A beginning
A Night at Prune

Susan La Tempa's Cheese Focaccia

In the L.A. Times yesterday, Susan La Tempa wrote an article about picnic food - including three recipes for pickled vegetables, fig pate and a cheese focaccia. I wanted to try something that I had (almost) all the ingredients for and so I chose the focaccia recipe. It calls for what seemed to be to me an inordinate amount of yeast to start with - 2 full packets of dried active yeast. I'm not the world's expert on bread-baking, but in my experience, the best breads are made with not even one full bag of yeast, and several rises. And the focaccias that I know best are the ones made by my extended family in southern Italy - loaves dimpled and shiny with olive oil, strewn with rosemary, with a soft and fluffy crumb, then split and filled with prosciutto or eaten alongside plates of tomato salad.

This focaccia was, to say the least, nothing like those. The yeast, first combined with warm water and sugar until it bubbled, proofed up just fine. I added it to a bowl of flour and salt, mixed it all together and added some tablespoons of olive oil. The dough is then lightly kneaded and patted out on a board. I sprinkled Pecorino Romano (it calls for Parmigiano, but I only had the other cheese) over the rectangle, then folded the dough over itself and kneaded until the cheese was incorporated. This was a little tough at first, but the dough eventually came together. I rolled the ball of dough in olive oil, then let it sit in a bowl, while I went out for a walk with my friend Becca along the Hudson River.

The recipe calls for an hour of rising time, or until the ball of dough is doubled in size. My walk took longer than I expected (but so lovely, fall is on its way and you could really feel it last night - the breeze felt amazing), so I let the dough rise for an hour and a half before punching it down. The recipe then calls for an oiled baking sheet to be sprinkled with cornmeal. This resulted in a strange sludge - the cornmeal on top of the olive oil just sort of squodged into the pan instead of providing a nice crust for the focaccia. Odd - if I made this again, I'd probably just leave the cornmeal out. I patted out the dough into the pan and let it rise another 10 minutes. Then I brushed it with oil and sprinkled it with a quarter teaspoon of salt and scored it with a knife. This is what it looked like before it went into the oven:Before

After 30 minutes in the oven, a nice toasty smell enveloping my kitchen, I took the focaccia out. It had scarcely risen at all in the oven and looked a lot like hardtack. I waited for it to cool, then broke off a piece. It was salty as all get out (if you make this, cut down on the salt sprinkled on top! In fact, you can probably leave it off altogether!) and a bit crunchy and tough. The flavor was good, but it wasn't focaccia. It was a big sheet of cheese crackers. Served with white wine before dinner, it could even be an aperitif. But cheese straws or cheese coins or gougeres would all be nicer alternatives to this: After

I wrapped the squares up in plastic and brought them to work today. My coworkers are darling tasters - they like everything I've ever brought them - but I'm wondering what their reaction will be.