Making yeasted bread is one of the few acts of cooking where ingredients actually come to life. Dough expands in size and flavor when yeast feast on sugar to then release carbon dioxide gas. Seeing and smelling dough rise can be as restorative as eating the warm loaf, but only if the process feels foolproof and manageable.
And right now, very little does. There isn’t room for the uncertainty of sourdough starter, time to plan around slow rises or even the physical energy to knead dough. Or at least there wasn’t for me when I wanted a focaccia sandwich but didn’t have the bandwidth for an intensive project.
What I was really craving was mortadella and something great to eat it in — a tender focaccia like one I had at the slip of a restaurant Storico8 in Sorrento, Italy. The top was smooth and wavy with domes — not sunken with dimples — and the center was more air bubble than not.
In achieving something similar but for home kitchens and cooks of all skill levels, I worried about veering from tradition and asked my friend Gabriele Stabile if change was OK. His family is originally from Sicily, but he grew up in Rome, where he now lives. (Before that, he spent 13 years in New York City, where his photography was shown in galleries and published in magazines and books, some of which we even worked on together.)
“The Italian peninsula is small, but every few kilometers, there’s a different way to do focaccia,” he said. He explained that Italian cuisine could be adapted because “it doesn’t lose its core” which is cooking for and eating with people you love. A tray of homemade focaccia invites exactly that.
The best-known style comes from Liguria, where the tiny craters and ravines that run across the top are sometimes splintered with rosemary. After baking a version, I realized that I wanted a lighter, more delicate chew. To get it, I used a high-hydration dough, where the proportion of water to flour is so high, the mixture can’t be kneaded.
That’s the kind of focaccia the chef Chad Colby serves at his restaurant Antico Nuovo in Los Angeles. Tottering over five inches tall, the balloon-like rounds have shatteringly thin, crisp crusts glistening with oil. Having worked with high-hydration dough since the early 2000s, Mr. Colby has pushed the limits of weightlessness with his phenomenal bread, which he describes as “Ligurian-style focaccia meets olive oil doughnut.”
Over the course of five hours, Mr. Colby returns to his growing, breathing dough eight times to fold it, repeatedly pulling the sticky mass up and under and over itself. The motion resembles reeling in a fishing line and exudes the same sense of steadiness and skill.
Folding is calming if you know how to do it, but unnerving if you’re not used to handling the jiggle of sticky dough. I wanted focaccia that offers the satisfaction and assurance of homemade bread without demanding too much time, attention or even energy.
A food processor turned out to be the best substitute for folding. The structure in bread dough comes from gluten, which forms when the proteins in flour mix with water and break apart, then re-form in a strong network. The sharp, whizzing blade of a processor does that in a minute.
A high proportion of yeast in this fluid dough helps it grow quickly. After its first rise, its bubbles look like ones kids blow from gum, translucent and full of exciting tension. To keep them intact, the dough is simply poured and nudged into a pan with a wading pool of olive oil that will crisp the bottom and edges. During the second rise, the dough will keep billowing, then be held in suspension as it bakes. Right out of the oven, the hot focaccia is coated with olive oil to keep the top crackly and the middle tender, and to infuse it with richness.
It’s delightful on its own or swiped through a soup, stew or sauce. But its best life is as a vessel for mortadella. Simply cascading slices between a split square is enough. Mr. Stabile said that if he served that classic, “my friends would love me forever.” I layered in creamy ricotta, milky sweet against the savory pork, pistachios for crunch and basil and lemon zest for freshness. With those additions, it moves from aperitivo snack to full meal.
The sandwich still tastes good with bakery-bought focaccia or even ciabatta refreshed in a toaster oven, but it becomes something else on homemade bread.
“Working with dough is always therapeutic,” Mr. Colby said. “It’s living and breathing.”
When you inhale the breath of the freshly baked focaccia, whatever feels stuck in life comes unstuck, if only for that moment. Even though this dough requires very little work, simply witnessing it swell with life makes change feel possible, maybe even beautiful.