Some people are born to baking, others have baking thrust upon them … I belong to the latter category. Despite good and consistent progress over the years, the hit and miss of the end result can still be cause for chagrin and dismay.
In my “What to seek in Zorba the Greek” post of 17 February, I wanted to make the point that things can, and do indeed, go very wrong in the kitchen — more often than home cooks like to admit — and that it behooves one to take the philosophical route and make the best of it. There’s a consolatory expression for this in Italian: “Non tutte le ciambelle vengono col buco” which translates as “Not all the doughnuts will come out with a hole in them”. Unless a dish ends up being irremediably salty, or horribly bitter or totally burnt in a lost-cause-throw-it-away, or not-even-the-dog-will-eat-it sort of way, there are usually means of converting the disaster into some form of redemption. This is what a beautiful catastrophe is all about!
The other day, for instance, I decided to make focaccia … what could be easier. But not just any ol’ focaccia, no, the kind that my son’s best friend’s granny from Puglia makes which is focaccia heaven. It’s crisp on the outside but thick and soft within. The only difference betweent this focaccia and the ordinary kind is the addition of mashed potatoes to the dough.
I have made it quite often and most of the time it turns out beautifully. Not so on the last occasion. It didn’t ‘prove’, i.e. the dough didn’t double in size. Upheld by my beautiful catastrophe approach, I managed to do something with it after it was baked and we were able to eat it … but I continue to be assailed by doubt. Why did it not prove? why? why? What did I do wrong? Was it a nip in the air in my kitchen? (Italian doughs, just like most Italian people, fear draughts and there is nothing like ‘una corrente d’aria’, i.e. a draught, to strike terror at any gathering of older Italians)? Was it the yeast I used? The flour? I shall go to my grave and never know. Follow me please, on the vicissitudes of a simple recipe.
1kg flour, 2 yeast sachets, 500ml warm water, teaspoon of sugar (or honey), dollop of olive oil, salt and 450g potatoes (net wet after being peeled), which are boiled and then mashed and left to cool before being added to the flour.
MAKING THE DOUGH
Add two good pinches of salt and start mixing it all with a wooden spoon … or with your bare hands if you prefer. N.B. the reason to add salt at this stage and not before is to give the dried yeast a kick-start. Sugar helps yeast to become effervescent and bubble, whereas salt is its antagonist.
KNEADING THE DOUGH
Doughs are very needy when it comes to kneading and require a lot of tender loving care. It is a pleasure to knead this dough because the potatoes have made it so soft … as soft as a baby’s bottom.
TIME WILL PROVE
The idea is to put the kneaded dough in a warm-ish corner of the home, away from draughts and to be left in peace to ‘prove’ : i.e. to double in size thanks to the work of the yeast. We are talking at least a couple of hours.
AFTER TWO HOURS
This is the same picture as the one above … The reason I didn’t take another photo of the dough after two hours had transpired is because …. there wasn’t any real change! Usually it would have swelled into twice this size. O me! O my! What was the dough thinking! What was it trying to prove by not proving!
I turned the oven on anyway (200°C) … all the effort for was going to be for nothing unless I persevered.
I oiled my hands and spread the dough out onto a well-oiled baking tray and waited for the oven to reach the right temperature. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the dough would have risen yet again and I would have had to pummel it down a bit …. not so, sniff sniff, in this case.
BAKING THE FOCACCIA
BEAUTIFUL CATASTROPHE SOLUTION FOR A FOCACCIA THAT WAS NOT FLUFFY ENOUGH
P.S. The following is what we did, a couple of months ago, with a focaccia I made that had, instead, proved the way it was supposed to … see how plumper it is! How much softer!