I come from what some might call a foodie family, and yet I didn’t always feel the pull of the kitchen as strongly as I do now. My grandfather was a chef, and so was one of my cousins, for a time. My father fancied himself a gourmand who didn’t cook so much as he experimented with food. He would watch Julia Child or Martin Yan on TV and then, inspired, would dance around the kitchen, whistling to himself and throwing “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” into the pan. The kitchen was the place where the frustrated artist within him, the one who had been stifled by the demands of a 9 to 5 job and a growing family, could shine. His experiments weren’t always successful, but when they were, they were fantastic.
My mother, on the other hand viewed cooking as an obligation, by and large, and it showed. Aside from the yearly, ridiculously expansive array of Christmas candies she poured her heart into producing, her food was often memorable for all the wrong reasons. Topping the list was the fact that she burned everything, and I mean everything. She could burn soup. (I wish I were kidding.) When I was in elementary school, our cat ran away and was missing for several days, so Mom decided to console us kids by making cookies. When the smoke detector started screaming, as it inevitably did, the cat came tearing back into the house. He had become so used to the sound of the alarm that its blaring had become a kind of homing beacon for him.
Presented with these two contrasting influences, I tended to view cooking as a form of entertainment, a special occasion activity, and when I got out on my own, I steered clear of what I perceived to be the drudgery of every day meal preparation. As such, my efforts in the kitchen were often relegated to weekend brunch offerings, the occasional slow cook dish, and ambitious desserts to be taken to dinner parties. I found that even though I considered myself someone who “loved to cook,” I knew embarrassingly little about it. I would watch shows like “Jacques Pepin’s Kitchen” and “The Galloping Gourmet”, my mouth watering and my curiosity piqued, and yet my own regular repertoire of meals became dominated by items I could slap together quickly, when I wasn’t avoiding the problem entirely by eating out.
Six years ago or so, that all changed, thanks in large part to the fact that I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself without a job. I had worked as a contractor for years, and had always had steady employment, but in the face of a tanking economy, the company I’d spent the last several years with could no longer afford to keep me. Worse, I had been forced to move to a new, more expensive apartment only weeks earlier, which had drained my savings. I was broke and scared and hungry. Left with very few resources, what I *did* have was a dollar store nearby that offered decent produce, access to myriad cooking lessons via the internet, and an abundance of time in which to learn.
One of the chefs I discovered during that period was Rosemary Shrager. Chef Shrager and her cooking advice came to my attention initially through a British reality program called “Ladette to Lady,” and later through another called “Rosemary Shrager’s School for Cooks.” In both programs, Chef Shrager, with her boisterous, no-holds-barred personality and trademark wheezing giggle, served as teacher, mentor, and cheerleader for amateur cooks at varying skill levels, and as they learned, so did I.
I picked up basics like how to properly cut an onion, how to keep your cutting board from sliding around the counter top, and the importance of reading a recipe thoroughly *before* beginning to cook, but I also learned more sophisticated techniques like how to correctly knead bread dough, how to stuff and steam a chicken breast, and how to successfully make a custard base for ice cream. It wasn’t long before I found myself thinking, “I’ll bet *I* could do that!” I was off and running kitchen-wise, putting her advice and techniques to use, seeking out additional culinary knowledge anywhere I could find it, and discovering ways to take my meager grocery budget and not only stretch it, but convert it into truly tasty, healthy meals that were a far cry from the slapdash, stuff-whatever-in-my-face survival food I’d been “living” on previously.
Learning to cook has quite literally changed my life. It not only allowed me to make more affordable and better informed decisions about what foods I put into my body; it also fostered a curiosity about where that food comes from, which led me to start growing my own vegetables and herbs and to take a greater interest in food-related issues both locally and globally. My culinary studies gradually reshaped even my dreams and my career goals and led me to seek out a path that would satisfy my love of entertaining, my hunger for food knowledge, and my desire to help other people feed themselves better, all at the same time.
Given the profound effect that food has had on my life and the person I am today, it’s no wonder I harbor great affection for Rosemary Shrager and her unwitting role in my kitchen education. Naturally, when I heard she had a new cookbook coming out, “Absolutely Foolproof Classic Home Cooking,” I *had* to have it. When it arrived in the mail, I squealed (yes, out loud), ripped open the packaging, and lovingly read the inside cover. Then I put it on the shelf with the rest of the recipe books and never opened it again.
That is, until now. I take part in a once-a-month themed dinner party, and this month’s theme was “Italian,” so I decided to use Rosemary’s scrumptious focaccia recipe.Note: I wrote to the publisher to get permission to reprint this recipe, but as I haven’t heard back, I’m having to be a bit creative in the way I share it in order to remain within the bounds of “Fair Use”. Please bear with me.
- 1 ¼ pounds white bread flour
- .5 oz fresh yeast (or a .25-ounch package of active dry yeast)
- 1 2/3 cups water, at room temperature
- .35 Ounce fine sea salt
- About 1/3 cup olive oil
(Makes 2 loaves)
A quick note about focaccia dough that a lot of people don’t realize when they first work with it: it needs to be quite wet, far more so than your typical bread dough. We’re talking stick-to-your-hand-and-glue-your-fingers-together wet. When I first I attempted the stuff a few years ago, I made the noob of mistake of adding extra flour to compensate for the off-putting texture, and my loaves came out of the oven like chewy bricks.
Fortunately, another beloved TV cook from the UK came to my culinary rescue.
Paul Hollywood, one of the judges on “The Great British Bake Off” (and its sister show, “The American Baking Competition”), explained the need for extra moisture during a focaccia challenge. A wetter dough creates more steam, and bigger bubbles, for a lighter bread with a more open crumb structure, as well as a crispier crust.
He also relayed a nifty trick I’d not heard of before, which was oiling the worktop before kneading the dough rather that flouring it, as recipes often call for. As he rightly pointed out, a bit of olive oil will keep the dough from sticking but doesn’t add extra flour to the mixture, so it can stay nice and wet.
With this in mind, I did just that.
Ta da! Don’t they look gorgeous? And yes, they tasted just as wonderful as they looked. They were springy with a nice crunch, and they perfectly absorbed the herbed olive oil I made to go with. I wish I’d thought to get a snap of what they looked like inside to counter that awful picture of my attempt in 2006!
One friend at the dinner took a bite and said, “I didn’t know it was possible for real people to make focaccia!” Not only is it possible, folks, but these puppies came out about as perfectly as this home cook could have hoped. Without a doubt, I believe I have found the only focaccia recipe I will ever need, and I would make this bread again in a heartbeat, using Rosemary Shrager’s recipe (with Paul Hollywood’s advice firmly in mind). Or I would if I didn’t know from experience just how much olive oil is in it! (The answer, for those who don’t feel like revisiting the ingredients list, is gobs and gobs, not including any additional olive oil to dip it in.) It’s good for the occasional treat, but a girl’s gotta watch her waistline!