May 29, 2020

The Berry Project: Focaccia Bread with Onion and Balsamic Topping

Close up of Focaccia Bread

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that I seem to be cursed when it comes to bread-making. It is by far my weakest area of baking – try as I might to coax my dough into light, airy bakes they often end up with an incredibly tight crumb-structure, rock-solid or simply inedible. So it was with apprehension that I approached my next Berry Project bake.

After sticking closely to cakes and tray-bakes so far, this week feeling a little braver, I turned to the bread section of the Baking Bible and the Focaccia Bread with Onion and Balsamic Topping caught my eye. As the name suggests, this is an Italian bread – Berry writes that it’s ‘perfect with soups’, which was the selling point for me, with so much home-made soup in the fridge to use up.

From my limited understanding and experience of bread-making, there seems to be three separate stages (or three stages for making focaccia at least). These stages are: combining the ingredients to make into a dough, the first rise and then the second rise. As I currently only own a hand-held whisk, I opted to mix the ingredients by hand. The focaccia bread contains just six ingredients; strong white flour, semolina, olive oil, salt, yeast and warm water. I found that the dough came together by hand really quickly and was incredibly soft but not all that sticky. This was my first alarm bell as the recipe says it should be a fairly sticky dough. Nevertheless, I transferred the dough into an oiled bowl and popped it into my oven (with had been preheated before being turned off) with the door ajar. Our little flat tends to be on the cold side (brilliant for making pastry even on warm days but a bit of a disaster for trying to get a good rise) but I wonder if the oven was just a bit too hot when the dough went into prove – I know yeast can die if it gets too hot.

After an hour and a half of leaving it to rise, I had a little peak and although it had risen very slightly, it had in no way doubled in size. So at this stage, either something had gone wrong with the mixing process (maybe didn’t mix or knead it for long enough?) or with the proving process. Not wanting to give up, I ploughed on ‘knocking back’ my dough. In theory I understand this process perfectly – it’s where you punch or press down on the dough which bursts the air bubbles that have formed during the first rise. By knocking the air out in this way, the bubbles reform and this is meant to give a smoother texture to your bread. I’m not entirely convinced my dough had any air bubbles in it to begin with – or that I’ve mastered this knocking back process but gave it a good go all the same.

Then came the rolling it out step and this is where the difficulties really began. From not really being sticky at all, my bread dough transformed into the stickiest, most unworkable dough of all time. Even using a bread-scraper (the most useful kitchen utensil) didn’t prevent it from sticking to the counter as I rolled it. I added flour to try and counteract the stickiness but tried to do so cautiously as believe this can also affect the bake of the bread. The dough became deformed as I tried to lift it off the counter, which it was clinging onto with all its might, onto the baking tray. This clearly wasn’t working, so I opted for a different plan of attack where I rolled the dough directly onto the baking parchment on the baking tray, which was moderately more successful. I then added the cooled fried onions that had been tossed with balsamic vinegar and a little sugar and popped it back into the oven (which was off), fully covered, ready for it’s second rise.

Thirty minutes later, and yes you guessed it, practically no rise at all! Again, it was meant to have doubled in size but this certainly wasn’t the case with my focaccia. At this point though, it felt silly not to finish the bake so I turned on the oven and baked it until it was a golden-colour. I had zero confidence when taking it out of the oven, knowing it wouldn’t be well-risen like Mary’s one. Having said that, it did look on the surface similar to the picture in the book and was easily identifiable as an attempt at a focaccia bread. Once cooled, I cut into it – I was pleasantly surprised that it was cooked all the way through (was worried it might be undercooked in the middle with all the onions on top) but the crumb structure was undoubtedly all wrong. There were some tiny air pockets but for the most part it was undeniably dense. Crumb structure aside however, it was pretty tasty – the flavour from the onions, slightly sweet and caramilsed made for a lovely crunch and it went nicely with my Thai-inspired sweet potato soup. It’s definitely the most edible bake I’ve made (I had to discard my early lockdown attempt at sourdough after nearly breaking a tooth and my hot-cross buns were like little rocks once they’d cooled) so I’m taking that as a positive and a step in the right direction.

Since attempting focaccia, I’ve started following Bread Ahead Bakery on Instagram, which do baking workshops but also have tonnes of tips and IGTV tutorials so will definitely be watching a few of their videos and see if I can pick up any hints or tips along the way to try and get a better grip on bread-making! We’ll see how that goes.

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