DOLLOPS OF FRESH COW’S MILK CHEESE COCOONING IN BETWEEN TWO PAPER-THIN FILMS OF UNYEASTED DOUGH, AND BAKED INTO A BALLOONED AND BLISTERED PIE WITH CHEESE-FILLED UNDERGROUND CHAMBERS.
What is obsession? When is it helpful and when does it get silly?
Ever since that episode of Chef’s Table on Nancy Silverton, I’ve been dwelling, not upon, but inside this subject.
The episode, of course, celebrates a chef’s willingness to spend an inexhaustible amount of effort to close that last short climb between what is already a great dish to a conceivably perfect one. A distance too short and steep no doubt, for most to commit. But to Silverton, especially when it comes to breads, being obsessed is not a question of should or shouldn’t, but do you have what it takes? I am, however, at least not today, talking about the theoretical aspect of obsessions. Instead, I’d like to bring forth the physical one that I was sent into after watching her episode.
During that show, there was about a 30-seconds scene showcasing a flatbread-looking pie, a glowing golden-brown mirage. Captivated by that glimpse, nothing but a glimpse, without even knowing what “it” actually was, I plunged into a months-long pursuit from grasping what I saw to realizing it in my own kitchen. First, it took me a considerable amount of Googling to find out what I initially thought was a “thin double-sided pizza stuffed with mozzarella?”, to be something actually called focaccia di recco from her restaurant Chi Spacca, an extremely crispy-edged, flatbread-like creature that has nothing to do with either pizza nor mozzarella, or the typical focaccia for that matter. The dish is essentially dollops of fresh cow’s milk cheese cocooning in between two stretched, unyeasted, paper-thin films of dough, and baked into a ballooned and blistered pie with cheese-filled underground chambers. Mostly cracker-like crispy, partially soft and stretchy, all in all and bona fide gastronomic wonder unlike anything I have ever seen.
It, allegedly, took her two whole years to perfect.
Since then, I bled over bringing it into my reality. I don’t have anything else to elaborate other than the every words already written in the instructions, each summarizing hours and hours of theorizing, testings, failings, staring, and re-testings, presented to you, as shortly and concisely as I think what a normal human being has patience for. The result rewarded and justified every last drop of sweat and tears spent, and whatever difference there may be from the real deal, I confide in my belief to be a result of hardware issues (commercial oven VS. home electric oven). Except, maybe, whatever experience I cannot transcribe through words. And if so, then that my friend, is where only your obsession can take you. But it’s worth it, let me tell you. It’s all worth it.
I don't think Nancy Silverton has published this particular recipe (I could be wrong), so this is NOT her recipe, but just my interpretation of the version she serves at her restaurant, which is quite different looking from traditional focaccia di Recco.
- 1 1/2 tbsp (15 grams) bread flour
- 2 tbsp (30 grams) water
- 1/2 tsp (2 grams) instant dry yeast
- 1/4 tsp (1 grams) light brown sugar
- 1 3/4 cup (215 grams) bread flour
- 1/4 cup + 3 tbsp (105 grams) water
- 1 tsp (6 grams) fine sea salt
- 1 tsp (6 grams) extra virgin olive oil
- 3.5 oz (100 grams) Greek feta, broken into chunks
- 5.3 oz (150 grams) brie (without rind), cut into chunks
- 4.2 oz (120 grams) cream cheese
- freshly ground black pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
- PREPARE DOUGH: Un-yeasted dough tends to lack complex flavors, but this is a dish where we DO NOT want the dough to rise. Therefore, we are going to introduce the yeasted flavors into the main dough by adding a small amount of cooked yeasted dough. In a microwave-safe bowl, mix together bread flour, water, instant dry yeast and light brown sugar, cover, and let ferment for 2 hours. Then microwave the mixture on high for 25 seconds to kill the yeast (or cook over medium heat until thickened). You'll have a thick roux-like mixture afterwards.
- In a stand-mixer bowl with dough-hook, add the cooked yeasted mixture, along with bread flour, water, fine sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Mix on low until a cohesive dough comes together, then turn to high speed and knead for another 7~8 minutes, until the dough is extremely elastic and smooth. The dough should pull away cleanly from the bowl during mixing, and feels soft and tacky but NOT sticking to your hands, and should smell like uncooked bread. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for AT LEAST two hours. This is a dish where you want the dough to be extremely relaxed in order to stretch properly. You can also prepare the dough the day before, wrapped in plastic-wrap and keep inside the fridge, but let it sit at room-temperature for at least 1 hours before using.
- 45 minutes before cooking, preheat the oven on 500 F/250 C, with a pizza-stone (if available) set in the middle rack. While the oven's preheating, make the filing and shape the focaccia.
- PREPARE FILLING: About filling, a soft and young Italian cheese called Cresenza or Stracchino is traditionally used. If you can find it, great, you'll need about 1 1/4 cup of it. But most likely, like me, you won't be able to find this particular cheese, so we're going to blend our own. Some online source says to substitute strachino with mascarpone. I repeat, DO NOT use mascarpone, which will melt into a puddle of oily, milky water. I've tested SEVERAL different types of cheese, and concluded that the following yields the best result. If you're gonna deviate, know your cheese or do it at your own peril.
- In a food-processor, pulse/run the Greek feta (adds saltiness and a slight tang) until whipped and creamy. Add the brie (adds fat and a slight funk), and run again until creamy. Add the cream cheese (creates a consistently creamy body), and pulse until just incorporated. Set aside in the fridge while you roll the dough.
- SHAPE FOCACCIA: The recipe will make one large 13 1/2" (35 cm) round pie, or you can use a large rectangular sheet-pan as well. On a well-floured surface, divide the dough in half. Keep the dough floured as needed, and roll the first half portion into a thin sheet that is about the size of the pan you're using. Leave the first sheet on the counter and roll out the second half as well. This allow the first portion to REST again before stretching.
- Brush the surface of a 35 cm shallow pizza pan evenly with extra virgin olive oil (you must or it will stick)(Nancy uses a custom-made copper pan)(you can also use two smaller pizza pan, or rectangular baking-sheet). Drape the first sheet over the pan, then kind of like tightening a plastic-wrap over a plate, SLOWLY stretch the sides of the dough outwards exceeding the edges of the pan until the dough is very thin, almost opaque and film-like. You should be able to almost see through it. Tuck the edges underneath the pan to secure it. Now divide the filling into 5 large dollops and arrange them evenly on the surface. Drape the second sheet over, then stretch it out just like stretching the first sheet. Gently use the heels of your hands to contour the dough around the fillings, resulting in multiple dome-like surface (see photo). Pinch the edges of the doughs to close, then press down on the edges to cut off any excess rims. Now, tear a 3" (7 cm) opening directly on top of EACH filling, allowing the cheese to spill over a little during baking.
- Drizzle about 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil on top and gently brush it around (doesn't have to be perfect). Place the pan on top of the pizza-stone, and bake until puffed, golden browned and bubbly all over. The cooking-time will largely depend on the competence of your oven, going from 5~10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and place on top of a burner over high heat for another 20 seconds to crisp up the bottom as well.
- Generously drizzle more olive oil as evenly as you can over the focaccia. Dusk with a bit of freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.