Focaccia Pugliese : The prettiest bread you’re likely to eat

Sourdough and I have been in an on-off relationship for years. We eye each other with distant reverence, each too polite to ask why our conversations never move from the store to the cozy confines of my kitchen.

Like that hot guy you bump into, at the office coffee machine and you get so tongue tied that you can’t converse beyond the weather. Shame!

It was only at a recent trip to Florence where I had my first and most intimate rendezvous with a certain bread. At the home of a lovely lady called Patrizia (read about my experience with social dining here) .

Patrizia’s table boasted of gorgeous regional dishes prepared with a devotion only known to a woman in love with food. However, for me, the star of the show was the humble Focaccia Pugliese –  a chewy bread with unmistakable sour notes, served as an appetizer that pairs beautifully with a glass of Prosecco and easy conversations.

Since everything was homemade, Pat’s kitchen boasted of the aroma of fresh baking bread. Now that is a serious turn on, even for the most hardened of chefs (pun intended, if you may) what chance did I have to survive this close encounter?

pat 1

Talking dough

You’re probably wondering why am speaking of sourdough in a focaccia recipe. Aren’t they labelled as two different breads in our stores? Well, its time to remove your pretty heels and put on your engineer brother’s college hoodie, cause we’re about to talk science.

So lets assume you have a basic functional knowledge of bread making. If not, click here for a 101. You probably also know that yeast is the leading hero of this show, and sometimes the director.

Now yeast is not just what is available in packets in the supermarket, it effectively exists everywhere – on fruits, vegetables  (which is what aids in making alcohol) it even exists in the air! This is natural or wild yeast, which our ancestors trapped to make bread and wines.

So a sourdough is essentially a culture that captures and cultivates wild yeast through a mixture of flour and water stabilized over time. Its pretty simple –  yeast is present in all flours. So when you let it sit for a couple of days, it eats up the sugars from the flour and gives out carbon dioxide and alcohol. You’ll notice bubbles in the culture, indicating that the yeast is multiplying and is pretty happy. Think Pacman, being grateful.

Be a soccer mum to your starter

Take care of it like your own. Feed it and water it, just like you’d feed you would to a child. Or a Puppy. Whichever floats you boat.

Sourdough starter can be cultivated for months, even years, if kept properly. There is even talk of Italian mothers passing on century old starters to their daughters!

Patrizia calls this the ceremony of preparation.  Her starter is almost two years old and her secret is to loving it and giving it time to bloom. She calls hers Nicolina, “just like a puppy”.

The recipe is rustic and simple which originally comes from Italy’s southern heel of Puglia and Sicily that boasts of strong terrain and grand flavours. Over the years its moved several tables – from being a simple worker’s lunch to an appetizer in posh Italian bars. But as Pat rightfully points out “habits change but the essence of a good focaccia remains the same”

Focaccia Pugliese

(with cherry tomatoes and oregano).

For the bread:

150g of natural liquid sourdough*

300g flour 0

200g whole wheat flour

350ml + 200ml of water

200ml Olive oil + a little extra to grease the spatula

1 1/2 tsp of salt &

For the topping:

Cherry Tomatoes, halved

Oregano, dried

*Liquid sourdough or  sourdough culture is made using flour and water (equal parts) and ferments over a period of time to convert into an acidic and bubbly gloop like dough. To make a liquid version, you’ll need to refresh it once a month by adding more flour and water to the mix. Pat suggests keeping an apple near the culture to speed up the fermentation. You know its ready when it doubles in size in 3-4 hours.

Add the water to the natural liquid sourdough and mix well

Add in the two flours, stirring with a fork for few minutes.

Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and let it rest for about 15 minutes.

Using an oiled spatula, spread salt and fold it in gently. Bring the sides of the dough to the center as you fold. Careful not to overfold. Let the dough rest

Do this twice in a span of 20 minutes and after the last fold, cover the dough with a lid or film and refrigerate for 24 hours

Remove the dough from the fridge and leave it out for about 2-3 hours to come to room temperature. The dough should be soft and elastic – handle with oiled hands

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C

Pour the dough into a baking tin and gently squish the dough around to fill up the pan. Avoid bursting the bubbles in the dough as much as possible

Top the dough with cherry tomatoes and season with salt, pepper & oregano

Mix about glass of water & half a glass of olive oil and pour it on the focaccia. Allow it to leaven for 30 minutes

Bake in the preheated oven till lightly browned on the top

Serve warm and enjoy your hard work with a good glass of Sangria!

(All Images by Ishita Thakur)

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