If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know about my unending love of making dough, and after procrastinating for longer than I care to admit, I finally learned how to make a beautiful and delicious focaccia pugliese. The inspiration and motivation to learn how to make this came from my new friend Carla who teaches cooking classes in Rome, and whom I had the pleasure of meeting last December when we traveled to Italy for Christmas. Carla takes photos of the food she makes at every class, and focaccia pugliese is often on the menu for her students to snack on. It’s never hard noticing Carla’s focaccia pugliese on the table where she arranges both the ingredients and refreshments for her classes–it’s a visually stunning bread, and stands out with its dimpled surface dotted with plump cherry tomatoes and black olives. Focaccia pugliese has now become a staple bread in my house.
Focaccia pugliese (focaccia from Puglia) is also known as focaccia barese (focaccia from Bari). Bari is the capital of Puglia, the region known as the tacco d’Italia (heel of Italy). Puglia is one of the most beautiful regions of Italy and is renowned for its satisfying, uncomplicated, and flavorful food characterized by the abundant use of produce and fresh herbs. With its fertile soil and temperate climate, Puglia is known as the “garden of Italy”. Its mild winters and long summers make it the ideal region for growing a variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables, including focaccia pugliese’s ingredients of durum wheat, tomatoes, and olives.
Bread is beloved throughout Italy, but the bread made in Puglia is highly prized among Italians and has been for millennia–the Latin poet, Orazio, in 37 BC, proclaimed it the best bread he had ever eaten. Focaccia is considered the ancestor to the pizza and is thought to have originated with the Etruscans. Early versions of this yeasted, quick-cooking bread were baked on the hearth of a hot fire on earthenware disks. In Puglia, many bread shops are still baking their breads and focacce in wood-fired ovens that have burned continuously for generations.
Bread and focaccia made in Puglia is made from durum wheat which grows on the plateau of La Murgia, west of Bari. The flour made from durum wheat is finely textured and creates a bread dough that is soft and supple, but holds its shape due to its high protein content, making it the perfect flour to use for focaccia. It’s worth seeking out not just for its properties, but also for its flavor and the beautiful yellow hue it imparts to the finished product.
Another unique detail of focaccia pugliese is the use of a boiled potato in the dough. Potatoes lend lightness and moisture to bread dough because potato starches absorb more water than wheat starches. The starch molecules in potatoes also make it harder for the protein in the flour to form gluten, which contributes to the light texture of the finished focaccia. Lastly, potatoes contain potassium which causes yeast to rise faster, creating a light and airy dough–an attribute you will notice as soon as you turn out the dough after its first rise. Focaccia dough is considered a high-hydration dough, so it will be stickier and require a well-floured board and a gentler touch when kneading and forming it to keep its texture light.
You may be surprised at the amount of olive oil that is used to coat both the baking pan and the surface of focaccia pugliese, and depending on the size of baking pan you use, you will need to adjust the amount of oil you pour. You want to use enough oil to ensure that the focaccia lightly fries and sizzles as it bakes, but not so much oil that it turns greasy. The baked focaccia should be lightly and delightfully oily with a delicately crisp exterior and a tender interior crumb. According to a video I watched of a focacciaro (focaccia baker) making focaccia pugliese, the tomatoes should be split open and torn with your hands right above the the focaccia so the juices drip onto the top surface and mingle with the olive oil, creating a thin, delicate sauce. The olives should be used sparingly since their strong flavor can be overpowering. A sprinkling of dried oregano gently fries on the olive oil-bathed surface and lightly perfumes the focaccia as it bakes. Just wait until you smell the aroma throughout your house.
Focaccia pugliese illustrates Puglia’s simple, flavorful food made with quality, seasonal ingredients. With just two short rises and a quick baking time, this is a bread you can make early in the day and have ready in time for a mid-day or afternoon snack, or to slice into small squares to accompany an evening aperitivo. And as summer draws to a close, it’s the perfect recipe to use up any late summer tomatoes, cozy up to our ovens again, and get back to a baking routine.
Adapted from Italy in Small Bites by Carol Field
Makes 2 round 9-inch (23 cm) focaccia
Special Equipment: round 9″ x 2″ (23 cm x 5 cm) baking/cake pans
8 ounces (225 grams) Yukon Gold potatoes (1-2 potatoes, depending on size)
1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
½ teaspoon honey
1½ cups + 2 Tablespoons (400 mL) warm water (100°F-110°F/37°C-43°C)
3¾ (500 grams) durum flour or all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
4-6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the proofing bowl and baking/cake pans
10-12 cherry tomatoes
6-8 Kalamata or black Beldi olives (pitted), drained, patted dry, and halved
½ teaspoon dried oregano, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt, divided
Wash and peel the potatoes and boil them until tender and thoroughly cooked. Drain and transfer the potatoes back to the pot, and mash or rice them. Place a clean dishtowel over the pot of mashed potatoes–this will allow most of the heat to dissipate while still keeping them warm.
In a large mixing bowl, stir the yeast and honey into the warm water and let stand for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to begin blooming. Add in the flour, mashed potatoes, and 1 teaspoon of the salt and mix briefly with a wooden spoon. While the dough is still wet, add in the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and use your hands to mix the dough until it begins to come together. Transfer the dough to a well-floured board and knead for 10 minutes until the texture of the dough is smooth and firm. The dough will be slightly sticky, so flour the board as necessary.
Place 1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil in another large mixing bowl and use your hands to rub it around the interior of the bowl. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and roll it around to coat it in the olive oil. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and place it in a draft-free area to rise until doubled, about 1½ hours.
Place 1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil in each of the round baking/cake pans and use your hands to rub it around the bottom and sides of each pan. Set aside. Turn out the risen dough onto a lightly floured board and divide in half. Shape each half into a ball. Place each ball of dough in the oiled baking/cake pans and use your fingertips to gently press the dough towards the edges. Do not force the dough–the dough may not reach the edges completely. Cover the baking/cake pans with a clean dishtowel and let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then use your fingertips to finish stretching the dough to the edges. Cover the pans again and place them in a draft-free area to rise for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Set a rack in the center of the oven.
Uncover the dough and use your fingertips to dimple the dough, making sure not to press through to the bottom. Drizzle about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil over each unbaked focaccia and gently spread it around with your fingers, making sure to coat the surface evenly. Break the cherry tomatoes in half using your fingers, allowing the tomato juices to fall onto the surface of the dough, and distribute the halved tomatoes evenly over each focaccia. Dot the top of each focaccia with the halved olives. Sprinkle the top of each focaccia with ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and ¼ teaspoon dried oregano.
Bake the focacce side-by-side for 25-30 minutes until golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely in the pans set on a cooling rack. To remove each focaccia from the pan, run a knife around the edge and either gently lift them out or invert each one onto a plate and flip it back over, toppings-side up.
Storage: Store at room temperature covered lightly with aluminum foil. Eat within 2-3 days.