Thursday, June 11, 2009


Since I bought Dana that baking handbook, she's slowly been transferring her obsession with it to me. It's like a parasite, slowly creeping in to lay its eggs in my ear. Pizza, the larvae whispered a week ago, brioche, it's been saying today, focaccia it said earlier this week. This wouldn't be such a problem except that I listen; I can't resist. I am a complete and total sucker for savory baked goods, I acknowledge this and I do not apologize.

The focaccia we made was good but I felt like it didn't rise to its full potential. Some of this is just a technique thing, I'm sure. I don't think I was doing the kneading precisely right, and I added the salt too early, and I might have mixed in a little too much flour in the process but here's the real problem: I made kind of a little fire in our oven when it was baking. Like, a little one. Kind of.

See, here's the thing, we didn't have the right size pan. Ours was short in both directions by a couple of inches. When I realized the problem, early in the recipe, I just shrugged. What could possibly go wrong? When it came time to soak the dough in olive oil (yes, you soak it in half a cup of oil before you bake it, I'll get to that), though, and the oil came pouring up over the sides of the pan onto the counter, what could go wrong became very very clear.

When the oil-soaked dough--on top of which I'd dutifully poured the remaining 1/4 cup of oil against my better judgment--went into the oven on its oily pan, and I went into the office to kill time playing mafia wars on facebook, a funny thing happened: smoke went everywhere. I came out of the office to check on the bread about ten minutes into its baking time to find half the house filling up with acrid whitish haze and not more than fifteen seconds later the smoke detectors in the hallway caught on to the problem as well. So I whipped the nascent bread off its rack (noting, as I did so, that all the lovely oil I'd poured on top a few minutes before had disappeared and a curiously similar puddle of goop was now boiling across the floor of the hot oven). I did the best job mitigating the mess that I could by sopping most of it up with a sponge which promptly and surprisingly melted, but by the time I actually got the smoke to clear, the smoke alarms to quit their irritated bleeping, and the oil to stop emitting that noxious smell like burning paper and pitch, the bread had already been out of the oven for fifteen minutes. This when it had only been in the oven for ten. Afterward, I threw the troublesome little thing back in and estimated as well as possible the remaining bake time.

After some trial and error, the bread that I pulled golden and fragrant from the oven was I think much drier than intended but still incredibly delicious. Here's the recipe, but I strongly suggest against taking my advice on this one.

from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

7 cups bread flour
3.5 cups warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast
2 Tbsp coarse salt
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea Salt for sprinkling (which I found pretty unnecessary given that 2 tablespoons of salt in the dough)

Whisk together flour, yeast, and water, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until tripled (about 2 hours). Add the salt and, using the dough hook attachment of your mixer, mix for 3-5 minutes on low, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. When the dough begins to climb the sides of the bowl, raise the speed to medium and beat for 15 seconds then transfer to well floured surface for kneading. Fold the dough over onto itself a couple of times and transfer to a floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let double again.
I'm going to skip some steps here because you need to just go out and buy this book but suffice to say that after a couple more kneading/resting cycles, you have a dough heavily bubbled and slack. Preheat the oven to 450 and pour 1/2 cup of the olive oil into a 17 by 12 inch rimmed baking pan. Dump the dough ball into the oil and turn to fully coat. Then press it down to fill the pan, letting it rest for a few minutes if it starts to resist. When it has fully filled the pan, press your fingers into it to leave impressions and then pour the remaining oil over the top and, if you're using it, sprinkle with salt.

Pop it in the oven for 25-30 minutes (barring some disaster) and when it comes out it will be thick and crusty and the bottom almost fried from the pools of oil that, if you're lucky, will not have been flung from the bread by oven spring as if bounding from a trampoline.

Even with all the mishaps, it's a bread worth keeping. And today at lunch, finishing the last slice with ripe tomato, a poached egg, and fresh basil, I never would have guessed that anything had gone amiss. So it was a little toothsome, a little more dense than it might have been, it was still another pretty awesome showing from a cookbook that has yet to disappoint.

Good going, Martha.


eisha said...

Sorry I missed all the excitement. Did the whole building have to evacuate this time?

Dana said...

No! And that was totally not us last time!