Tale of a Focaccia

Till date, this blog has been only about the things that I baked that worked (mostly, I'll come back to that some other time). Anything else has been kept deliberately out of this space mainly because I was too nervous to even try to write about something that didn't quite work. So what changed now? After blogging for 4 years (ahem, regularly for about a year) I figured it's time to explore the other side too. No? Plus, I really thought that bread was something that I understood - biology student and all - obviously not the case in what follows.

For a long time I had set my sights on making a Focaccia. To be completely honest, I haven't had a true Italian Focaccia, so I know nothing of how it should taste, what it should look like and how it bakes. The Internet tells me that it is similar to Pizza dough - so I am guessing the texture should be airy - with many air pockets, light, crusty but still moist. Focaccia is an Italian Bread, which is patted out on a baking sheet, left to rise, dimpled and then doused in olive oil and topped with herbs and olives or tomatoes. By dimpling the dough you create wells which hold in the olive oil. The oil seeps into the surface when you bake - giving the focaccia additional flavour.

I didn't have a tried and tested recipe for a focaccia - so I had to start from scratch to source a recipe. I found a promising one - and in my usual style halved the recipe (yes, I do that very often and not always successfully). I cut open a new packet of fast action yeast, made a well in the centre of the flour and added the yeast and sugar. Then I sprinkled salt all around the flour, added warm water to the yeast and sugar, added the olive oil and I began to bring the dough together. The bread is sticky and rough to begin with but as you knead, the gluten starts forming and the dough becomes smooth.

Bread dough - before and after

Then you leave it to rise. Here's where it did not work and I am not sure why. But in essence, my focaccia dough did not rise.  And that's the essence of bread - it'll all work only if the yeast works and the bread rises.  I kept it in a warm place - or what I thought was warm for an hour - but the dough was almost the same size as I had left it. Then I warmed the oven to about 40 degree Celsius - and kept the dough there - still no rise. Still hopeful, I pulled out the dough and shaped it on my baking tray - leaving it then for a second rise.

This time too, there was no difference. I thought that maybe it'll all probably work when I bake it; it was just too cold for it rise - but in the oven, the focaccia will behave the way it's supposed too. And so I chopped up olives, doused it with olive oil and when I thought it had risen enough (which was totally nowhere near 'enough') - baked it. At this point I suddenly realised that this was supposed to be my dinner - and there was no way that the focaccia was going to be edible - unless chewy dough was what I wanted to eat. I kept looking through the oven door - hoping the focaccia would rise, poof up, as if by magic.

Call me adamant (or because I hate wastage), I still baked it - for a full 30 minutes in a 200 degree oven - and by which time it was as good as toast. By then the olives and the crust on top had sort of lured me to  (at least) taste it. Which I did and it wasn't completely bad. No really (Don't worry, there's no recipe today, so you don't have to worry about dense bread of any kind) That's probably my loyalty to the bread talking, but the crust with olive oil and the olives was delicious. The rest of the bread was, em, only slightly airy, very dense, very very chewy, very heavy, and not so edible. 

So why did the bread dough not rise? No idea really, but here's my list of probable reasons:

1. The water was too warm for the yeast.
2. The temperature outside was too cold - and not ideal for the yeast to work
3. Salt added to the yeast just as I started kneading.
4. I just did not knead it correctly.
5. I did not let the yeast activate - and kneaded it in too early

But that's the thing about these baked goods, they challenge you to look at something with renewed respect, and they test you on your perseverance. I should know - there are one too many loaves that I have baked (let's just say) incorrectly.


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