Sometimes I think there wasn’t much point in my going to culinary school, because all anyone really ever wants me to make is brownies and bread. Seriously. Those are the things that I get asked to make the most often, and those are the things which always inspire the most delight among the people I cook for. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand it. Brownies and bread are delicious. But they are also easy. So easy! I could make these things before I expended vast amounts of time and money and effort getting a culinary diploma. Still, at least now I know in my heart that I could make a blackcurrant souffle. Even though no one ever asks me to.
If you are ever going round to someone’s house and you want to bring them something a bit special, then I really recommend that you bake some bread. People go absolutely nuts for the stuff and they will think that you are amazing, even though really all you have done is mix flour and water and yeast together and then let them do their thing. I am now pretty much obligated to make focaccia for family gatherings, because I did so once and it’s like when we fed the teeniest, tiniest bit of gammon to the cat and now that she knows about the existence of gammon she cannot be happy unless she is actively eating gammon.
When I bake bread from scratch for something, someone always says ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with making bread. Doesn’t it take ages?’ Well, yes and no. Yes, the time from starting the bread-making process to starting the bread-eating process is a couple of hours, but in those couple of hours you will have about fifteen active minutes in which you have to do things to the bread. For the rest of your time, feel free to be gainfully employed in plumbing the depths of Netflix, alphabetising your spice cabinet, or trying to placate your gammon-crazed pet.
I’m not going to lie: this is much easier to make if you have a mixer with a dough-hook. I did not have one until last year and owning one has now made me magnificently lazy. With normal bread dough, ten minutes of kneading by hand is no big deal, and can actually be pretty satisfying (plus I always count it as my exercise for the day). With focaccia, though, the dough is really more like a batter because it is so wet, and kneading a batter is a bit trickier, so it’s much easier to shove it in a mixer. The high water content is what gives the bread its light texture and irregular crumb structure: the water in the dough evaporates as the bread bakes, leading to that classic focaccia look. That said, I made this at my parents’ house at Christmas, and I had to do it by hand because they don’t have a mixer with a dough-hook, and it was fine. Although I did whinge about it a bit.
Obviously you can substitute other things for sun-dried tomatoes and olives if you have anything interesting lying about. I have done this with feta, artichokes, red onion, prosciutto, and various herbs. You can see from the pictures that I had some artichokes in the fridge, so in they went. It’s all good, and it would be fine with just salt and olive oil too.
500g strong white bread flour
2.5 tsp salt
2 sachets dried fast action/ easy bake yeast (don’t worry too much about what it says on the packet – anything that comes in 7g sachets will be fine)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (if your sun-dried tomatoes or olives come in good olive oil, you can use that for extra flavour)
400ml cold water
more olive oil, for drizzling
fine sea salt
handful of sun-dried tomatoes
handful of olives
- If you’re making this in a mixer, pop your flour, salt, yeast, oil, and water in the bowl and start mixing on the slowest speed. Once it’s all combined, turn it up to a low-medium speed and let it mix for around 5-7 minutes. When you’re finished, leave the dough in the bowl and cover it with cling film. If you’re doing it by hand, put all the same ingredients in a large bowl but only use 300ml of the water. Mix it together with a wooden spoon to begin with, and when it comes together as a batter, gradually add your last 100ml water, working it in. Then you’re going to have to move to hand-kneading – I find that coating your hands in olive oil first stops the dough from sticking to you so badly. Knead it in the bowl for about five minutes, by stretching it up to shoulder height. When it starts to come together you can tip it out and knead it on an oiled surface for another five minutes. After you have finished, oil the bowl you started with, pop the dough back in, and cover it with cling film. Either way, leave in a warm place for an hour.
- Line a large baking tray with parchment paper and then grease it with a little olive oil (I use a 33x20cm brownie tin for this, but size isn’t too important as long as it’s fairly large. You can also make two smaller loaves if you prefer). Oil your hands, tip the dough onto the baking tray, and flatten it out so that it reaches all the corners and sides. Cover and leave to prove for another hour.
- Heat your oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 6. With oiled fingers, poke your sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and sprigs of rosemary into the surface of your dough, pressing them right down so they don’t spring out during baking. Drizzle the whole thing with plenty of olive oil, sprinkle it with salt (the good stuff, Maldon or Cornish), and then bake it for around 20-25 minutes or until it’s golden and risen with a firm crust and the smell of fresh bread is driving everyone in your house crazy.