The easiest homemade bread for an irresistible sandwich
By Genevieve Ko
Making yeasted bread is one of the few acts of cooking where ingredients actually come to life. Dough expands in size and flavor when yeast feast on sugar to then release carbon dioxide gas. Seeing and smelling dough rise can be as restorative as eating the warm loaf, but only if the process feels foolproof and manageable.
And right now, very little does. There isn’t room for the uncertainty of sourdough starter, time to plan around slow rises or even the physical energy to knead dough. Or at least there wasn’t for me when I wanted a focaccia sandwich but didn’t have the bandwidth for an intensive project.
What I was really craving was mortadella and something great to eat it in — a tender focaccia like one I had at the slip of a restaurant Storico8 in Sorrento, Italy. The top was smooth and wavy with domes — not sunken with dimples — and the center was more air bubble than not.
In achieving something similar but for home kitchens and cooks of all skill levels, I worried about veering from tradition and asked my friend Gabriele Stabile if change was OK. His family is originally from Sicily, but he grew up in Rome, where he now lives. (Before that, he spent 13 years in New York City, where his photography was shown in galleries and published in magazines and books, some of which we even worked on together.)
“The Italian peninsula is small, but every few kilometers, there’s a different way to do focaccia,” he said. He explained that Italian cuisine could be adapted because “it doesn’t lose its core” which is cooking for and eating with people you love. A tray of homemade focaccia invites exactly that.
The best-known style comes from Liguria, where the tiny craters and ravines that run across the top are sometimes splintered with rosemary. After baking a version, I realized that I wanted a lighter, more delicate chew. To get it, I used a high-hydration dough, where the proportion of water to flour is so high, the mixture can’t be kneaded.
That’s the kind of focaccia the chef Chad Colby serves at his restaurant Antico Nuovo in Los Angeles. Tottering over five inches tall, the balloon-like rounds have shatteringly thin, crisp crusts glistening with oil. Having worked with high-hydration dough since the early 2000s, Colby has pushed the limits of weightlessness with his phenomenal bread, which he describes as “Ligurian-style focaccia meets olive oil doughnut.”
Over the course of five hours, Colby returns to his growing, breathing dough eight times to fold it, repeatedly pulling the sticky mass up and under and over itself. The motion resembles reeling in a fishing line and exudes the same sense of steadiness and skill.
Folding is calming if you know how to do it, but unnerving if you’re not used to handling the jiggle of sticky dough. I wanted focaccia that offers the satisfaction and assurance of homemade bread without demanding too much time, attention or even energy.
A food processor turned out to be the best substitute for folding. The structure in bread dough comes from gluten, which forms when the proteins in flour mix with water and break apart, then re-form in a strong network. The sharp, whizzing blade of a processor does that in a minute.
A high proportion of yeast in this fluid dough helps it grow quickly. After its first rise, its bubbles look like ones kids blow from gum, translucent and full of exciting tension. To keep them intact, the dough is simply poured and nudged into a pan with a wading pool of olive oil that will crisp the bottom and edges. During the second rise, the dough will keep billowing, then be held in suspension as it bakes. Right out of the oven, the hot focaccia is coated with olive oil to keep the top crackly and the middle tender, and to infuse it with richness.
It’s delightful on its own or swiped through a soup, stew or sauce. But its best life is as a vessel for mortadella. Simply cascading slices between a split square is enough. Stabile said if he served that classic, “my friends would love me forever.” I layered in creamy ricotta, milky sweet against the savory pork, pistachios for crunch and basil and lemon zest for freshness. With those additions, it moves from aperitivo snack to full meal.
The sandwich still tastes good with bakery-bought focaccia or even ciabatta refreshed in a toaster oven, but it becomes something else on homemade bread.
“Working with dough is always therapeutic,” Colby said. “It’s living and breathing.”
When you inhale the breath of the freshly baked focaccia, whatever feels stuck in life comes unstuck, if only for that moment. Even though this dough requires very little work, simply witnessing it swell with life makes change feel possible, maybe even beautiful.
Fast and easy focaccia
This is possibly the fastest start-to-finish yeasted bread you can make. Fluffy and rich with olive oil, this tender focaccia is great on its own or swiped through soups, stews and sauces, and it’s especially wonderful with delicate sandwich fillings, such as mortadella and ricotta. Because it’s soft on the inside, a touch crackly on top and crisp on the bottom, it doesn’t squish or squeeze out fillings when you bite into it. Instead, it cradles them like bubble wrap, keeping the ribboned meat in distinct layers. This bread gets its airiness from a very wet dough, which bubbles in the rising and in the oven. Bread flour bakes into a slightly sturdier focaccia, but all-purpose flour works as well. The dough comes together in a minute in a food processor, but if you don’t have that machine, you can mix the dough in a mixer or by hand. The bread will end up a little less chewy, but is still delicious. It’s amazing the day it’s made, but still good the next day too. Stale leftovers can be toasted into croutons.
Yield: 1 (9-by-13-inch) focaccia
Total time: 2 hours 10 minutes
1 teaspoon (5 grams) sugar
1 1/2 cups (354 grams) lukewarm water
1 envelope (7 grams) active dry yeast (2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons (39 grams) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 3/4 cup (390 grams) bread flour (or 3 cups/390 grams all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoons (15 grams) coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
1. In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, stir the sugar into the water until it dissolves, then stir in the yeast. Let stand until foamy, 5-10 minutes. Pour in the oil.
2. Combine the flour and salt in a food processor. With the machine running, add the yeast mixture through the feed tube. Process until the dough forms a sticky mass that clings to the sides of the bowl, scraping the bowl down once, about 1 minute. (Alternatively, beat in an electric stand mixer with the paddle attachment or stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until stretchy, about 5 minutes.) The dough will be very wet and not form a ball.
3. Grease a large bowl with olive oil and scrape the dough into it. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 1 hour (see Tip).
4. Very generously coat a quarter-sheet pan or 9-by-13-inch cake pan with olive oil. Scrape the dough into it and gently nudge and press it into an even layer, oiling your fingers if the dough sticks. Lightly sprinkle with salt. Cover with the clean kitchen towel and let rise until it’s 1/2-inch tall, 20-30 minutes (see Tip). (If using a sheet pan, pull the towel tight so it doesn’t rest on the dough.)
5. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 with a rack in the lower third.
6. Uncover the dough and bake until golden brown on top, 20-25 minutes. When you press the top of the dough it should feel springy. As soon as the bread comes out, brush the top generously with olive oil, then lightly sprinkle with salt. Cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes. Use a knife to cut around the edges of the bread to remove it from the pan.
TIP: To help dough rise quickly, create a makeshift proofing box: Put the covered dough in an oven or microwave (make sure it’s not on) along with a mug of boiling water to make the air steamy and warm.
Mortadella sandwich with ricotta and pistachio pesto
Mortadella may just be the best sandwich meat there is. Run through with translucent spots of pork fat and sometimes slivers of pistachio, it’s tender yet springy when sliced deli-thin. Here, it’s layered with milky sweet ricotta to balance its savoriness, while pistachios add crunch and basil freshness. Homemade focaccia turns this simple sandwich into a life-affirming meal, but reheated bakery-bought squares have a similar effect. If your deli counter sells mortadella, ask for it very thinly sliced.
Yield: 6 sandwiches
Total time: 20 minutes
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup shelled pistachios
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
6 (4 1/2-inch) squares focaccia
1 1/4 pounds very thinly sliced mortadella
3/4 cup fresh ricotta
1. Finely chop the basil and pistachios together in a food processor or with a sharp knife. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
2. If the focaccia isn’t freshly baked, toast lightly to warm but not crisp. Split each square in half through the fluffy middles.
3. Drape the mortadella over the bottom halves in wavy layered ribbons. Lightly spread the ricotta over the mortadella, then scatter over the pistachio pesto. Zest the lemon directly on top, then sandwich with the focaccia tops. Serve immediately.