I’m learning more about the Jewish traditions that are part of the tapestry of life for my husband, Les, and this week I was surprised to learn that there are multiple new year occasions worth celebrating. We had the big one, Rosh Hashanah, back in the fall, which we celebrated at our house with a twist on beer can chicken, oven-roasted with a honey glaze. This week marks another “new year,” called Tu Bishvat, an environmentally themed observance that centers on trees and all the good things we enjoy because of them. If you’ve ever sat beneath a tree to escape the high-noon heat, you know how protective they can be. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a fruit-bearing tree, you know the joy of anticipation as you watch the fragrant blossoms turn into sweet, juicy edibles.
Our local temple recently held an online celebration for Tu Bishvat, and it included a fun food challenge, which yours truly could not resist. Participants were charged with creating and virtually sharing a dish made with one of the “seven species” highlighted during this occasion—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives and dates.
The title of this recipe gives away my assignment (pomegranate), and I’m happy to share it as my latest food adventure.
What I love about focaccia is that it is an easy bread to make, as long as you aren’t bothered by the sticky, loose consistency of the dough. It’s a high hydration recipe, which is a bread nerd’s way of saying it’s a really wet dough. Kneading by hand isn’t really an option, but there’s an easy technique of stretching and folding the dough, which builds strength and makes it more workable. My focaccia is sourdough-based, because that’s what I do, but you can find easy yeast-risen focaccia recipes online using commercial yeast if you prefer (try this quick and easy recipe from King Arthur Baking Company).
Sourdough Focaccia with Pomegranate and Walnuts
Adapted from Maurizio Leo’s recipe for Simple Sourdough Focaccia
Makes one 9” x 13” rectangle or two 9” round bread loaves
115g ripe sourdough starter, 100% hydration* (see notes)
460g filtered water, at room temperature
350g all-purpose flour
180g bread flour*
75g white whole wheat flour
12g mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil + extra oil for topping
About 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted at 400° F until lightly browned and fragrant
1/2 cup pomegranate arils*
Several sprigs fresh thyme, washed and leaves removed
Coarse or flaky sea salt (I used a specialty salt flavored with chocolate!)
My recipe is described with weight measurements because this is how I bake. If you prefer to measure by volume in cups, please consider following the recipe on King Arthur Baking site, where ingredients are listed by weight or volume. If you decide to delve into the world of sourdough, I highly recommend purchase of a digital kitchen scale, as measuring by weight ensures precision and consistent results. You don’t have to spend a bundle for a digital scale. Mine is adjustable for ounces, grams and milliliters, and I picked it up at Walmart for only about $20.
Sourdough starter is considered “ripe” a few hours after feeding, when it has nearly tripled in volume, then begins to fall. It will have a very bubbly surface appearance and a fruity, slightly sour aroma. My starter is 100% hydration, which means it is equal parts flour and water.
Bread flour is higher in protein than regular, all-purpose flour. The protein content gives more strength to bread dough, a benefit that is particularly important with a wet dough. I prefer the King Arthur brand, which is sold in a blue and white bag at most well-stocked supermarkets.
My focaccia is topped with pomegranate arils (which I purchased ready-to-go in the produce department), toasted walnuts and fresh thyme, but there are many other terrific combinations, so use what you like—olives, figs, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, caramelized onions are all fantastic. Try it sometime with roasted grapes and feta cheese. Yum!
Making bread can seem a little intimidating. I know, because it used to be scary for me. But as with any relationship, it takes some time and experience, trial and error to find your comfort with dough. If you want to learn to make bread, focaccia is a great place to begin. There’s no kneading, and it doesn’t punish you if you mess up your timing. I love a forgiving recipe! Have a look at the slides to get the idea, then give it a go with the instructions below. Keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. You’ve got this! 🙂
- Combine starter and water in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix together into a slurry.
- Whisk together flours and salt in a separate bowl. Add flour all at once to the starter mixture. Using the mixer’s lowest speed, beat until all flour is absorbed into the starter, which should only take 1 to 2 minutes. Increase to the next speed and beat for about 5 minutes. The dough will be wet and sticky, but gathered up around the beater blade. Remove beater blade, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes.
- Using the dough hook, and with mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the olive oil and mix until oil is fully blended into the dough, plus about 2 more minutes. The dough will seem impossibly wet and heavy, but don’t give in to the temptation to add more flour.
- Transfer the dough to a large, wide bowl and cover, resting it in a warm, draft-free spot in the kitchen for a total of 2 hours. Don’t wander off though, because you’ll need to do some stretching and folding over the course of the first couple hours.
- After 30 minutes, using wet hands, grab hold of one side of the dough, keeping it in the bowl. Pull it up and over the rest of the dough. Turn the bowl halfway around and repeat with the other side of the dough, then turn it a quarter way, and repeat with the other two sides, for a total of four stretches.
- Repeat the stretch and folds at 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and the 2-hour mark. This intermittent stretching makes a big difference in the strength and condition of the dough, so don’t skip it.
- Prepare a pan (or two) for baking by drizzling olive oil into the pan. Transfer focaccia dough to the pan(s) and spread as best you can to fill the pan. Don’t worry if it doesn’t stretch all the way at first. Cover the pan and rest dough for 30 minutes, then spread it again. Use wet hands (or spray them with oil) to avoid sticking to the dough. Give the dough about 4 hours to proof. During this time, you’ll notice quite a bit of puffiness develop—this is good!
- Near the end of proofing time, preheat oven to 450° F with a rack in the lower third of the oven.
- Using wet (or oiled) hands, gently press your fingertips straight down in a wide pattern all over the focaccia dough. The goal is to make deep dimples in the dough but leave large air pockets in between. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of additional olive oil over the surface, and sprinkle toppings evenly over the dough. It helps to arrange the toppings into the dimples so they are not sitting high on the surface of the bread. You can press them into the dough to accomplish this, but take care to only use your fingertips to keep the bubbly texture going.
- Sprinkle top of bread with flaky sea salt. Bake at 450 for about 30 minutes, turning bread at the halfway time for even baking. Use a loose foil tent if needed to prevent over-browning.
- Cool the focaccia in the pan for a few minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Enjoy it warm or cool completely before wrapping and storing.
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Who’s getting fancy in here?
Les teases me all the time about my use of “balsamic reduction,” which is nothing more than quality balsamic vinegar simmered until it’s reduced to half volume. This is not rocket science, but it sure does seem to impress people! For this focaccia, I combined about 1/2 cup pure pomegranate juice (easy to find in the produce section) with a couple tablespoons of real balsamic vinegar from Modena. I happened to have a bottle that is also infused with pomegranate, and you can find it at one of the specialty oil & vinegar shops that have popped up all over the U.S. A reduction can vary in flavor from tart to sweet, depending on the ingredients, and it adds a nice final pizzazz to even a simple dish.