My grandmother was a wonderful cook. She spent countless hours in the kitchen preparing meals for her family, meals reminiscent of her homeland-Calitri, Italy. I loved everything that she made and if I had to choose a “last meal”, it would be one of my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. Yes, it would be homemade pasta (cavatelli) with gravy (tomato sauce), meatballs, sausage and braciole (stuffed and rolled beef) and her bread. There was usually roast chicken and potatoes and salad after the pasta course, but I was very happy and just as full after the pasta course.
The bread my grandmother made was a big round, country type loaf that she held under her arm as she sliced it. I was fascinated watching her draw the knife through the loaf and ladled extra sauce on my plate in anticipation of using the bread to sop it up. As much as I loved the bread that she served with meals, it was her foccacia that I craved. I’m not even sure she ever referred to it as foccacia, but thinking back, that’s exactly what it was.
Her focaccia was never served with dinner, but something I remember just eating as a snack. It was best right out of the oven and what made it so delicious was the layer of melted cheese running through the center. I’ve tried to replicate it and have come close using this recipe from Carol Field’s book “Focaccia” to which I added sharp provolone cheese. I’ll have to ask my mother what type of cheese my grandmother used, but provolone seemed close to the flavor that I remember.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
Topping 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt
To make the sponge, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large mixing bowl. Whisk and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until bubbly and doubled, about 45 minutes.
To make dough sprinkle yeast over the warm water in a small bowl and whisk. Let stand until creamy, about 5-10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir the yeast mixture and the olive oil into the sponge and mix well. If making the dough by hand, stir in the flour 1 cup at a time along with the salt. When all the flour is mixed in, knead the dough until soft and velvety, about 8-10 minutes. If using a mixer, add all the flour and salt to the sponge mixture and with dough hook knead at medium speed until dough is soft and slightly sticky, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle some flour onto a board and knead the dough briefly.
First rise: place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1-1/4 hours.
Shaping and second rise: dough will be soft and delicate. Flatten it on an oiled 11 x 17 baking pan and press dough out. The dough will be sticky and may not cover the bottom of the pan. Cover with a towel and let it relax for 10 minutes, then stretch it again, until it reaches the edges. Cover with a towel and let rise 45 minutes to 1 hour. Just before baking, dimple the dough with your knuckles, leaving indentations. Drizzle olive oil over the dough, being sure to fill some of the little holes. Sprinkle with the sea salt.
Baking: about 1/2 hour before you plan to bake, preheat the oven to 425 degrees with a baking stone inside, if you have one. Place the pan directly on the stone and spray the oven walls and floor with cold water from a spritzer bottle 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Bake until the crust is crisp and the top is golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately and place on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Best eaten the same day as baking.
As I sit here writing this, I just remembered a visit I made to my grandmother back when I was in college. I was getting ready to take the train back to school and as I hugged her to say goodbye, she slipped a package into my hand-half of a freshly baked loaf of her cheese bread. Needless to say, that was one delectable train trip .