Decorating homemade focaccia has been trending these days; they're prettier and a more sensual alternative to the raging fitfulness of sourdough or heftier loaves (all that prodding, pulling, feeding and resting, like facing one's anxiety). I was initially hesitant to try it out, afraid to somehow desecrate the sacred tradition of a classic bread, but after some nudging by my best friend Mia, I finally relented, partly because it was interesting to see what kind of herbs and vegetables I could shape onto a doughy landscape, but mostly because I miss her, and wish I was there with her in Madrid at this time of year, giggling at random things and finding local produce and handicraft at the mercados.
So here goes my first garden-scape, Jardin de Mercedes, with some yellow and red tomato fruits, basil leaves, dill bushes, rosemary shrubs, chive branches, curly parsley treetops and portobello stones. Technically, you can place any vegetable and herb on it, however, a general rule of thumb is that thicker crops like carrots or potatoes should be julienned, or at least, pre-boiled to soften them before putting them on the focaccia.
I have included two alternatives that can change the texture of your focaccia. You can use the use a shallow rectangular, square or oval baking dish measuring at least 9 x 13 inches if you want a flatter, denser bread. If you want thicker, more pillowy dough, use a large baking sheet and knead longer to allow the dough to rise and the glutens to stretch.
Jardin de Mercedes, before baking. The herbs can be dipped in a half-cup of lemon water so they don't blacken and crumble inside the oven when baking. The dough can help to keep the vegetables in place. Let your imagination run free. There are also quite a bit of #gardenfocaccia inspirations on Instagram that you can refer to.
After. Some of the "stems" broke off, and all of them have shrunk, the portobello mushrooms quite significantly, from the high heat. You can experiment and include edible flowers, seeds, nuts, alliums, and other herbs too.
Baking time: 25 to 30 minutes
Yields: 1 large loaf, measuring 9 x 13 inches. You can also shape the dough to an oval, circle, or 2 small rectangles
2.5 teaspoon active dry yeast
500 ml or around 2 1/4 cups warm water (not hot, just room temperature-warm)
2 teaspoons honey
625 grams or 5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sea salt
6 tablespoons olive oil (reserve more for oiling your hands when kneading)
Butter, for greasing baking pan
1. Activate yeast by whisking it with 60 ml or 1/4 cup of warm water and 2 teaspoons of honey. Allow it to foam or get creamy for at least 5 minutes, up to 10 minutes.
Active dry yeast should foam and get creamy like above. If it doesn't, change the yeast. Make sure your water isn't boiling hot, otherwise, it will kill the yeast. It likes to feed on the sweet stuff; if you don't have honey, you can use regular sugar.
2. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt, then make a well at the centre. Pour the activated yeast in, together with the remaining warm water and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Mix with rubber spatula, or use your hands, until you get a moist shaggy dough and no dry streaks remain. If there are dry parts, splash a little water. If it's too sticky, sprinkle a few more flour on the side.
3. Knead the dough by stretching the dough from the bottom outer edge, over towards the middle, turning the bowl after each pull. Do this clockwise and full circle until the dough becomes a ball. Cover and rest the dough for 10-15 minutes, and repeat the process two more times at 15-minute intervals. By the final stretch and fold, the dough should have transformed into a supple ball. Cover with a tea towel and let the dough rise at room temperature, preferably in a warm place, for 1.5 to 2 hours.
4. Meanwhile, start prepping the vegetables and herbs you will be using for the "garden." Also, start preheating the oven to 210 degrees Celsius. Butter a 9 by 13 baking pan and pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil into centre of pan. Spread the oil using a rubber spatula. If you're using a rimmed baking sheet and want to use an oval shape for the focaccia, place baking paper on top of baking sheet and pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil into the sheet, spreading the oil using a rubber spatula. To see if dough is ready, poke it with your finger. It should spring back slowly, leaving a small visible indentation. If it springs back quickly, the dough isn't ready. If this is the case, let it rest for another 30 minutes.
Use the final proof time to "forage" for herbs and veggies in your fridge to use.
5. Lightly oil your hands, then gently stretch out the dough to fill the baking pan. Or, if you're splitting the flour to two oval shapes, gently knead and roll the dough using both hands and turn it into a lumpy roll, then split it in half. Knead gently to round the edges lightly; it's ok if the shape isn't too symmetrical or one is larger than the other. You can opt to use a rolling pin during this step, but don't roll deeply, because we want to keep those air pockets in; just roll the surface and tuck in the edges once or twice.
6. Dimple focaccia using the back of your fingers to make billowy shapes all over (please cut your fingernails when you do this so that the shapes look rounder rather than claw-like :-p), pressing deeply down the bottom of pan.
If you choose to use a rounded or oval shape for your focaccia, note that the dimples won't hold because there is more breathing space for the dough to rise. Also, remember your flour is active and "awake."
Very little dimpling on the oval loaves
6. Carefully shape and arrange your vegetable/herbal landscape on the focaccia. You can use the billows to hold the vegetable shape. Once you are done with your arrangement, carefully brush remaining tablespoon of olive oil on top, lightly brushing the herbs and veggies. Sprinkle some sea salt flakes or pink Himalayan salt. Bake focaccia for about 15 minutes, then turn it to the other side and bake again for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the entire surface becomes puffed and golden brown.
The Jardin de Mercedes rectangular focaccia is at the top of the page, for further comparison. The ones above are free-flow edible art. Left is a plant press of sorts, an edible herbarium of green mizuna trees, garlic rocks and red capsicum raindrops. Right is a bold dash of red capsicum flowers dotted with garlic, on stems of rosemary and chives.
7. After baking, let focaccia cool for about 10 minutes. You can serve it with a stewed head of garlic baked in olive oil for 15 minutes (so it's jammy or can be a lumpy spread), or just use spreadable butter. You can keep the bread covered in an airtight container or wax paper for 2 days under room temperature, or a week inside the fridge. If you want to reheat days-old focaccia, you can reheat it in the oven at 150 degrees Celsius for about 8 minutes to keep it crunchy and chewy.