Herb Focaccia

I’ve been doing quite a lot of baking over the last few months, and one of my favorite recipes that I’ve nearly perfected is herb focaccia bread.

Any herbs can be used in this bread, though I think rosemary is essential. The most recent batch I made had rosemary, thyme, and chives, and I think that one was the best yet. And while I like cut tomatoes on the top, you could also use sliced yellow squash or zucchini, or nothing at all.

What I’ve done to come up with this recipe is read through about four online recipes, read the reader feedback from those four, and then assimilate all that with another bread recipe that I adore: The New York Time's adaptation of Jim Lahey's No-Knead bread, which appeared in the Times online about two years ago.

Herb Focaccia
1 (1/4 oz.) package instant yeast (you can use less than a packet, like 1/4 teaspoon, if you let the bread rise for a full 24 hours)

1 3/4 cups warm water – the temperature of the water is the most important thing in making this bread; it should be warmer than your body temperature, but not by much

1 teaspoon sugar

2-3 tablespoons mixed herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, chives, sage)

Scant 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting – the second most important step in making this bread is not using too much flour, so go lightly with it

1 teaspoon table salt

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon sea salt or coarse salt (or really, any special salt you like)

About a half dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or one plum (Roma) tomato, sliced into 1/4 to 1/2 inch rounds (try to get at least 8 slices)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Stir it gently with a whisk, then leave it alone for 10 to 15 minutes. If a foam develops, you’re in business. If there is no foam and the water just looks murky, start over because it won’t work. Either the yeast is old or the water was too hot or too cold. Just scrap it and start over.

Sift the flour into a large bowl with a pinch of salt. Add 1/4 cup less 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the flour and stir it with a whisk gently just to break up the oil a bit. Add the chopped herbs and stir until they are distributed evenly. Add the water and yeast mixture to the flour and stir it with a wood spoon until it is tacky. The dough should be messy and a little wet.

Take a new bowl, preferably a ceramic one, and oil it with about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Scrape the dough from the mixing bowl into the oiled bowl. You don’t have to knead it. Cover it loosely with plastic (either plastic wrap or a plastic shopping bag) and leave it to rise in a warm place for at least four hours. If you used less than a full packet of yeast, leave it to rise overnight.

Uncover the bowl and throw a little flour onto the dough. Throw a little flour onto your fists as well and punch down the dough gently. You can also do this with a wooden spoon that has been dusted with flour. Cover the dough again loosely and leave it to rise for an hour or so.

Preheat oven to 500.

Grease or oil an 8x8-inch baking dish or a pie plate. Turn the dough out into the dish and use the tips of your fingers to gently press it toward the edges, dimpling the dough as you go. Dot the top of the bread with the cut tomatoes, nestling them gently into the dough’s surface. Sprinkle each tomato with a small amount of coarse salt (just a few grains each). Brush the remaining olive oil onto the top of the bread, and finish decorating it with sea salt if you like or more chopped herbs (rosemary or sage work best).

Leave the dough in a warm place (like on top of the oven) for 10 to 15 minutes so it rises a bit more before being baked. Bake it in the center of the oven for about 5 minutes, then lower the temperature to 425 and continue baking until it’s barely golden brown on top.

Serve warm.

Serving suggestions: serve with olive oil and basil to dip, olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip; serve alongside Italian meat and seafood dishes.