Once a week, for as long as I can remember, I make pizza. Friday night means Family Night, a tradition we began who knows when, maybe as recently as when Simon returned from his two years abroad, or maybe it was in our old apartment in that spacious, sunny kitchen when the boys were still in high school, but it seems like forever. At about 5:00 in the afternoon, I blend yeast and brown sugar, pour warm water over the two and wait until it begins to bubble and foam, something reminiscent of The Creature From the Black Lagoon as the gilled creature hovers just below the surface. Soon a heady scent emanates from the deep and a thick mousse, the color of pale caramel, or café au lait or maybe liver forms atop the murky liquid. That intoxicating odor of yeast fills the kitchen as I tip the bowl and the froth mounds delicately atop the white heap of flour and salt. Water warm like the gently lapping waves of a summer ocean is added and I stir and I knead and this is my weekly ritual.
Bread dough. At about 7:30, that bread dough will be rolled and stretched, slathered with seasoned tomato sauce, topped with grated mozzarella, slices of tangy goat cheese and salty, spicy chorizo and find its way, at about 8:00, onto the coffee table in the livingroom where we will gather to talk and laugh and eat and drink and watch something silly or scary or thrilling on television. Bread dough, always the same ritual, pizza, always pizza or my family would wonder what went wrong. Spread the red-checkered tablecloth, pop a bottle of Lambrusco or Prosecco, something Italian, something chilled and bubbly, pass around the paper napkins as the dog slips discreetly beneath the table and all is well in our world.
The following day, whatever is left of that bread dough becomes putty in my hands and I transform it into what I will. On normal days, it gets patted into a thick flat round, brushed with olive oil, dusted with coarse salt and plenty of pepper and baked simply as focaccia. Our daily bread, the staff of life, manna from heaven, we just can’t get by without it, and this weekly routine somehow takes on such relevance; in this mad, crazy world in which we live, we grasp onto these tiny apparently insignificant things, we are reassured by knowing that once in a while, on a regular basis, what we expect and wait for appears at the same place, the same time, in the same manner. And if I, once in a while and without warning, if I change anything even one tiny iota, without ceremony, they often feel betrayed or cheated. And so on and on I go, yet these are part of those little insignificant things of life that take on a heart and importance of their own and bring comfort, as I said, in their repetition.
Long ago, when the boys were little and we lived in Italy, our Friday night ritual of a special dinner together began with evenings spent at Pace on Via Washington. A break from the work/school week was created, a time to gather and decompress, to separate the demands of the outside world from the down time of the weekend; to get to know each other as a family. We would walk up the block and find our way to the same familiar table in the same familiar setting week after week. We each had our favorite dishes, repeated endlessly without fail and without tiring of the same warm, homey food as the months and years rolled by. Just the same familiar ritual, this little ceremony, was heart warming and comforting in the repetition and it quickly became a family tradition. As we moved, out of Milan to Nerviano, back to Paris and then to Nantes, the tradition continued, even as the restaurant changed, from Pace to La Locanda della Pesa, to Le Bonheur de Chine to Pinnochio; the restaurant may have changed but the ritual continued. Until events made dining at home the most attractive option. Or maybe it was simply because I had learned to make homemade bread dough and homemade pizza and gathering in front of a good film, just the four of us, a bottle of wine and pizza was the coziest, happiest choice. And so Friday afternoon inevitably finds me in the kitchen kneading and rolling out bread dough. And Saturdays invariably finds me placing warm, fresh-from-the-oven focaccia on the table at noon.
The rest of the week, I pop into our neighborhood boulangerie for a baguette or a pain de campagne or a dark boule bucheron with a hint of malty tang. You see, in a French home, in our home, bread is a staple, a standard part of every meal that cannot be forgone. And slices of bread are consumed day after day topped with thick wedges of cheese, sometimes consumed with a seasonal fruit, sometimes not. Yet, when I visit my boulangerie and I stand in line, eyes averted from the temptation of chocolate éclairs and buttery, flaky croissants and creamy flan, as I patiently await my turn and slowly approach the cash register to pay, my eyes meet hoops of bread, looped over a wooden peg dripping with crispy golden strings of cheese which have been baked into the crust, a crust through which bits of salty, smoky lardons, cured ham or bacon, peep through. And a low rumble is heard, or so I fear, a rumble of yearning, of hunger rising up from my stomach and that thing of beauty lures me, stimulating my salivary glands much like Pavlov’s bells.
And as today begins our September Twelve Loaves Challenge, which just happens to be Bread with Cheese, I have decided to take my remaining bread dough leftover from Friday night pizza, knead in smoky lardons and plenty of grated comté cheese, with more of the cheese dusted on top, and make a few focaccia to feed my craving. And my family loved them.
This month’s Twelve Loaves Challenge is Bread with Cheese. To bake along with us, Lora, Barb and I, simply create a bread, rolls, muffins, scones, even waffles or pancakes, pizza or bread sticks or anything, yeast or quick, which can be considered bread, and make sure it contains cheese, any cheese you choose.
So what are you waiting for? Get baking!
Just follow the rules, it’s as easy as pie:
1. When you post your Bread with Cheese Twelve Loaves bread on your blog, make sure that you mention the Twelve Loaves challenge in your post and mention and link back to this month’s hostesses’ blogs – Life’s a Feast, Cake Duchess and Creative Culinary - Please make sure that your Bread is inspired by the theme! This is obligatory if you would like your link to be included!
2. Please link your post to the linky tool at the bottom of Lora, Barb or Jamie’s blog. It must be a bread baked to the Twelve Loaves theme.
3. Feel free to promote the Twelve Loaves by proudly displaying the Twelve Loaves badge in your Twelve Loaves post as well as in your sidebar! It isn't mandatory but is a nice way to get the word out!
4. Have your September Bread with Cheese Twelve Loaves bread posted on your blog and linked to ours by September 30, 2012.
Read more about Twelve Loaves challenge here.
Follow @TwelveLoaves on twitter.
Chat with your hostesses on twitter: Jamie @lifesafeast, Lora @cakeduchess and Barb @CreativCulinary
I am also sharing my recipe with Susan of Wild Yeast for her weekly spot of Yeastspotting all things yeasty!
SMOKED CURED HAM & CHEESE FOCACCIA
I used about 1 kg of dough for 4 medium focaccia. I reduced the quantity of dough for, in my opinion, the ideal focaccia. You can replace classic French lardons with any cured ham or bacon; small chunks work better than strips, but either will be delicious. And use any grated cheese you like.
For the Bread Dough:
about 2 lbs (1kg) flour + more for kneading
3 3/4 tsp (20 g) dry yeast
4 1/2 tsp (21 g) salt
3 Tbs (40 g) granulated brown sugar or honey
2 ¾ cups (650 ml) warm (body temperature) water, or more or less as needed, divided
3 Tbs olive oil for the dough
1 – 2 Tbs olive oil for the baking sheet or mixing bowl
For the Cheese & Smoked Ham Focaccia:
26 ½ - 28 oz (750 – 800 g) dough or a bit more, about half the above recipe
7 oz (200 g) smoked cured ham, bacon or lardons in small chunks
3 ½ - 4 (100 – 120 g) grated comté or gruyère cheese or other Swiss-style cheese
(You can find step-by-step images here.)
In a small bowl, place the brown sugar or honey and the dry yeast. Pour on 1 1/3 cups (300 ml) warm water. (I test the temperature by touch, allowing the tap water to run over the back of my hand and it should be just warm. Remember, if the water is too cool, the yeast won't activate, but water too hot will kill the yeast.) Let this sit for 15 to 20 minutes for active dry yeast and 20 to 30 minutes for traditional dry yeast until the yeast has activated and is frothy with a thick foam on top of the liquid.
Measure the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl or on your work surface. When the yeast is activated, make a well in the center of the flour, pour in the yeasty water, scraping out all the yeast and sugar sticking to the sides or left in the bottom. Add the olive oil and about half of the remaining 350 ml warm water. With a wooden spoon or your hands, mix slowly and carefully, gradually getting all the flour wet. Add the rest of the water little by little onto the pockets of dry flour, until all the flour is moistened; all or almost all of the water should be incorporated. An important thing to remember : if in doubt, it is safer to add more water than not enough to the flour/salt, have a dough that is too sticky and wet than too dry ; by adding more flour as you knead, you will achieve the perfect texture and consistency. If you begin kneading a dough that is too dry, it is almost impossible to add more moisture to the dough.
Using all of your force, pushing, folding back onto itself then pushing with your knuckles, over and over again, just work the dough for 6 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle flour on the work surface and onto the dough whenever it feels sticky, even slightly sticky. By the end of 6 to 8 minutes, you should have a beautiful, smooth, elastic dough.
Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil onto the center of a large oven tray or clean, large mixing bowl. Turn the ball of dough around in the oil, smearing it so the dough is well oiled all over. Place the ball in the center of the now oiled tray or bowl and cover well but loosely with plastic wrap, pulling the plastic over the edges of the tray to allow room for the dough to expand and double in size and still stay completely covered with plastic. Allow the dough to double in size, about an hour or more.
Prepare the Cheese & Smoked Ham Focaccia:
Cube the bacon, smoked cured ham or lardons if not already in cubes and brown in an ungreased skillet until cooked and crispy. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool.
For about 26 ½ - 28 oz (750 – 800 g) dough or up to half the above recipe, simply roll out the piece of dough flat, sprinkle with about 3 oz (85 g) of the grated cheese and spread the cooked ham evenly over the surface. Roll up the dough and knead briefly, just until the cheese and lardons are evenly distributed within the dough. Divide into four pieces, shape each into a round, place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet or two and press or roll into a disc, about 1-inch (2 cm) thick. The focaccia can be rolled and baked thinner or thicker, depending upon how you like it. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest for about 20 to 30 minutes. The focaccia should puff up slightly.
Discard the plastic wrap. Flatten each disc slightly, depending upon how thick you want the focaccia. Brush the top of each focaccia with olive oil and sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese and a dusting of freshly grated black pepper; again, you can top with as much or as little of the grated cheese as you like.
Bake the focaccia in the preheated oven for 15 or 20 minutes or until the bread is puffed and golden on top and underneath. Remove from the oven and enjoy!