Everyone should learn how to make bread. I’m not being an idealist on this. It is a chief form of sustenance for many of course, but it is also a deeply meditative undertaking when you get yourself into it. There are repetitive motions to sink every strand of your awareness into, astute measures, risings to patiently wait for and monitor, that universally smile-inducing warm smell… Whole body, whole mind, loaves of bread. We all have the ability to bang it out; just a simple awakening to its powers is perhaps necessary. See where I’m going with this?
I’ve winded down to a bit of vacation time currently, it’s true —publishing this one from somewhere in Costa Rica, hopefully out in the surf at this point *waves hello*—, but deadlines, actual scheduled work, and loose ends abounded before an obligatory rum on the rocks found its way into my hot little hands by the ocean. I didn’t really know which of the umpteen-jillion things on my list I was supposed to finish first. So I did something that wasn’t on my list, or rather something that I didn’t know was on my list just yet. I made bread. (And listened to some 90s/early 2000s R&B).
Walking into any kitchen in any capacity to make bread with whatever equipment available is completely badass to me. Providing basic sustenance on a whim = a life skill supreme. Some of the coolest people I’ve met in my life were serious bread bakers and eventually I figured out why. I started to appreciate what the practice offered when I had to make it every day at a restaurant I worked at for a time. There is a slowness that you have to learn how to appreciate when you make it. It was such a non-stop-work-all-the-time period of my life (an aside: that is still actually a thing), but the small responsibility brought me some serious calm and quietude. So it was then, here I am now; hands in the flour working it all out.
This recipe from Kim Boyce is completely simple to remember. Focaccia is generally considered a good beginner’s bread undertaking. Equal amounts of whole grain and plain/softer flour, packet of quick yeast, fat pinch of salt, glugs of olive oil and whatever flavour/textural components you’re feeling at the moment. Easy.
I went very classic with this. Caramelized onions become the flavour salve of dreams in cool weather, going on everything to make it instantly better. Fresh thyme is easily my favourite herb, so it’s always poking out of some spot in the fridge, and I generally enjoy the crunch-surprise of seeds in almost everything bread-related (bagel memories, guys). Other ideas: dried figs, olives, roasted bits of squash, fried sage leaves, concord grapes if you still have them around, walnuts, a firm blue cheese (drizzle the whole thing with honey at the end-oooooh man), dabs of harissa and almonds etc etc.
spelt + seed focaccia with caramelized onions + thyme
very lightly adapted from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain
serves: makes a large rectangular focaccia
notes: If you want to age the dough a bit for a hint of sourness/more depth, tightly cover the dough after the first rising and place it in the fridge. When you’re ready to bake it, remove from the fridge well in advance so that the dough can come to room temperature and then follow through with the second rising and baking steps.
1 package quick rise yeast (2.25 teaspoons)
1 tsp raw honey (or natural sugar)
1.5 cups whole grain flour (I used spelt)
1.5 cups light spelt flour (or unbleached all purpose)
1 tbsp flaky/sort of coarse salt (I used Himalayan pink salt)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp olive oil + extra to grease the bowl
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
big handful of raw sunflower seeds
1 onion, peeled and cut into half moons
splash of sherry vinegar (optional)
Grease a medium-large bowl AND a large baking sheet with some olive oil. Pro tip: place a sheet of parchment on the baking sheet too to prevent heart-wrenching bread sticking (guess who forgot to do that..). Set both the bowl and the baking sheet aside.
In a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the packet of yeast, honey/sugar and 1 1/4 cups warm water. Stir them together. Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes or so. The yeast should bubble a bit, seem foamy on the surface and bloom.
To the yeast mixture, add the flours, salt and 2 tbsp olive oil. Mix it all together to combine.
If you’re using a stand mixer: attach the dough hook and knead the mixture for 7-8 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to prevent sticking (I usually add around 1/4 cup extra). Mix until the dough is supple, stretchy and ever-so-slightly tacky. Scrape the dough into the greased bowl, coat it in the oil and cover. Let it rise for 2 hours or until doubled in size.
If you’re doing it by hand: start to knead the dough a bit in the bowl to get it going. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is supple and stretchy. There should be a slight tack to it when you poke your finger into it. Place the dough into the greased bowl and rotate the to cover in the oil. Cover and let it rise for 2 hours or until doubled in size.
Make the caramelized onions: Place the half moons of onion in a small saucepan over low-medium heat. Add a few thyme leaves at this point if you like. Stir them up here and there to promote even browning. The sizzling sound should be like a faint whisper. Keep stirring them here and there, adding splashes of water to prevent sticking if necessary. Once the onions are super soft, brown, juicy, delicious etc looking, add the splash of sherry vinegar, stir it around and remove pot from the heat. Set aside.
Second rise: Empty the dough out onto your prepared baking sheet. Stretch it out to fit the pan, dimpling it with your fingers (so fun). Once it’s all snug and fitted in the corners, cover the baking sheet and let it rise another hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Pre-baking: scatter the thyme leaves, caramelized onions, sunflower seeds and pinches of coarse salt over the top of the dough. Pour the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil over the top as well. Dimple the dough very lightly, allowing the oil to sink into some bits of the dough and slosh around the edges for crisp end-results. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and allow the bread to slightly cool before serving.