For a time, I worked the overnight shift in a large-scale bakery near Boulder, Colorado. I spent many nights in front of a massive oven, my face flushed by the heat, loading and unloading fragrant loaves of hot bread in the traditional way — using a heavy wooden peel.
In that solitude, the only sounds were the roar of the fans, the crackling of cooling bread and the scraping of wood on the oven floor.
The work became a single repeating motion, a dance of twisting and lifting and spinning in rhythm with the fire and steam. I enjoyed the many hours during which I was free to live in fantasies while my hands and body labored. I found that monotonous exertion meditative and wholly satisfying.
We made a few varieties of freeform focaccia at the bakery, and I took great pride in the artistry of shaping the loaves. Through countless repetitions, I learned how to flip my wrist in the exact same motion so each loaf would be identical. Nowadays, I make my bread one loaf at a time instead of by the hundreds, so there is no need or desire for uniformity, and focaccia is an ideal canvas for self-expression. Careful arrangement of vegetables and herbs can create nutritious landscapes and scenes of life or fantasy; each loaf a unique work of art to be proud of.
Focaccia dough is simple but requires some forethought and planning as there are two proofs. The whole process takes about 4 hours from start to finish.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup warm water
2 ½ teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey
½ cup olive oil
Mix the yeast and honey into the warm water. The water should be about body temperature. Let sit 10 minutes until you see a layer of bubbles on top.
Combine the flour and salt and mix well.
Pour the water mixture into the flour, add ¼ cup of the olive oil, and knead until the dough is smooth and springy. A dough hook attachment on your stand mixer works well for this if you’re not up for a workout.
Coat a large bowl and the dough ball in a little oil, cover, and let sit 1 ½ hours until the dough has doubled in size.
Thoroughly grease a 9×13 baking sheet with the remaining olive oil and spread your dough out to cover the entire pan. Cover again and let rise one hour.
While you’re waiting for the second rise, you can prepare your “paints” for the canvas. Vegetables should be sliced thinly, and harder vegetables, like potatoes, broccoli, and carrots, should be roasted in advance so they will be fully cooked in the finished product. Be sure to wash your hands frequently or wear gloves because you’ll be handling the food quite a bit.
After the hour is up, use your fingertips to create dimples all over the bread then create your design as quickly as possible. If you are attempting something ambitious, I suggest practicing the design on a cutting board first.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the bread is firm and springy.
My focaccia was created using feta and Parmesan cheese, cherry tomatoes, carrot, yellow bell pepper, asparagus, purple potatoes, beets and white button mushrooms, formed into a rainbow with a cheesy heart.
I believe a colorful world and colorful food nourishes both body and mind, and that all the unique and beautiful colors of this life should be celebrated thoughtfully and with pride.