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Notes from the Test Kitchen: Perfecting focaccia

May 28, 2011 |  6:00 am

Focacciatimfrench

When Food editor Russ Parsons walked into the Test Kitchen with the latest Master Class recipe from Nancy Silverton, I could hardly contain my excitement. Focaccia. We were going to make focaccia, Nancy Silverton-style. I don't know if you've seen the focaccia displays on the cake stands behind the counter at Mozza2Go, but they're a sight to behold. Catch a whiff of one, and it's downright intoxicating. And now Silverton was sharing her recipe.

Focaccia1 But as with all recipes, there were a few bumps in the road to perfection. For example, the original recipe called for ".0003 ounces cake yeast or .00015 ounces dry yeast." Our scales in the Kitchen go down to a tenth of an ounce, but we don't have anything more specific, nor might readers at home. I called Nancy, secretly hoping the decimal point might be off by a few numbers and to make sure there wasn't an alternative (often, we get recipes in the Kitchen that are scaled down from large commercial volumes, and we have to adapt). But Nancy assured me everything was correct.

So,with the singular dedication of someone who might use a razor blade on a mirror, I set about measuring .00015 of an ounce of active dry yeast. I measured 1 gram (about 1/28 of an ounce) on our digital scale, then halved it repeatedly on a large sheet of paper using a credit card until I got close to the measurement. It came to something like 50 granules of yeast.

Focaccia4 That first batch of focaccia came out ok, but I was a little worried. It was pretty brown, and the structure looked a little... different. I snapped some pictures on my phone and emailed them off for Nancy to check. Sure enough, she said our dough had overproofed for lack of toppings, and our texture was nowhere near what it was supposed to be. We also tweaked the starter, increasing the amount of yeast to a measurable amount. I took several starters home to watch them activate, checking to see how quickly they bubbled during the night (yes, that is a little odd, but it's what you do when you work in a test kitchen).

Focaccia3 Back in the Kitchen, we prepped another couple batches of focaccia, with toppings, and I read an early draft of Nancy's story -- suddenly it all made sense. I sent off another batch of photos of the focaccia, but while the batches were dramatically improved, they were still not close to Nancy's.

Early the next week, I hung out at Mozza one morning to watch the kitchen make focaccia, taking detailed notes and snapping a bunch of photos (my phone is full of food photos like other people's might be full of kids or pets). After making another test batch, I took samples back to Mozza that evening for Nancy to inspect. She cut a slice of ours and compared it to one of the focaccia on the cake stands. Bread baking is a science, and an experienced baker can "read" a loaf like a book by examining its structure, color and crust. A professional can tell if you overproofed the dough or didn't use enough water, how you kneaded and whether the oven temperature was right.

Focaccia2 Nancy was very sweet and complimentary. "I'd be happy if I made this at home, right?" she said as she peered at our sample. But it wasn't perfect; our structure was a little tight. We talked ratios and went over how the dough progressed after mixing and proofing.

She was also very curious about the bread flour we used, thinking that might be key. She suggested we try the focaccia with her flour. "Can readers find this flour at a store?" I asked. "No," she said. I brought some of her flour back with me to the Test Kitchen, anyway, but we also discussed how to test with other flours, so the focaccia would work regardless of the brand of bread flour a reader uses (protein content can vary dramatically by brand). We decided to slightly decrease the amount of bread flour in the recipe (from 16.45 ounces to 15 -- about 1/3 cup), with extra added during the mixing process, if needed, to account for those differences.

Over the next few days, I made 12 batches of focaccia focaccia in the Test Kitchen, and I brought samples by Mozza for Nancy to check every evening (thankfully, the restaurant is on my way home). I continued to tweak the method based on her suggestions, until we finally had a batch that worked to both of our satisfaction.

That last evening at Mozza, I asked Nancy if I could leave my samples with her, as I didn't want to take them home (I'd had eaten so much focaccia the last few days). "You're tired of it, aren't you!" she joked, commiserating with all of our tests, and talking about how often she tested each recipe for her La Brea Bakery cookbooks to make sure the recipes were right.

We shot our final batch of focaccia last Thursday in our photo studio just as Nancy was shooting her recipe demonstration video at the restaurant.

Admittedly, I haven't made focaccia since (it will be a little while -- we made over 40 focaccias since we started testing the recipe), but I have to say that when I pass by the restaurant, I'm awfully tempted to stop in and get a slice off one of those cake stands. For work-related reasons, of course.

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-- Noelle Carter

Photos: Top photo-- Tim French/Los Angeles Times, other photos-- Noelle Carter.

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