In kitchens across the world, focaccia gardens are blooming. On top of the flatbreads, cherry tomatoes open like petals, with long scallion stalks for stems. Yellow-pepper sunflowers stand tall with Kalamata olives at their center. Red onions bud in bushes made from fresh herbs.
As pandemic activities on social media go, this one might just be the prettiest. Home bakers decorate their focaccia with bouquets and swirls: The flat, white dough is an easy canvas and just as simple to prepare. During a spring when so many of us are confined, decorating them allows many bakers to bring the outdoors inside by tending these edible gardens.
“It’s cathartic and therapeutic,” said Teri Culletto, a home baker in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, who is thought to have started the trend. “If we had dinner parties to go to, you’d want everybody to have their socks on, because you’d knock them off.”
Culletto, 56, posted her first focaccia garden on Instagram in February 2019. Soon after, other bakers were making their own versions. They now poke around one another’s accounts, sharing decorating tips.
Raw vegetables, for example, are tricky, because they have different water contents. Thicker pieces are better, as thinner ones might burn. Purple potatoes are excellent for the blue, indigo and violet parts of the rainbow, said Hannah Page, a 36-year-old high school teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, who posts under @blondieandrye. Culletto discovered that dipping fresh herbs in lemon water might keep them greener in a hot oven.
The buzz has also enticed new bakers to try their hand. Marwa A. Alta’ee, who lives in Baghdad, had never even seen focaccia.
“We may have bakeries with Italian pastries, but maybe just one in all of Iraq,” said Alta’ee, 34, a programmer and translator. “But focaccia? None of my family and friends have ever heard of it.”
When her bread-based social media feed started filling up with the little gardens, she was encouraged to give it a shot. Alta’ee served her version with homemade pumpkin jam after the strict curfew imposed on Baghdad. She and her husband loved it.
So did Sunaina Arshad Khalik, 30, a technology and innovation product manager who lives in Houston. She had never made bread before. Focaccia seemed easiest, and a quick online search for photos brought up little shoots and posies.
“I felt like I was insulting the bread by putting these ingredients on top,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if it was just some trendy thing people were doing, but I think after I ate it, it made sense to me.”
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Since the virus outbreak, baking has found a major foothold, with many at home looking for a hobby, a way to pass the time. Google searches for “bread” leapt in mid-March. Searches for “sourdough” did, too. But “focaccia” traffic barely budged.
To some extent, that makes sense. Sourdough is a hearty bread with a Laura Ingalls Wilder vibe of self-sufficiency and resilience. Once a baker has a starter, she can make endless loaves, provided she has flour. The process, too, is well-suited to lockdown. Sourdough is a stubborn, tactile dough. It needs to be pinched and folded, stretched and kneaded, a perfect outlet for rage baking and stress relief.
Focaccia is different. It’s not what gets you through a winter; it’s what gets you through to the main course. The dough feels beautiful, almost sensual. And it’s basically foolproof. It might require some stretching to fit the pan, but the dough is strikingly hands-off: You mix it with a spoon in a matter of minutes. The only real “kneading” comes at the end, when you press with your fingertips to make divots. But it’s a gentle push, not a poke.
Unlike sourdough, you don’t think about focaccia during the day. It’s a thoroughly unsentimental thing to bake.
The gardens, though, turn a snack into an art project. In the first days of the lockdown, Sara Giraldi, 26, a tour operator in Vinci, a town near Florence, Italy, felt trapped. Making focaccia art with her sister, Laura, helped her move forward. “We could not go every day to buy bread, and here, bread is like life,” she said. The focaccia, she said, “it’s not just good to eat. It’s also beautiful.”
Of course, the gardens are purely decorative. But they are pretty, and pretty feels like it’s in short supply these days.
“We are looking for beauty,” Giraldi said. “We don’t want to just survive. We want to live.”
Recipe: Classic Focaccia
Yield: One 9-by-13-inch pan
Total time: 30 minutes, plus resting and rising
3 1/4 cups/415 grams all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast 1 3/4 cups/420 milliliters warm water 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt Whole or chopped fresh rosemary leaves, dried oregano, fennel seeds, herbes de Provence or other dried herbs, for garnish (optional)
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, kosher salt and yeast. Add the warm water to the flour mixture and stir until all the flour is incorporated and a sticky dough forms. (No kneading required.) Pour 2 tablespoons oil into a medium bowl. Transfer the dough to the bowl, turn to coat, and cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator to rest for at least 24 hours or for up to 2 days.
2. When you’re ready to bake, brush the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with oil. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and transfer to the prepared pan. Using your hands, spread the dough out as much as possible, adding oil to the dough if needed to keep it from sticking. (Don’t worry if the dough doesn’t yet cover the full pan; it will once it relaxes and rises.) Place the dough in a warm place and let rise until about doubled in bulk. The rising time will vary considerably depending on the season. (In the summer, it may take only 20 minutes for the dough to warm up and rise; in the winter, it can take 1 hour or more.) When the dough is ready, it should be room temperature, spread out on the sheet and fluffy.
3. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Using your palms, pat down the focaccia to an even thickness of about 1 inch, then, using your fingertips, dimple the entire dough. Drizzle it with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle the entire surface of the focaccia evenly with the sea salt and herbs, if using.
4. Bake, rotating once front to back, until the top is uniformly golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the focaccia on the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool, then slide out of the pan. Enjoy it hot. (Focaccia deteriorates in quality after the first day. If there is some left over, wrap it tightly in plastic and store at room temperature for another day. Day-old focaccia is delicious in soup.)
Tips: To make a focaccia garden, prepare your vegetables as the dough rises in Step 2. Be creative in working with what you have: Peppers make great petals. Tomatoes do, too, but you might want to drain them before you put them on the dough. Chives and scallions make great stems. Experiment with olives and seeds, purple potatoes, and red onions. Whatever your fancy, cut your decorations a little thick, about 1/8 inch, and dip any fresh herbs in lemon water to keep the colors vibrant as they bake. Arrange the vegetables over the focaccia after you dimple the dough in Step 3. Press them into the dough gently, then drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and proceed with the rest of the recipe.
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