Frith Street focaccia

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Makes

    2

    loaves (1 for now, 1 for later)

Appears in

I’m very proud of the bread we serve at my restaurant in Soho. The brown is from the Neal’s Yard Bakery and represents the very best of the hippie baking tradition – what was described in Educating Rita as pebble-dashed bread. The white has been a thornier problem. Soho formerly possessed two good bakeries, both long gone, so the basically sound idea of buying good locally produced bread, as with the brown, went out the window. My former co-chef Juliet Peston solved the problem by hiring Dan Leppard, a master at bread. The two of them developed this recipe and technique, which uses hard flour to produce a very characterful loaf based somewhat loosely on focaccia.

Focaccia is one of the most basic of breads. The name derives from the Latin for hearth, foces, so must have originated as a flat bread cooked in the embers. This recipe is used by us to make three types of bread: firstly, a herb-strewn, large, flattish loaf (the daily bread); secondly, a pizza base; and thirdly, rolled out very thinly, grilled to accompany various meze-like starters. The last use unwittingly echoes the bread’s origins.

This style of bread is now so universal that it is difficult to remember how recent an introduction to Britain it is. Camisa, the outstanding Italian delicatessen on Old Compton Street, has sold it for about ten years, nasty packet focacce have been available for longer, and we have been baking it every day for four years. Like its spiritual cousin, ciabatta, it is now completely absorbed into the British diet.

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Ingredients

‘Sponge’

  • 1 litre warm water
  • 25 g fresh yeast, or 1 sachet dried yeast
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 750 g strong white bread flour

Dough

  • 750 g strong white bread flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Flavouring

  • 1 twig rosemary
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Method

Making the ‘sponge’

In a large bowl combine all the sponge ingredients. If you are using fresh yeast, mix it thoroughly with the water and sugar before stirring in the flour. Dried yeast doesn’t even need this short starting period. Cover the bowl and leave for 30 minutes at room temperature.

Finishing the dough

The ‘sponge’ will have risen by this time. Add the flour, salt and 1 tbsp of the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Bread doughs are not kneaded like pasta, they are stretched and slapped down. This is a rather pleasurable activity, relieving all sorts of tensions. Flour your hands and push them under the dough, lift and stretch the dough until it is clear of the bowl. Now the fun bit: slam it back down into the bowl. Keep repeating this step for about 5 minutes. You may need to lightly sprinkle the dough with a little more flour to help you handle it. If you have another large bowl, oil it lightly and transfer the thoroughly traumatised dough to it. Oil the top of the dough and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rise for about an hour, the dough should double in size. Flour your hands again and repeat the lifting and stretching.

Forming the loaf

Lightly oil a baking sheet (I favour Swiss roll tins because they have a raised rim). Halve the dough and spread it out over the sheet. This is harder than it sounds because the dough is very elastic, resisting your attempts to spread it evenly, and contracting back to near its original shape and size. Persevere, and it will suddenly surrender and begin to co-operate. The loaf should be about 2 cm thick. Lightly oil it and cover with a tea towel, which should be dampened. Leave to rise for half an hour.

Baking the loaf

Preheat your oven to maximum. Scatter the loaf with the rosemary leaves, season generously with salt and pepper and lightly oil again. Gently poke little indentations all over the loaf with your fingertips, taking care not to deflate it. Spray some water on the inside of the oven to generate steam, then a few seconds later pop the loaf in. Bake for 20 minutes. The loaf is done when it is firm, golden brown and the base sounds hollow and drum-like when tapped. (Don’t burn your fingers doing this.) The other half of the dough can be kept for up to three days in a zip-lock bag in the fridge. Allow about an hour out of the fridge to wake the yeast up.

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