In pursuit of focaccia perfection

There is a restaurant in Victoria that I am almost incapable of avoiding during any visit to that lovely little city. Pagliacci’s was the scene of more than a few fun nights out with friends while we procrastinated on assignments from UVic and has subsequently become a place that speaks to me of good memories along with good food. I am positively addicted to their dish called the Prawn Broker (spinach pasta, prawns and cashews in a coconut-curry sauce) and will admit with no hesitation that I always order the full size — which is far too big for one sitting — so that I can enjoy just a little bit more later. (Side note: Every few weeks I search the Internet in the apparently feeble hope that the recipe will magically appear. Future blogging may include attempts to recreate the thing myself. Success is not guaranteed.)

But, while the Prawn Broker is my main dish of choice, I could very easily live on the baskets of focaccia set on the table shortly after ordering. Chewy, thickly crusted, salty. I have no idea what magic lies in that recipe which leads to such bready perfection. I can only presume part of the reason is a thick dousing of olive oil. But there are no apparent herbs or crystals of salt to hint at what else goes into this recipe.

My pursuit of focaccia perfection began about a year ago when I bought (finally!) a handheld mixer. (Friends were unsurprisingly baffled when I made cookies without a mixer, using my own arm strength to cream butter and sugar together.) To my delight, it came with two dough hooks, which opened up the world of bread baking. Okay, so, it’s a pretty limited world at this point, but nevertheless. Since then, I’ve tried to make focaccia a few times, but found it lacking. Where i wanted dense and chewy, these attempts were light and, at one point, crumbly (don’t try to make bread with all-purpose flour, apparently). The top was delicious, owing mostly to a liberal sprinkling of flaky Maldon salt, chopped rosemary and a few generous glugs of olive oil that filled in the divots I had dimpled across the surface of the pale dough. But it wasn’t the best ever.

Baking bread, I fear, is one of those arts that is being lost in my generation. The reason I never made bread before was that, frankly, kneading baffles me. I never seem to get the dough to come together and never seem to have the patience to keep going. Growing up, my mum often made homemade bread and I would “help” but eventually she would take over the kneading. (This is why the dough hooks were such a welcome addition to my mixer.) But also lost is the knowledge on how to affect the outcome of recipes.

I was sharing the focaccia dilemma with my friend Shelley one afternoon when she asked me a few questions about the recipe and I mentioned that it called for the dough to rise three times. Well, she said, that explained why it was so light. Fewer chances to rise = denser dough. Of course, now that she has said that, it makes perfect sense. But since I didn’t know much about baking bread, it didn’t occur to me to play around with the recipe. Of course, now that i *do* know, I’m making it a mission to make the best focaccia possible.

This time I tried a different recipe, but modified it slightly by not letting it rise a second time in the hope it would produce a chewier end result. It definitely did. But it’s still not as good as the bread from Pagliacci’s and I felt the focaccia overall could have used some more flavour. The top was pretty good, though, owing I’m sure to the generous amount of salt, olive oil and chopped rosemary.

And so, the pursuit continues.

Yeast, water, sugar and olive oil

Just mixed dough

Rising dough

Ready for the oven

Fresh from the oven

Here is the latest attempt. It comes from the fabulous Rebar Modern Food Cookbook, which, as previously mentioned, I bought only for a salad dressing recipe. In this case, however, I didn’t let it rise a second time and I didn’t bother with the garlic, as I find it very hard to keep it from burning. There are few tastes worse than burnt garlic. This is the recipe as printed.

Rosemary Garlic Foccacia

  • 1 3/4 cups warm water
  • 1 tbsp. traditional baking yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 cups unbleached flour

Topping

  • 4-6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 2 tbsp. chopped rosemary
  • cracked black pepper

In a large mixing bowl, combine the warm water, yeast and sugar. Let the mixture sit until it foams. Stir in salt and olive oil, then start adding flour, one cup at a time, beating well with a wooden spoon. (Yeah, I used my mixer here.) When you can no longer stir, turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead in the remaining flour. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, sprinkling just enough flour on the counter to prevent sticking.

Form the dough into a ball and place a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp cloth and set the bowl in a warm, draft-free spot. Let rise until doubled in bulk (1 – 1 1/2 hours). Punch the dough down and let it rise again until doubled.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Place the dough on a well-oiled 12″x16″ baking sheet with 1/2″ sides. Gently stretch the dough to roughly fit the dimensions of the pan. Drizzle the surface with olive oil and spread the minced garlic over the entire area. Sprinkle chopped rosemary evenly on top, followed by coarse salt. Finish with cracked pepper. Using your fingertips, gently poke indentations over the entire surface. It should appear dimpled and rustic-looking. Let rise again for about 15 minutes, or just until it puffs up slightly.

Place the loaf in the center rack of the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The garlic should be lightly golden. Be careful not to over bake. Serve warm.

  18 comments for “In pursuit of focaccia perfection

  1. Annette Crocker
    July 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Ciao Gwennie…Brenda has forwarded your blog details and I’m delighted to have the info. I look forward to following along and making an appropriate contribution from time to time. Visited Victoria a few weeks ago and included a stop at Rebar for a side of steamed veggies and wonderful dipping sauce..just the ticket for a late night snack!

  2. Michelle (aka gastronomicalmeesh)
    July 7, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Hi Gwendolyn. I’ve been meaning for a few weeks now to tell you that I checked out your blog and think it is fabu! I love your recipes and your photos! I almost want to lick my computer screen! Your quest for the Prawn Broker recipe reminds me that either Bon Appetit or Gourmet run a regular column where readers write in to share restaurant experiences and memorable dishes. The magazine then contacts the restaurant for the recipe and re-prints it for readers. Happy cooking and recipe hunting! M

  3. July 9, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    hey there, you may not have been thrilled with the results, but it sounds pretty fabulous to me. i’ll try to remember to bring you gail’s recipe; remind me. i’ve made it a lot and it always works….mmm. makes me want to make some right now. if only it wasn’t almost 11 p.m.

  4. July 30, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Oh my goodness, this foccaccia looks absolutely perfect, light, crispy, chewy at the same time. Those salt crystals are calling out to me. . .

  5. marcella
    August 2, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Your foccaccia does look lovely. I put myself through undergraduate school by baking and doing pastry. I worked in an Italian Bakery for years. We had the local Italians lining up for our Foccaccia. The secret we used was “Potato Buds” straight off the shelf. The dried potatoes gave the bread an extra fluff, lots of holes, and the yeast loved it. :-) We also picked fresh rosemary from the back of the bakery and had the fruitiest olive oil ever.

  6. October 14, 2008 at 3:36 am

    Занимаюсь дизайном и хочу попросить автора patentandthepantry.wordpress.com отправить шаьлончик на мой мыил) Готов заплатить…

  7. mark
    October 26, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Hi there, Can’t help with the bread but here is a cashew curry recipe.
    I like it the Wife wont eat it,

  8. November 24, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Hi, I just found your page while googling for balsamic reduction. I love this foccacia recipe – thanks a lot. Will try it soon.

    I’ve also linked you on my blog.

  9. Jackie
    January 11, 2009 at 11:55 am

    I have been going to Pagliacci’s for years now (and actually was there just last night) and every time we all rave about the bread…it really is to die for. This is the only page I have found so far that has tried to replicate it so I will have to give it a shot, thanks!

  10. elvin
    May 10, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    i have this cookbook. i’ve tried this recipe, mixing the dough in my breadmaker. 1 and 3/4 cup of water and 4 cups of flour, in my experience, makes a sticky wet mess…i had to add more flour! so, is it a typo in the recipe or am i doing something else wrong?

  11. Sher
    April 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I have a focaccia recipe whose secret ingredient is Semolina Durham flour (in addition to regular flour) and find it absolutely the best. It is dense, chewy with a crispy top/bottom. There are sun-dried tomatoes and red onion strips on top too. If you are interested in the recipe I will send it to you.

  12. Jennifer
    February 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Hey Gwendolyn.
    It’s Sarah’s sister. I lost your card after Sarah’s stagette but she just gave me your blog address again. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to find this! I think its my new favorite blog and I can’t wait to try all of the recipes!
    Hope you are well!
    Jen

  13. Stacey
    October 1, 2011 at 10:45 am

    The first few paragraphs could’ve been written by me! I actually came across your site looking for a recipe. I plan on trying to recreate that scrump-diddly-umptous pasta dish tonight!

    As for their bread, I recently bought a loaf of “Pizza Bianca”. It tasted exactly like Pag’s offering although it was light on the rock salt topping. If you see it at your local baker try a loaf.

  14. SARAH
    May 14, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Hi!…Okay..I am originally from Victoria, B.C. but now living in Toronto. I have eaten at Pagliacci’s so many times in my life and to date, have still not found that focaccia bread in any other restaurant…ever! It is absolutely the most delicious, crispy, oily, salty doughy crunch of heaven I have ever eaten…I have also looked on the internet for years for the recipe but to no avail….until today!!!!! Now, it is not the entire recipe, but, a pretty good lead in….I love your blog, and I have faith that with this info, plus your ingredient knowledge and skill, you may be able to have that bread on your own table very soon. This is not the full recipe, so a little experimentation in the dry ingredients will be in order…but the wet addition, and baking pans info leak, may get you a bit closer?…..If you do try it with success, I would love to know…All the best and happy baking!

    Sarah

    http://otienaellwand.com/category/monday-magazine/

  15. Richard
    January 6, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    The recipe for Pag’s focaccia is in the cookbook for You Gotta Eat Here — but my first time trying it (tonight) was SUCH a failure. I’ll try again, but I just might try your recipe first.

    • January 9, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      I found that recipe in the same cookbook but wondered if it would turn out. I suspect it has a lot more to do with the pans Pag’s has been using for eons and the amount of olive oil that goes in them. But I’m going to keep trying.

      • Richard
        January 9, 2013 at 9:18 pm

        It wasn’t a question of taste, though. It was flat and hard. With recipes that call for instant yeast, I’ve had success in the past using traditional (ie, non-instant) yeast as long as I proofed it, but nothing the least bit good came from this effort.

        The basics are 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons yeast, a tablespoon of salt, 4 cups flour. Feels like a lot of salt!

        But I’ll try again, maybe over the weekend, with instant yeast. We’ll see.

    • Geoff
      February 19, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      I have the same cookbook and had the same results. Their water to flour ratio is way off. For four cups flour you need about 1 3/4 cups of water or you will have a brick. 1 cup is way off. Try to up the water and use lots of oil in the pan.

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