Nancy Silverton is one of the greatest food intellectuals I’ve read. She is smart, and capable of sharing her insights. She recently took on the doughy focaccia and also provided insight into how she refines her understanding of breads. I love the passages where she observes an Italian bakery to take some notes. Reminder, this is one of the foremost experts on bread — who still takes time to learn from others. Silverton:
But the other thing I did, which anyone can do, is observe very carefully.
My first clues came when I visited a panificio, or bakery, in Conversano, in Puglia. Although I wouldn’t be completely sold on focaccia for a few more days, I liked what I had there enough to ask if I could peek in the kitchen, where I saw three things that would change my focaccia-making world.
First, I saw that the focaccia was baked in a round cake pan. Until then, I had always baked focaccia in large rectangular sheet pans. But after seeing it baked in cake pans, I realized that by working with such an unwieldy lump of dough, I had been mishandling it and thereby taking the air out of it, which makes for a dense bread. Using the smaller pans means working with dough in a more manageable size and shape — a simple thing that seems obvious in hindsight.
I also saw that the baker was cutting the dough into portions, immediately putting each in the pan in which it was going to be baked, and then leaving it there to relax for its second rise. This eliminated the step of shaping the dough in the pan, which, again, would de-gas it and make for a denser bread.
The third and maybe most significant thing I saw was that the cake pans had olive oil in them, and not just enough to coat the pan, but a layer one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. It was a substantial enough amount that the oil would be absorbed into the bottom crust, making it crunchy and flavorful.
Less than five minutes in this baker’s kitchen, without asking a single question, and my focaccia had already improved exponentially.
The LA Times is hosting four master classes with world renowned chefs. Looks to be some cool insights, although even Thomas Keller can’t quite convince me to go stock up on xanthan gum.