Focaccia Recipe: Baker Alex Carlson’s Salute To The Loaf That Started It All
In the back of Red Guitar Bread, sits a 20,000-pound oven that is the apple of baker Alex Carlson’s eye. Get close enough to the mantle—Carlson is more than happy to show it off—and you’ll see the limestone is inlaid with “honest-to-god fossils,” and the exterior is clear of any stray wisps of smoke.
This duo has been through numerous loaves, and now pizzas together, but Carlson’s love of baking started long before he had the plans laid out for the oven or Red Guitar. While attending culinary school in Chicago, one of the first loaves he attempted to make in his “abusively tiny” apartment—“I could get the bread out of the oven from my bed.”—was a 90-minute focaccia. The impressive aroma of this loaf started Carlson down a winding path to owning his own operation.
Though he’s cycled through a few careers—including a stint as a motorcycle mechanic—Carlson is back in his kitchen. There, he pays respect to the creatures doing the heavy-lifting when it comes to bread: microbes. In honor of the good work they do, Carlson likes to keep Red Guitar’s recipes simple. In fact, his main philosophy is that bread is simply an expression of time, grain and heat.
2 pounds, 4 ounces all-purpose our 2 pounds of hot water
.5 ounces active dry yeast
.75 ounces ne sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 pound starter, optional
3 tablespoons rosemary, roughly chopped Flake, kosher or coarse sea salt for topping
Yield : approx. 1/2 sheet pan
1/ Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees F (or 550 degrees F if possible).
2a/ In a large bowl, add water and dissolve yeast.
2b/ Optional: dissolve starter, ideally around 76 percent hydration, with water and yeast.
3/ In a slightly smaller bowl, stir together our and salt.
4/ Add dry ingredients to the bowl with water and stir thoroughly and vigorously with a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir until the dough just begins to pull free of the sides of the bowl and is free of lumps. This is also a perfect job for your hands, so get the ingredients combined with a spoon or spatula, then dive right in with a clean hand.
5a/ Option 1: Cover the bowl with plastic or a damp towel and rest at room temperature or slightly above for at least an hour, no more than a few. If resting longer than an hour, wet a hand thoroughly, then lift/ turn/punch down the dough to redistribute the yeast and air, then give it at least a half hour to relax before step 6.
5b/ Option 2: Let the dough work for about an hour at room temperature, then cover tightly and refrigerate up to 36 hours. Chilling the dough will slow the yeast activity significantly, and give it time to develop more flavor. You can also use this step to put the dough on your schedule—mix at night, chill overnight, and bake in the morning. Give the dough at least two hours to temper out of the fridge in a relatively warm spot in the room prior to baking. And it would be wise to turn it as in (5a) above, to temper it a bit more evenly.
6/ Thoroughly coat a 1/2 sheet pan with EVOO. Get a little olive oil on your spatula, and use it to release the dough from the sides of the bowl, to help it pour more easily. Then, pour the dough into the middle of the sheet pan, ideally in one piece.
7/ Using well-oiled hands, gently coax the dough to the sides and corners of the pan, into a fairly even piece. If the dough is still chilly, or hasn’t rested too long, it will be a little elastic and resistant to your coaxing. Fear not: As it relaxes in the pan, it will take shape more easily. Let it rest for 15-20 at room temp, then come back and push it around a bit more.
8/ Top the dough with more olive oil (be generous, you won’t regret it) and dimple the dough all over, taking care to not press all the way through to the pan, or it may stick when it’s done. Sprinkle the sea salt, and the rosemary all over the top, and don’t miss the edges and corners.
9/ Place the sheet pan on the rack in the upper-third of the pre-heated oven. Don’t even look at the oven door for about 10 minutes. The biggest disadvantage to baking bread in a home oven is the incredible heat loss from removing an entire wall of the oven—that is, opening the door. You want this bread to get a good initial hit of heat so it rises to form the big beautiful bubbles indicative of a proper focaccia. After ten minutes, open the door, let the aroma send you into a state of sensual euphoria, and move the pan to the lower third of the oven, and rotate it 180 degrees for even browning. After five more minutes, lower the heat to 400 degrees F, and start checking the top of the bread for doneness every couple minutes. You’re looking for deep golden brown.
10/ This is the absolute hardest part: let the bread cool in the pan, ideally on a wire rack or somewhere air can circulate underneath it. That’s so it cools faster so you can eat it sooner. You’ll want to.
All photos by Jennifer Silverberg. This story appeared in ALIVE’s “Express Yourself” issue. Subscribe to ALIVE here.