Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Oregano and Romano Focaccia

Saturday turned into one of those days. You know the kind. They start out a little shaky to begin with, and then a few things go a little bit wrong, and then, all of a sudden, everything starts to go really wrong, and then you find yourself sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window and shaking your head. Not just a quick shake-it-off kind of headshake, more like a bobblehead kind of thing whereby your head continues to shake side-to-side, wobbling a bit on each revolution.

But maybe you have your own ways of coping.

We have this beautiful, really large bay window in our kitchen where we tucked our over-priced vintage 1950’s dinette set. And now, with two young children and virtually no chance that I will be left alone long enough to sit in my office, I have resorted to parking my laptop on the kitchen table where I can (pretend to) work while keeping the kids (reasonably) happy and the household running (not very) smoothly. I spend a lot of time staring out that window. When I plan the dinner menus, I stare out the window. When I find myself stumped with my work, I stare out the window. If I’m writing and I can’t quite catch the particular word that I’m looking for, I stare out the window. I love that window.

We live out in the country and the view is nice. I can see two birdfeeders, our little frog pond, one of the wind chimes, and a tangled, glorious, woody mess of wisteria vines all from my little perch at the kitchen table. Mostly I watch the birds. The Carnivore has an obsessive habit of hanging and filling birdfeeders and studying which particular brand of birdseed is the preferred dinner of our outside squatters. I was fascinated all winter by the sight of the brightly-hued male cardinals posing on the bare branches and vines in the bleak cold-weather landscape. Now that spring is coming, our lantana is already sending up shoots from the ground and we’ve had our first hummingbird come by to check on its progress.

I didn’t think I was going to take so well to living so far from town. Before we moved here, I had spent the previous six or seven years in an in-town neighborhood within walking distance of campus and downtown. I had been very happy there. Friends dropped by all the time, and we knew all of our neighbors. I could walk to my then-favorite restaurant, and virtually everything I needed was within three square miles. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to move out here to this dirt road.

A lot has changed since then, not the least of which was the addition of two small children to our family. Now I think I would get claustrophobic if I had to live in town with a tiny little yard. And I would sorely miss this view out my dining-nook window. Watching the birds (and those dang birdseed-stealing squirrels) is my therapy. Which brings me back to Saturday…

Like I said, Saturday was one of those days. We got up at the crack of dawn to get The Big Boy ready for his very first soccer game and rushed out of the house at the most annoying hour of eight o’clock only to get to the field and find out that the game had been cancelled. And if you think you know sadness and disappointment, you’ve never seen a four-year-old dressed proudly in his cleats and brand-new team jersey find out that his debut game wasn’t going to happen after all. My heart broke a little bit.

And then, since it was, you know, April 12 (!), and I had put it off long enough, I decided to finally knuckle down and tackle our income tax return. I knew it wasn’t going to do much for my mood, but there was no escaping it any longer. So I handed Little Miss Piggy (the baby that refuses to take naps) to The Carnivore and hunkered down at the kitchen table to wade through the inner circle of hell. Two hours later, I came to the disturbing conclusion that even though we had sent the Infernal Revenue Service umpteen dollars already with our quarterly estimated tax payments, we still owed an additional half-umpteen.

It was not shaping up to be the best of days. I stared morosely out the window for a little while and then, shortly after lunch, thought to check the menu to see what I had planned to cook for dinner. Unbelievably, I had chosen a new and scary recipe for that particular day. How completely and utterly absurd. I was sabotaging myself.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t do bread or bread-like substances. I don’t like working with yeast. And every time I have tried baking said items, I’ve screwed it up. Or, if I haven’t screwed up, I’ve gotten nothing more than satisfactory results after spending an entire day on the project and ending up with a trashed kitchen and dough stuck semi-permanently under my fingernails.

And yet, here I found myself, on an already challenging day, with an unproven recipe for focaccia bread. I didn’t even have a fall-back plan. The entrée was one of my favorite pasta recipes, farfalle with asparagus, roasted shallots and blue cheese, and normally I would serve it with lemon basil bruschetta using one of the bakery breads from Publix. But a few days prior, I had decided that I needed to cease and desist that practice, mostly because I often found myself having to make an extra trip to the store so that we would have fresh bread for dinner. This was going against all my best-laid plans to reduce unnecessary trips to town. That needed to change, which clearly meant I needed to change.

Which meant I had to get over my fear of yeast. And I might not even have aspired to this lofty goal except that Orangette had written in a recent issue of Bon Appetit about her own previous yeast-phobia and how she had faced her fears head on and gotten over them. Clearly, I find her inspiring. Or at least I did on the day that I had planned the menu and done the grocery shopping.

Besides, this recipe didn’t look so difficult. And it used a spoon for mixing, which meant I wouldn’t have to pry the dough out from under my fingernails. So I took a deep breath and got my ingredients together on the kitchen counter and figured that the day had already been ruined, so what was the worst that could happen, right?

I rubbed a large bowl with olive oil, and in a separate bowl, poured in my carefully measured flour. Then I chopped up some fresh oregano and put it in the bowl with the flour, adding the sugar and the salt and the – uh oh – I had failed to purchase enough yeast. I just stood there for a minute, too mad to cry. A normal and well-adjusted woman might have taken this as a sign. She would have dumped the contents of her bowl into a compost bin and moved on with her life. She would have simply made her entrée and done without bread. Or, she would have figured that if she had to go to the store to buy yeast anyway, she may as well just chunk the whole ill-conceived plan, buy some pre-made bakery bread and call it a day.

I am neither normal nor well-adjusted. I dumped the baby in her car seat, snarled at The Carnivore and The Big Boy, who were having a swell time riding around on the lawnmower, and drove to Publix. I marched right past the bakery with nary a glance and picked up another couple of packets of yeast, because now this was personal, you know?

I also got some Ben and Jerry’s. Just in case.

I drove back home and went back to work. There was just no time to waste now. These bread-like substances all require time to rise, and then (inexplicably, I feel) even more time to rise. And then they still have to bake and, for heaven’s sake, we eat pretty dadgum early now that we have young children, so there was NO TIME TO WASTE.

So I followed the directions in the recipe. To. The. Letter. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I was substituting a different cheese in order to use up some of the scraps in the cheese drawer of our fridge, but other than that, I was seriously following instructions. While normally I feel confident enough to improvise, bread-making isn’t one of those instances.

I let the dough rise until doubled in bulk (for real: I literally measured it to be sure), and then I followed the next step, and let it rise again (for precisely the amount of time specified). And then, with much trepidation and hand-wringing, I put it into the oven to bake while I finished cooking our pasta. Twenty-five minutes later, when the bread was “golden brown on top and bottom” as dictated by the recipe, I pulled the bread out of the oven and set it aside to cool for the requisite period of time. Then, because it was killing me, I reached out and broke off a piece to take a little taste. Because I just HAD to know how it had turned out.

Take a wild guess how it turned out. Just a shot in the dark, if you will. I mean, what would you expect after a day like this, right?

But, oh, sweet saints of all that is sainted, it was a success. Something had actually gone right. We loved it. The Big Boy loved it, The Carnivore loved it, The Houseguest loved it. The heavens were smiling down on me.

And, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, this weekend I plan to try a bread recipe that involves actual kneading. Hell hath indeed frozen over.

OREGANO AND ROMANO FOCACCIA (adapted from Vegetarian Times, makes 12 squares)
  • 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, plus more for greasing bowl
  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbs finely chopped oregano, plus 1 Tbs whole leaves, divided
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbs salt
  • 1 1/4 oz rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
  1. Rub large bowl with olive oil.
  2. In a separate large bowl, combine flour, chopped oregano, sugar, salt, yeast and dried oregano.
  3. To the flour mixture, stir in 1 2/3 cup warm water, and continue to stir for 2 minutes. The original directions say that the dough will seem wet and sticky - mine did not. I agonized over that fact, but it turned out fine. Lesson: do not agonize.
  4. Transfer dough to the other bowl (the greased one), cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
  5. Line large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan (approximately 11x17 size works well, but an inch or two more or less isn't going to be a big issue) with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray.
  6. Stir cheese into dough.
  7. Transfer dough to baking sheet and spread to sides with wet fingers. Don't get terribly stressed out about this step (like I did). It is perfectly fine if the dough is a little unevenly spread and if it rips in a place or two. Matter of fact, it adds character.
  8. Brush top of dough with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, and sprinkle whole oregano leaves on top.
  9. Let rise one hour
  10. Bake 20 to 25 minutes at 450 degrees, or until top and bottom are golden brown.
  11. Cool for about 15 minutes, unmold from pan, and cut into squares.
  12. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, if desired.


Paula said...

Many years ago I decided that I wanted to conquer the scary art of breadmaking too. I ended up going to the public library and checking out a kids picture book that had a full page picture of exactly what to do for every step. It was so easy.

My oldest son worked at Great Harvest Breads and is the absolute best at making bread around here. Sometimes he and I will knead out a few loaves side by side and it's really very fun.

Best to you this weekend.


Cathi said...

Sarah, I'm wondering if you substited whole wheat flour for the white flour, and also what kind of cheese you substituted?
Cathi in Canada

Cathi said...

P.S. If you're going to be experimenting with yeast, by all means buy it in the large can or bag...those little packets are a rip-off! : )

Linda up north said...

Oh gosh... you are great! I would love to have you cook for us here in the frozen north! Don't give up on the yeast stuff... it may become one of your favorites. In fact, you will probably be doing yeast breads without recipes in no time :)

Anonymous said...

My best friend when we want fresh bread is our breadmaker!

I love it. I can set it and have bread cooking overnight so we have it first thing in the morning. Or have it programmed to cook during the day when we are out and about.

Think about getting a breadmaker!

Sarah Beam said...

Paula, a kid's cookbook sounds BRILLIANT. I have one somewhere around here. Searching...

Cathi, I substituted romano for asiago and thought the romano was delicious. I am now looking forward to using other cheeses as well. I did not use any whole wheat flour on this recipe because I was still too nervous about my bread-making abilities. Next time, I intend to use whole-wheat flour for 1/3 of the all-purpose and see how that works. We shall see.

Linda, come down here to the melting South and I'll cook for you anytime.

Mom of 3, I did think about getting a breadmaker, but, well, I just CAN'T STAND the thought of not being able to do something myself.

Cindy said...

"Ijust CAN'T STAND the thought of not being able to do something myself."

OK, stubborn girl, wonder where you got that attitude?

Love, the original stubborn one

Shari said...

Thanks, I'm having this tonight with lentil, tofu spaghetti.