on the outside and soft in the middle.
I probably shouldn’t bring this up after all that, but the same can be done to great ends with pizza dough from your local pizzeria. So now you really have no excuse not to make focaccia. Go forth and bake!