How To: Simple, Versatile Focaccia Bread

Bread is definitely my favorite thing to make. I love everything about it, from proofing the yeast, to kneading the dough into submission, to the smell of baking bread wafting through the house. And, of course, I love to eat bread. I come from a long line of "dunkers" -- soup, sauce, even salad dressing gets sopped up with a piece of crusty bread.

I also love that bread is one of those things that never go to waste, because even when it goes stale, you can make salad, croutons or just throw it in soup. My grandfather used to buy day-old bread specifically for soup, which he would call (much to my mother's chagrin) "soup de poop" -- especially hilarious when the bread was pumpernickel and the grandkids were eight years old.

Though I love to cook all shapes, sizes and types of bread, I find that focaccia is the one I make most often. Not only is the recipe versatile (a few tweaks and you've got dough for calzone or pizza), the bread itself is versatile. So, let's visit with the bread known as focaccia.

Focaccia is a simple, flat bread, and the dough recipe is essentially the same as that for pizza dough, made from just five ingredients -- flour, salt, sugar, yeast and water. Focaccia is traditionally brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt just before baking. Herbs are optional, but I usually like to add something hearty to the top of the bread just before baking -- like rosemary or thyme -- that won't burn during the baking process. If you want to season the dough with more delicate fresh herbs, like parsley or basil, it's best to add the chopped herbs to the dry flour before adding both to the water and yeast mixture.

I've made this dough so many times I don't even need to peek at the recipe. This is the recipe that appears on my recipe card, which was copied either from my Italian grandmother or from some random Italian cookbook I bought at Barnes & Noble. Let's go with my gram. (I like to read it in her sing-song Italian accent in my head.)

• One package dry yeast • One cup hot water • Pinch of sugar (or honey) • About three cups AP flour • One tsp. salt

Proof the yeast in a large, warm bowl with one cup hot water; stir with fork to mix. Add pinch of sugar (I like to use a quick squeeze of honey) and mix; let stand until yeast begins to foam, up to ten minutes. Add flour one cup at a time and mix (a wooden spoon works best) until the dough forms a solid mass, pulling away from the bowl; flour a counter surface and transfer the dough, adding flour and kneading for about ten minutes, until the dough is smooth. Form dough into a ball, transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel; let dough rise until doubled in size (about 45 minutes). Punch risen dough (to release air), and knead for another two minutes. At this point, if you want a dough for pizza or calzone, follow Brooke Viggiano's instructions for dividing and rolling out the dough (her recipe is basically the same as mine).

To make focaccia with the dough, after punching and kneading, oil a baking pan and place the dough on the pan; press dough out into an even, one-inch-thick layer (square or circle, though I like square), cover with a cloth and let rise again for about 30 minutes. (If I am adding herbs like rosemary, I sprinkle them on top before the second rise to infuse the dough with more flavor.) While the dough is rising again, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. After the dough has risen, make indentations in the dough with your finger and then brush with oil and sprinkle with salt; I sometimes like to stud the indentations with olives. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the crust is golden-brown.

This is the fun part -- eat the bread. Focaccia is great for sandwiches, and you can either slap a sandwich together using two full-size pieces or slice the bread lengthwise with a bread knife for thinner slices. Focaccia is also nice as-is, with soup or just on its own as a snack with antipasti -- olives, roasted veggies, white bean dip, etc.

Focaccia also makes great pizza dough. Once the dough comes out of the oven, spread on a nice, thick layer of ricotta cheese, top with meats and/or veggies, and then finish with a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese -- oil the sides of the bread once more before it goes back in the oven -- and give it all a quick broil to melt the cheese.

One more quick note. You can use this dough recipe (or Brooke's) to make breadsticks. After you work the dough into a smooth elastic ball, rather than letting the dough rise, tear off pieces of dough and separate them into short, oblong pieces. One at a time, take the small pieces of dough and roll them out on a non-floured surface until the dough forms a long, quarter-inch(-ish) strand; place strands on lightly oiled baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and let the breadsticks rise for about 15 minutes while the oven is heating. Bake breadsticks about eight minutes on one side, remove from oven and turn, and then bake for about another six minutes; the breadsticks should be slightly golden but not brown.

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Christina Uticone