Monday, March 3, 2008

Conquering Yeast

There are few things of which I can say I am legitimately afraid. Among those things would have to be bees (though this fear has dissipated a bit since being stung for the first and second times), a Yankees World Series championship and cooking with yeast. Especially cooking with yeast – I mean, the stuff is legitimately alive! Something about it just seems so ominous, like I’m setting myself up for incredible failure. The kind of failure that leaves you covered in flour, with shards of dough draping the cabinets, a lingering reminder of yeasted carnage. Once activated, the yeast would surely take on powers that would leave the outcome of my efforts totally out of my hand.

And so it was. I would search and search for recipes, and as soon as I saw the word “yeast” I turned away. Such a small word, so monosyllabic, yet so – ugly, the word was enough to make even the most delicious-sounding recipe totally unappealing.

Oh – yeast, you little devil you, you always manage to sneak yourself into an otherwise perfectly good recipe. How quickly cinnamon rolls go from yum to ew.

But I’ve always been a brave girl. Knowing that I would muster up the strength to tackle yeast, I purchased my first envelopes while in the grocery store for another reason. And then you sat – taunting me.

On my kitchen counter, acting all untouchable, like there was no way I was going to ever actually find it in me to rip that package open and activate you. Little did you know it was just a matter of finding the right recipe.

Because I like you guys, I’m not going to lie to you - it took a while for the right recipe to come up. But then, in my daily blog readings, it arrived. It was advertised to be one of the easiest yeast doughs I’d ever make. It was the shining beacon I was waiting for. Not one of the easiest yeast doughs I have ever made, but one of the easiest I would ever make. That implies that this was easy enough to not turn me off from yeast altogether. This was it.

And so I set off on my mission. It was my rite of passage – something every person who calls herself a cook should do. I was going to knead, and I was going to kick some ass.

Everything came together really well. The dough was easy to handle. But I don’t think I let it rise enough during the second resting period, since it puffed up a lot in the oven and a bunch of the tomatoes actually fell off the focaccia (never mind that I halved the tomatoes improperly. Oh, and I tried to put olives on it. Note: don’t do that). But that wasn’t the point of this. So what if I didn’t let it rise enough? Who cares that I over baked it? I made bread! With yeast! And I’m going to do it again!

Potato Focaccia
Makes one 8-inch focaccia
The Wednesday Chef, January 27, 2007

My focaccia didn't really rise enough during the second resting period (I think that's what happened anyway, this being my first yeast dough I could be totally wrong, please advise) and the dough puffed up in the oven. Make sure your dough is in a warm place after you set it in the cake pan to make sure it gets it rises properly. The recipe really is incredibly easy and the result is a surprisingly light, flavorful bread, even if it is a bit overcooked.

1 medium Yukon Gold potato
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon fresh yeast
A pinch of sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more for salting water
2/3 cup warm water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced crosswise
1 to 2 teaspoons dried oregano
Coarse sea salt

1. Wash the potato and place in a small saucepan along with enough water to cover the potato by an inch. Place the pot over high heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Add a handful of kosher salt to the water. Simmer until the potato is tender when pierced with a knife, around 20 minutes. Drain the potato and let it cool. Peel the potato and mash finely with a fork. Set aside.

2. Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl along with a pinch of sugar. Add the warm water in a thin stream over the yeast, using a fork to help dissolve the yeast entirely. Let the mixture stand for a few minutes.

3. Pour the flour into the yeast water and stir with a fork, then add the mashed potato and the salt. The dough will be relatively thick and shaggy. Use the fork to incorporate the potato into the flour. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and begin to knead the dough by hand. It will come together quite quickly. Knead against the bowl for a minute or so, until it is relatively smooth. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky to handle. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest, covered with a kitchen towel, in the bowl for an hour.

4. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan. Using your fingertips, gently release the puffy and risen dough from the bowl and place it in the cake pan. Gently tug and pat it out so that it fits the pan. Cover the top of the focaccia with the tomato halves, distributing them evenly. Sprinkle the oregano and a large pinch of coarse salt over the tomatoes, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and let it rest for another hour.

5. While the focaccia is resting, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the cake pan in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes before removing the focaccia from the pan.


CJ said...

Attagirl! We always knew you had it in you. If you want an AMAZING cinnabon clone recipe, let me know.

Shelby said...

Thanks CJ! Hopefully the next time will be a bit more successful.

As for the Cinnabon recipe, yes please.