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Recipe for focaccia

Knead to know

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Hot, humid weather is perfect for rolling out a batch of warm, olive-scented focaccia. TOI-Crest brings you a fuss-free recipe for this delicious flatbread.

In this weather, there isn't much motivation to cook. Salads, chilled soups, large bowls of yoghurt - that's the kind of thing you want to eat. Foodstuffs spoil quickly;most ingredients look tired, wilted and withered. But there's one thing that perks up in these hot, humid season: yeast.

Yeast loves heat and moisture-heavy air. The kind of weather that saps all our energy provides the perfect pick-me-up for these single-celled organisms, breaking their slumber and kickstarting their mojo. And this means that breadmaking - a process profoundly dependent on yeast activity - takes far less time in this sultry season than other times of the year.

Which is why, despite the stifling heat, I always end up baking bread more frequently in the summer and monsoon months. And the kind of bread I'm usually turning out is flat breads, especially focaccia.

Not only do I find focaccia one of the simplest and satisfying breads to make;it's the ideal accompaniment for summer faves, providing olive-oil scented heft for a light cold soup and salad meal;obliging as the base to slather on tapenade, baba ghanoush, yoghurt dips, and all those other cool, quick fixes.

True, I can pick up pretty decent focaccia from local delis, but not the variety I crave or the flavors I want to experiment with. And, yes, I admit, baking my own bread is so deeply satisfying that it's almost addictive. Trust me, once you've experienced the high of successful breadmaking, you'll be looking for excuses to get your next fix.

The entire exercise has the elements of good drama: an opening act of tensiontinged suspense while you wait for the yeast to bubble into life followed by the action-filled stress-busting exercise of kneading and pummeling the dough till it becomes a smooth ball; putting this ball aside only to discover, barely an hour later, that mysteriously and magically, it has inflated to become double; then imbuing the dough with shape and flavors to define its character before consigning it to the fiery heat of the oven from which it will eventually emerge, in a fitting finale, transfigured into golden, heavenly scented bread. Making your own bread does take a little bit of practice and patience, because your fingers need to develop a sense of touch - to intuitively "know" the right texture. But it's an art that can be easily picked up, and following the guide for making focaccia provided here should set you on the right course. For 500g flour you'll need about a teaspoonful of yeast. I prefer fresh yeast - it's virtually failsafe - but because it doesn't last too long, I also keep a stock of dried yeast in the fridge as standby. The latter I get from Kalimpong - an unbranded but excellent product used by the local bakeries that dot the Hills. To nudge the yeast into action, heat a small bowl of water to the point where it's hot, but not scalding. Fresh yeast requires the water to be warm rather than hot. Put a generous teaspoon of sugar then add the yeast (without stirring) cover the bowl with a saucer and just forget about it for about 10 minutes. In that time, measure out your flour, put in a pinch of salt (be restrained with the stuff because sodium inhibits yeast's performance), get about a cup and a half of tepid water ready, and line up the olive oil. After 10 minutes check on the yeast mix: it should have bubbled up and formed a frothy surface. Pour into the flour, add a good slug of oil, and, to begin with mix in about 2/3 cup of tepid water. Start working the flour and liquids together with your fingers adding more water a little at a time, just to the point when all of the flour is sticking together. I usually begin doing this in a large bowl then once it's come together, I transfer the stuff on to a flour-dusted kitchen counter and continue kneading. The next ten minutes are the best part of the process as you pummel the dough into a smooth elastic ball and feel the tension inside you drain away (it's my unwillingness to sacrifice this therapeutic pleasure that dims the attractiveness of mechanical breadmakers, despite the convenience they offer. )
Once you have a smooth elastic ball that's not sticking to your fingers, brush it with olive oil, place in a large clean bowl, cover with a damp kitchen towel and just leave it alone so that the yeast can do its thing. Now's the time to prepare your baking tray - a flat rectangular tin lined with well-oiled parchment paper.

In this weather, in about 45 minutes, the dough should have doubled in volume. When you handle it you can sense the air trapped inside. Place on your flour-sprinkled counter and punch to knock out the air. Then, placing it in the center of the prepared tin, start gently stretching the dough in all direction, using the heel of your hands and finger tips, to flatten and fill the tin. Next, use your index finger to make the characteristic deep dimples in rows on the surface of the focaccia;put sea salt and fresh sprigs of basil or rosemary into the indentations, cover again and leave to prove for about 10-15 minutes. At the end of this second proving the focaccia will have risen, its shape molded by the baking tray. Use your pastry brush to give the loaf a quick patina of rich golden olive oil then bake in the hot oven for about 20 minutes, or till the bread is risen and burnished and gives a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the tin. Allow to cool a little before using a pizza cutter to carve long strips, or large squares, and serve.

Needless to say, this basic recipe can be used to create several variations once you've got the hang of it. Before the second proving you can, for instance, fold in oilsoaked olives, dried oregano, chopped fried back-bacon, or sun-dried tomatoes into the dough. Or experiment with a range of toppings, each rich in olive oil, smeared on to the surface of the dough as it readies for a second proving: garlic scented, caramelized onions;crushed garlic and basil; matured cheese. I recently used a topping of sun-dried tomatoes, sautêed garlic and some really aged, soft Bhutan cheese. And the result of was delicious: fragrant and fulfilling and the perfect pairing for soothing bowls of cold mild-flavored, deep-orange pumpkin soup. You can't always beat the heat, but you can get it to work for you in the kitchen!

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