Focaccia. The first to go at every buffet table in the country, second only to pizza. Focaccia with toppings? That’s almost a piece of heaven.
I would like to spare a few words on this amazing product of Italian ovens, as it makes up a good chunk of my memories as a school girl. It was part of our birthday party tables, part of our outdoor trips in the spring and, most of all, the backbone of many of our school snacks. (Well, at least it was for the other kids. It seems to be the predominant snack amongst boys.)
- Romana, which is a highly hydrated focaccia (at least 75 percent) that is native to Rome, and it is a medium tall, soft, bubbly focaccia with a Neapolitan pizza feel. Even though it is great plain too, it is really meant to be sliced and stuffed, most commonly with mortadella. It is often sold topped in a pizza sort of way throughout Rome, and it is the kind I am going to make in this post.
- Ligure, which is probably the oiliest, thinnest of the various kinds. Because it is thinner than most, it is usually not stuffed, but topped with either pesto or layered with runny Italian cheese—thus getting the name Focaccia di Recco. I have tried both soft kinds and crispier kinds. Both are really oily. Both are really awesome.
- Pugliese, which can include potatoes and semolina flour in the dough and is traditionally topped with cherry tomatoes and black olives, and eaten as is. It makes for a very dense focaccia that can be either medium-tall or more on the thin side, which is most common in Bari.
Although these are the main focaccia kinds—and I will get around to making all three versions at some point—homemade focaccia varies a lot. It can be tall and fluffy, thin and crispy, medium-tall and spongy, and so on. It is usually dense or bread-like, as most people do it with the usual quick fermentation, which involves a whole cube of fresh yeast per 500g of flour and a total fermentation time of 2 hours or so, plus cooking. This is the way my mom always made it and, even though I am not a super fan of it, it makes for the best sandwich bread ever, as the inevitable fat you add to it makes it much, much softer in the end.
So I started talking about replicating that focaccia we used to have as kids, and my mom immediately went “eh.” “It is so soft because it is rekneaded with either butter or lard,” she stated. “We did it too at work, and trust me, if you want that kind of soft feel, you have to knead it a second time with some kind of solid shortening.”
“Some kind of shortening” is the key phrase here. Because I can definitely cope with the idea of focaccia being kneaded with lard, which is, objectively speaking, not that bad of a fat around here. But any lard is surely more expensive than vegetable shortening made with dubious, processed oils, which led me to the logical conclusion that the infamous supermarket focaccia needs to be adapted to the principles of this blog before I can make it, so it will take some further thinking.
But who would have ever thought that this focaccia would turn out to be even better? It is so tasty, soft, and—and…well, addictive’s the word.
So here is my Roman focaccia—also called White Pizza in its plain form, Queen of Gatherings. I made it with whole spelt flour, which is highly nutritious, and the last bit of that amazing hand-milled flour I used for my Ciabatta. Bring a tray to your party, and let people be happy.
RULES FOR A GOOD ROMAN FOCACCIA
- High Hydration: If you do the math with the formula indicated in this post, you’ll see that this focaccia has a hydration level of 83 percent. That is quite a lot. The result will be a slightly chewy, soft, holey focaccia.
- Olive Oil: Guys, there’s no two ways about it: Focaccia must be oily outside and within, otherwise it’s not focaccia, it’s bread. And oil adds not only to the texture but to the flavor as well. Use olive oil, extra virgin if you can. My focaccia doesn’t use an insane amount of oil compared to others, but it is present.
- Long Fermentation: Fermentation makes or breaks focaccia—or any other pizza or bread. Make sure you leave it in a stable environment with no currents or temperature shifts. The best place ever? The fridge. Assemble it, then leave it in the lowest part of your fridge for 24 hours.
All these little rules make for a very tasty focaccia that will not turn dry as soon as it cools down, and will not turn hard as stone the day after (provided that it makes it to the day after, that is).
MORE FOCACCIA TIPS
Try substituting 30 grams of strong flour with semolina flour, and/or 30 grams of the spelt flour for another flour of your choice to make things more interesting. Italian focaccia is usually made with white flour only, but I see no reason why we should be that boring in our own kitchen. Barley malt, as said in other posts, is great for baking, but use honey if you have to substitute it and maple syrup for a vegan alternative.
This recipe is also present on Food52.
Roman Spelt Focaccia with Onion and Potato
Makes enough dough for an 8-inch or 9-inch pan
(Note that this doesn’t make much focaccia, but the recipe easily doubles or triples. Just make sure you put it in a pan here, it’s evenly layered and the edges are not thinner.)
For the Focaccia
5.3 oz (150 grams) strong bread/Manitoba flour
5.3 oz (150 grams) spelt flour
1 cup (240 to 250 ml) lukewarm water
0.05ounces (1.5 grams) fresh yeast *
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to top
1 scant tablespoon barley malt
1 teaspoon salt
* If you can’t find fresh yeast, substitute with a good pinch of active dry yeast.
** I really recommend using barley malt, but if you can’t find it honey or sugar will do. Reduce the quantity to a teaspoon.
For the topping
1 medium potato, thinly sliced into rounds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
Olive oil, salt and pepper
An abundant tablespoon olive oil
An abundant tablespoon water
A good pinch of salt
- IF MAKING THE NIGHT BEFORE (or at least 12 hours before): Add the flours to a bread machine or to a bowl with the dough hook attachment. Dilute the yeast and the malt in some of the water, then add it to the flour, along with the 2 tbsps of olive oil and the rest of the water. Depending on the flour you’re using, you might need more or less water: I suggest starting with 240ml, then adding a bit more if the dough seems too stiff. Knead everything until incorporated, then add the salt, and knead until the dough is well mixed. it should be very loose and sticky, but not really liquid. IF KNEADING BY HAND: This can be totally kneaded by hand! The dough is quite loose, but work it well with your hands, collecting it from the bottom and slamming it in the bowl for several times. You’ll see how the dough will start to look smoother and more elastic after 5 to 10 minutes of this collect-and-slam process. Proceed just like with the machine, adding water, yeast, malt, and oil to the flours, then the salt when everything is already incorporated. Oil a glass bowl and put the dough in it, cover with plastic wrap and leave it in a place where there are not going to be temperature changes, like the oven. The dough should stay at a temperature of about 25 C˚ (77 F˚).
IF MAKING 24 HRS BEFORE: The dough can also be assembled 24 hours before, but you should keep it in the lower part of your fridge for the whole time. Cut the potatoes into thin rounds—make them slightly thicker than a potato chip, and soak them in water overnight.
- AFTER 12 HOURS: At this point, your dough should have noticeably risen and should be very bubbly on top. Prepare a pan that can fit your dough in an even layer, about a half inch thick. Oil the bottom, and scrape your dough into the pan. Add a little oil on top, and spread it out with your oiled hands, then fold it over itself a couple times. Spread it out again in an even layer, and leave it to rest, covered with plastic or with a cloth, for about 1 hour. Again, make sure is stays in a current-free environment at about 25C˚ (77F˚).
- 30 minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 240C˚ (465F˚). Make sure it is set to static.
Also, cook the onions: Add a bit of olive oil to a pan and add your thinly sliced onions, salt, and a bit of water, and cook until they start to color but are not browned. It should take around 15 minutes. Keep adding tablespoons of water to prevent them from burning, but make sure there’s no water left when they’re ready.
- After 1 hour, your focaccia should have puffed up a bit. Mix 1 tbsp of water with 1 more tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and spread on top of the focaccia. Spread the potato slices evenly, then put your focaccia in the lowest part of your oven for 15 minutes. After this time, transfer the pan to the medium rack of the oven, bake for a further 5 minutes, then spread the onions evenly on top. Finish baking for 5 more minutes. The focaccia should be a golden color. If the edges start turning brown, remove immediately from the oven. The total time of cooking here is 25 minutes, but it could take more or less depending on your oven.
- Cut the focaccia into bite-size cubes and enjoy warm! If it gets cold, I suggest reheating it in the oven.
MORE TOPPING AND FILLING SUGGESTIONS
- This focaccia is also great cut lengthwise and stuffed with cold cuts, grilled vegetables, or cheeses (or all three).
- A tasty addition to the topping is zucchini sautéed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and parsley.
- To make a simple focaccia, skip the onion and potato and top with rosemary and coarse salt instead.
- Another amazing vegetarian topping is sautéed zucchini and some fresh, runny cheese. In Italy, we use a cheese called Stracchino, or another one called Crescenza. If you can’t find any of these, pick a cheese you like a lot.
- To make what we call ‘Pizza Rossa’, or red pizza, just spread on top some tomato passata garnished with salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil and garlic if you like it—right before cooking.
Valentina is a 25-year-old Italian ex-graphic designer who, like many designers, got seduced by food photography. She runs Hortus Cuisine, a blog where she shares Italian natural vegetarian recipes from the Italian countryside. She loves green tea, hates cilantro, and considers handmade pasta a form of art. Follow along on Instagram @HortusCuisine.