Focaccia Results, and Happy Birthday Rocco

I am pleased to report that 4-H and Lidia did not let me down in yesterday’s focaccia attempt, even though I misspelled Lidia’s name. Neither did my Cuisinart–a valuable ally who was not present during my youthful struggles with yeast breads, nor during later misguided attempts to make bread without “cheating” (i.e., doing things in an easier and more efficient way).

I hope that Rocco, whose actualy birthday is today and in whose honor this bread was made, will be pleased with these results.

Here is the recipe, modified slightly from Lidia’s Italy–a beautifully illustrated collection of Italian recipes that I highly recommend.

Onion-Tomato Focaccia

Makes 1 large round; serves 10 or more as a side dish


2 packets active dry yeast (I used outdated rapid rise)
2 1/4 cups warm water or as needed
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil for bread bowl


1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (about 2 c.)
2 c. tomatoes, diced (original calls for cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 tsp. coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 c. warm water and let it sit for several minutes, until it begins to bubble. Put flour and salt in food-processing bowl. Stir together yeast and 2 c. lukewarm water in spouted measuring cup. With processor running continuously, blend flour and salt briefly, then pour in all the liquid through the feed tube and process for about 30 seconds. A soft, moist dough should gather on the blade, with some sticking to the sides of the bowl. Add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, if dough is too sticky and has not come off sides at all; add more water in small amounts if it’s too dry.

[NOTE: I misread the recipe and added the yeast directly into the 2 c. lukewarm water, then poured into the food processor before it bubbled. But luckily focaccia is a forgiving dough.]

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I used a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel), scraping bowl and blade clean. Knead by hand for a minutes, using as little flour as possible, until dough forms a smooth round, still soft and a bit sticky. Coat a big bowl with olive oil, drop in dough, and turn to oil it all over. Seal bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 20 – 30 minutes (1 hour if using regular yeast).

After the dough has risen, it should look like this:

While dough is rising, toss together onions, tomatoes, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. salt in small bowl and let them marinate.

Coat a large shallow baking dish or pan, bottom and sides, with 2 tbsp. or more olive oil. Deflate risen dough and lay it in the pan. Gently press and stretch it into an evenly flat round (or square, as you see below) that fills the pan. If dough is resistant, let it relax a few minutes.

Lift the marinated tomato and onion out of the bowl with a slotted spoon, draining off juices. (Lidia failed to mention you are to reserve these, so I ate them.) Scatter vegetables all over focaccia. Lightly press in with your fingertips to create dimples in the soft dough. Drizzle the marinating oil that you did not eat over the top, or if you did eat it, olive oil works quite well. It will look like this:

Let the focaccia rise, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Set a baking stone, if you have one, on center rack in oven and heat to 425. Just before baking, gently dimple the dough again with your fingertips, and sprinkle another 1/2 tsp. coarse salt all over.

Puzzle over why Lidia ever expected you to slide this enormous square thing onto your round, medium-sized pizza stone, which perhaps is different from a baking stone but you aren’t sure. Decide that Lidia probably left out a sentence or made a typo, and anyway you have only 5 hours till your dinner party and can’t afford the disaster that will surely occur if a transfer is attempted. Set pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and cross fingers. Bake focaccia for 20 minutes, rotate pan back to front for even cooking, and bake 10 – 15 minutes (or more) until bread is golden brown and onions and tomatoes are nicely carmelized.

Remove from pan and top with remaining olive oil and crumbled oregano. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Give thanks for wonderful bread and friends. Wonder if Martha White would let you enter this in the next 4-H breadbaking contest.

1981 Breadbaking Champion Attempts Focaccia

In the spring of 1981, I was crowned the Tennessee 4-H District III breadbaking champion and traveled to Knoxville for the state competition that summer. Several key facts about the event should be noted.

a) The contest coincided with Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding–a great disappointment to a 16-year-old who had been waiting to see the dress for months.

b) When I did see the dress, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created, and I could not imagine that those puffy sleeves would ever, ever look dated.

c) Contestants in the breadbaking competition were judged on 1) a project book, which recorded all breadbaking activities over the course of your 4-H career; 2) an oral exam by state extension agents and representatives of the Martha White Flour company (sponsor of the event); and 3) no baking whatsoever.

d) I did not win.

e) Had we baked, I certainly would not have won.

In sum, I was a breadbaking champion who was more interested in the intricacies of Princess Di’s dress than in the chemical interactions that were making my loaves so tough.

Despite this, on an impulse that can only be called “stupidity,” I volunteered to make bread for a dinner party that starts in about 7 hours. I was intrigued because one of the guests is allergic to all oils except olive, does not eat dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a host of other things, and wrote the book I just finished. And so I am attempting Lydia Bastianich’s recipe for onion-tomato focaccia from Lydia’s Italy. Results will be posted.

I bake this in honor of my friend Rocco Marinaccio, who is having his 50th birthday bash in the Berkshires today and who gave us Lydia’s Italy for our wedding. Happy birthday, honey, and I’m sorry I can’t be there!

Oh Lard II

I am too tired from Easter “vacation” to write much. After working all day Friday around the house, trying to get our lives in something resembling order, Fred and I went to Elberton, Georgia on Saturday, where he preached on Sunday. I am pooped.

But feeling energetic on Friday morning, I used the lard to make biscuits. Results were not quite as satisfactory as with the soup. The biscuits were tender but too salty. I used Mrs. Dull’s recipe, which calls for “shortening.” Below is a modified version that should work better next time:

Sift together:
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder

Cut in:
4 tbsp. lard

Stir in until just mixed:
1 cup buttermilk

Knead on well-floured surface until just mixed and smooth. Roll or spread out to 1/2″ thick. Cut with biscuit cutter or glass into size you like. Bake at 450 for 10 minutes or until brown.

"Italian Grits" Revisited

Okay, so I seem to be a tiny bit . . . wrong . . . about polenta being a form of Italian grits.

I blame my grandparents. They used ground-up cornmeal for the dish they called grits, but apparently grits are made from ground hominy. Polenta is made from cornmeal mush, and it’s stirred a LOT longer–30 minutes, by hand. has a good article on the subject with some interesting recipes as well. While grits are generally the consistency of oatmeal, polenta is usually much firmer.

Both foods have the distinction of causing pellagra (niacin deficiency) if you try to survive on them exclusively, as poor people in northern Italy and the southern US used to do. So that’s one thing they DO have in common.

Paul, I hope this helps answer your question.

A Quickie

My first effort at polenta (Italian grits–my apologies to my Italian friends) was last night. Can’t believe I’ve never made it before, but here’s the recipe.

Shrimp and Tomato Polenta

Saute in 2 – 3 tsp. olive oil:

1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped

Add and saute on low heat for a minute or so:

1 finely chopped cherry pepper or other hot pepper to taste. (Tip: Do NOT try eating cherry pepper seeds on their own, or if you do, do not allow seeds to touch your lips. If you do, add an additional 15-20 minutes to your cooking time to allow you to run water over your mouth, drink buttermilk, and try various other remedies to stop the pain.)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced

Add salt, pepper, and chopped fresh oregano and basil, neither of which I had but which would have been good. I had to settled for dried, tasteless parsley that I should just throw out.

Add 1/4 – 1/2 c heavy cream or half and half.

Add pureed tomatoes or sauce. Add water until sauce is thinned to your liking.

Add 1 lb. cooked shrimp. Serve over hot polenta, cooked until just soft.

Will try to add more info on polenta later–just wanted to get the recipe written!

The Cornbread Redemption

Finally: Blue cornbread that WORKED!!

The recipe came to me from Southern Living via Fred’s Uncle Earl, who took us out to dinner Saturday at the Victoria House in Conyers. All I did was swap blue cornmeal for the yellow.

Preheat oven to 425.

Whisk together:
2 c self-rising cornmeal, or 2 c. cornmeal plus 1 1/2 tbsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tbsp. sugar (I did not believe Earl when he said this did not make the cornbread too sweet, but I was wrong. You can add less or more to taste.)

When oven is preheated, melt in cast iron skillet for 5 minutes or until melted:
1 stick butter

Add one egg to cornmeal mix and stir until just blended.

Add to cornmeal mix and stir until moistened:
2 c. buttermilk

Remove skillet from oven and pour melted butter into batter. Pour batter back into skillet. Bake 25 minutes or until brown.

Blue Plate Extravaganza

If you’re a professional chef, coming up with an entire dinner of blue food in three hours is probably a snap. If you’re not, here’s where you need to start:

Blueberry Martini

1 heaping T pureed fresh or frozen wild blueberries
1 ½ – 2 t fresh squeezed (as if I have to say it) lemon juice
1 very large jigger gin (Bombay Sapphire, of course)
¼ very large jigger triple sec
Pour over ice into martini shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass.

A normal person probably would have been happy with just a Blue Velvet Cake recipe for the Amateur Gourmet’s Blue Food Contest. But, as was established during the creation of Sunday’s lurid Greenish-Purple Velvet Cake, that would not be me.

Instead, discovering the contest only on Sunday and having to travel all day Monday, I set out to make ENTIRE DINNER of blue food on Tuesday. After work, starting at 7. With no food coloring involved.

The menu was in my head: blue cornbread, buffalo steak salad with bleu cheese, and, of course, the Blue Velvet Cake. Ingredients were purchased. (The Blueberry Martini was merely a last-minute, desperate effort that resulted from a lack of wine.) All I had to do was invent–and, for once, write down–the recipes.

For the blue cornbread, I turned to Southern Cornbread in Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe. Why I turned to a cookbook written by Yankees to make Southern cornbread I don’t know. But at least it was blue:

That is, until you cooked it:

It WAS blue on the inside, but I was too ashamed of how flat it was to take a picture. (I hope my mother doesn’t read this. Also, please don’t tell her I really like that sugary Yankee cornbread.)

Below is the recipe for blue cornbread that I WOULD make if I had time and didn’t have a full-time job. Please feel free to try it and let me know if it works.

Blue Cornbread

Preheat oven to 450. Chop 1 medium onion and saute in about 1/4 c. melted bacon fat in iron skillet.

Mix together:
1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal
1/2 c flour
2 tsps. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsps. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 finely chopped dried chipotle or poblano pepper

Stir in 2 lightly beaten eggs. Add 1 – 1 1/2 cups buttermilk. Add sauteed onions. Don’t overmix–stir just until all ingredients are moistened. Pour mix back into iron skillet and bake for 25-30 minutes until brown.

And now I have to go to work. More later.