Ask people which bread typifies the Mediterranean and they may answer focaccia or, on reflection and looking east, pitta. Perhaps the oldest known yeast-raised bread was baked in Egypt 1,500 years ago. A similar flat wheat bread, aish, is still a staple there today and is produced using the same primitive wood-fired brick ovens that make real pizza such a treat in Italy.
Baking is one of those things most of us prefer to leave to professionals and, in many cases, we are right to do so. Domestic ovens will not bake perfect baguettes, but this should not preclude making focaccia and pizza yourself - if you have a food mixer with a dough hook, they are really easy to produce at home. You can also make this dough with a food processor, though the results will not be as light. If you do, then put all the dry ingredients into the processor bowl and, while working at full speed, add the olive oil through the feeder tube followed by the warm water until the dough balls. Knead by hand for 5 minutes after processing, then proceed in the same way.
The kind of flour you use will materially affect the quality of your bread. You want a flour with a high protein and gluten content; both of which contribute to the texture of the bread, delivering a crisper crust and making it lighter by assisting even distribution of air throughout the loaf. High-protein flours need less kneading and, usually, less liquid when making the dough, and are closer to the durum wheat used in making pasta. Some of the best wheat for bread comes from Canada, where it contains an average 14 per cent protein content compared to home-grown wheat, which is closer to 10 per cent. Britain used to import a lot of Canadian flour, but restrictive EC tariffs have unfortunately put a stop to this on any significant scale and, as a consequence, white flour produced here is much softer than it used to be. This is true even of flours which are described on the packet as ‘strong for bread baking’. Health-food shops are the kind of place you may find Canadian flour, or they might listen to your request and find a supplier. Summon the manager in your local supermarket and make your feelings known on the subject. Write to his or her head office. Come to think of it, have you ever seen a female manager of a supermarket?
This recipe makes an incredibly versatile bread dough which can be stretched and pulled for pizza or focaccia, put to rise in loaf tins for a light airy bread, or rolled for wheat flour tortillas or Arab-style pocket breads. It is also very forgiving when baking and can be cooked successfully at 220°C/425°F/gas7, though best results are achieved at 250°C/475°F/gas9. When baking bread, spray a little water into the preheated oven to give a steam lift and help produce a crisper crust - but be quick... the temperature of a preheated domestic oven drops very rapidly when the door is opened.
The recipe specifies 900 g/2 lb flour, though you may make it with half the amount. If you do, it is vital to halve the quantities of yeast and oil as well as flour. However, the dough does work better when made in larger amounts. Two pounds of flour is not expensive and in any case does not go all that far. Once made, the dough will keep in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator for two to three days, but needs to be returned to room temperature before it is pulled or rolled out.