Baking was something I didn’t really get to think about when I was younger. Bread was something you got pre-sliced from the market or from the pav walla (travelling bread seller) who made his rounds on on his bicycle in the mornings; cake was best left in the hands of the experts. Sure I’d been making making the dough for chapatis (a staple Indian flat bread) since in my teens. And there were the rare puris and parathas, but that was it really. Then I came to this country; kitchens here came equipped complete with oven, and people around me discoursed on bread baking and the wonder of warm loaves coming out of the kitchen as part of normal routine. Friends in grad school baked as means of stress relief and down in Texas, everyone knew how to bake their own biscuits and pies. It made me feel like a bit like I did on the first day of architecture school, lost and completely out of my element. Sure, I could wield a frying pan with the best of them but I had less of an idea what to do with a loaf tin. Antithetical ideas like sweet potato pie made my mind spin (a sweet vegetable pie? really?)… And biscuits, why on earth would someone call those heavenly savoury light bread-like creations biscuits? Biscuits come out of a tin or packets of butter paper and are sweet! It was a whole new world!
I was extremely ambivalent about trying all this on my own. First, it sounded a bit tedious and very easy to mess up (working the flour just right, bread dough different from pastry dough, all the mixing and measuring, cold butter, warm water…argh!); secondly, I was really not looking to make cooking more pulled out than I make it. I’m not one of those people who finds cooking therapeutic and relaxing. I’m downright nasty in the kitchen if you try to interfere with my weird work method. Cooking to me is adventurous and exciting; there is wonder in seeing things come together. But adventure and relaxation do not mix. A picnic in the park, it is not. So more years went by, with me standing in the sidelines as far as baking was concerned, cheering away at the accomplishments of others but very undecided about trying it for myself. I predicted disaster and so kept putting it off for other things I knew I could attempt successfully. My sister though, urged me to give it a shot. “Start with something simple…” she said, “like a box cake from the supermarket.” I decided it couldn’t hurt to try. If I messed it up, I’d chalk it up to experience. Good thing too, because the experience went very well. Those Betty Crocker boxes are genius, even belligerent cavemen could turn out cakes like cordon bleu chefs. There was warm comfort in a pan with that cake. Even though all I did was add some oil and eggs to it, there was a feeling of serious accomplishment when I pulled the fluffy chocolate cake out of that oven. It was the kind of euphoric feeling I’ll never forget, the nudge I needed to dive headlong into this well-heated world. I grew from strength to strength; mixing and stirring and ladling things like a happy little baker. There were cakes and brownies and cookies, even pies. There were some misses but also there were hits, hits that roared up the charts. (My favourite compliment was relayed to me by my elder sister a year ago. She told me my nephew refuses to eat commercial apple pie, claiming the only one he liked was the one his aunt made…er..that’s me…my nephew likes my apple pie best, isn’t he the sweetest little munchkin?? Wait, don’t tell him I said that. He’s fifteen now, he won’t like being called the sweetest little munchkin, w-ell, at least he’ll never acknowledge it.)
The one thing I still felt unsure around, was bread. All the talk of ‘starters’ and feeding the starter and being concerned about its well-being and mucking about with yeast; yeah, all that just seemed like too much work. But you have to try something before you knock it. I was nervous about trying this culinary adventure without some guidance from experience. So many questions! So I signed up for a bread making class at the Tante Marie Cooking school in San Francisco, a school, I discovered, that I had lived nary a block from, without knowing it for almost five years! (Such is life no?) The instructor for the day’s class was a wonderful chef called Jim Dodge, who made the class fun and educational. He taught us about starters and blooming yeast and different kinds of bread. More importantly to me, he painstakingly worked with me to break my set-in-concrete habit of kneading dough into tomorrow, like I would for chapatis. Chapati dough can take a lot of beating ..er..kneading. Bread dough, I learned, is more gently kneaded and sort of shaped at the same time, with not as much heavy pressure as I’m used to wielding. Ok, no pressure at all really, you do as little kneading as possible after the dough has come together. We also learned the importance of letting the dough rest and rise, scoring the loaf (to give the bread some expansion paths so it doesn’t crack elsewhere) and the lovely hollow thunk it produces when it is perfectly baked and you knock on it. All this was in the wonderful home and garden of the lovely Tante Marie herself, Mary Risley. I made some lovely new friends and was richer in not only in experience, but in sourdough starter from Jim Dodge’s mother lode, several recipes and two of the loveliest loaves of sourdough bread you ever saw. My very own, very first, baked breads. Warm and crackly and smelling of herbs and heaven!
Still I was right about the amount of work. I forgot all about feeding my starter and it died a tragic death alarmingly soon. I have no stand mixer and realised I was very tense about working the dough entirely by hand once I was on my own. The recipes I’d so happily acquired sat forlornly on my kitchen counter, with me still a bit nervous about trying them out. A few weeks ago though, Amey gave me a good talking to. What is the point of taking a class and not even trying to do it on my own? My pointing out lack of kitchen equipment didn’t work either. I was sternly reminded that man didn’t come out of the primordial soup armed with stand mixers, and that bread had been around almost since then. Finding myself unable to argue with that bit of logic, I turned to my trusted cookbooks for an easy recipe I could try without fear of assured disaster. And there it was, tucked away in Tyler Florence’s beauty of a book, this recipe for focaccia. What immediately appealed to me was the complete absence of a starter. Several authors assure you that bakers are happy to hand you some of theirs. I was in no mood to test out this theory. And then, there is the fact that this is focaccia. It is my favourite kind of bread. I love the soft yielding bite and slightly dense texture of this bread. The recipe seemed pretty doable, armed with my fairly new knowledge of bread as I was. I’m glad I tried it. This one’s a hit that will stay on the charts a lo-ong time.
Herbed Focaccia with Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese
Adapted from Tyler Florence’s Stirring the Pot
Makes 8 slices/servings
For the dough:
Unbleached all-purpose flour – 3 1/2 cups
Dry active yeast – 2 tsp
Honey – 2 tsp
Salt- 1 tsp
Fresh thyme leaves – 1 tsp
Dried oregano – 1 tsp
Ancho chilli powder – 1 tsp
Olive Oil – 1 tbsp
Warm water – 1 cup
For the topping:
Red onions – 4, medium, cut into slivers
Goat cheese – about 2 oz
Parmesan cheese – 2 to 3 tbsp, shredded
Balsamic vinegar – a turn of the pan
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste
– Dissolve the honey in the warm water, then gently stir in the yeast. Place aside for 5 to 10 minutes. If the yeast are active, there will be some foam on the surface of the water.
– Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the thyme leaves, dried oregano and ancho chilli powder.
– Slowly add in the warm water with yeast, stirring to combine together. When all the water has been incorporated, knead the mixture into a sticky dough.
– On the counter or on a base, sprinkle some flour. Pat the dough onto the surface and knead well, until the stickiness of the dough reduces considerably. Knead the dough for a bit until smoothish to the touch. Then add a tablespoon of oil and finish kneading the dough to develop a smooth surface. Punch the dough to flatten a bit, then fold it onto itself loosely.
– Place the dough in a bowl. Cover with a towel and keep in a warm place for about an hour for the dough to rise.
– Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large pan on medium heat. Toss in the slivers of onion and toss to coat.
– Season well with salt and pepper. Mix well and then let the onions caramelize to a rusty gold, then to a deep purple. This should take about 30 minutes. About 10 minutes before they are done, pour in the balsamic vinegar and toss with the onions to coat.
– Check the dough at about an hour. It should be considerably larger, about twice its original size.
– Layer some parchment paper onto a baking sheet and rub it with some olive oil. Put the dough out on the pan and push it out to the edges with your fingers to flatten it out onto the pan, about 1/2” or so thick. Dimple the surface of the dough gently with your fingers.
– Cover the flattened dough with plastic wrap, then the towel and set aside for 15 minutes.
– Set the oven to heat at 400°F.
– Uncover the dough. Spread out the caramelized onions out to cover the surface of the dough. Crumble the goat cheese over the onions. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the entire surface.
– Place into the heated oven and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the bread goes golden brown.
Serve by itself or with a side salad.
This is the kind of bread recipe that is totally geared towards the novice bread baker. Even though I’d done something this once under supervision before, I believe someone who doesn’t know the first thing about bread baking can do it, as long as they have the initiative and some amount of patience. I switched out the sugar for some honey and messed around with herbs and ancho chilli powder, but it all really worked in the recipe. The house smelled warm and inviting and I saw so many passersby glance at the building windows as I sat reading there while the bread baked. We really had a hard time waiting for this one to cool down because our senses kept demanding we try the bread right way. The bread bakes nice and golden and the entire thing is like a very thick crust pizza, totally amazing and very delicious. The cheese melted in fluffy little puddles all over the burgundy onion and was a wonderful tart counterbalance to the sweetness of the onions. There was just a bit of heat in the dough from the chilli powder, which worked very well with the key flavours of cheese and onion.
The texture of the bread is dense and yielding. My technique, or lack thereof, didn’t seem to have mattered one way or another, since whatever I did seemed to have worked. This is the kind of recipe you work at as you sort through other stuff on the weekend, cleaning out a closet, doing laundry or some such thing. As you get done with your task, the bread comes out of the oven and a meal is ready. Watch out for burns as people try to grab pieces before the bread has time to cool. If you manage to get slices on to a plate, this would go really well with a leafy salad, maybe with some walnuts (which I think might work really well sprinkled on the bread too). It does quite well by itself too though, it is quite filling. This would make excellent picnic fare. We ate it standing in the kitchen over the baking sheet, dropping crumbs everywhere. Not one piece made it anywhere near a plate!
Unlike me, give this one a try sooner rather than later. You will be mighty pleased with the results. With the advent of autumn, your kitchen will appreciate the warmth as well. I was glad the bread baking experience was a successful one. At a point in the process, when the bread was in the oven and the aroma enveloped me like a hug from my mum, I took a deep breath, sighed and realised that cooking can be, well and truly, comforting. That is even better than it being relaxing.