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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The road to focaccia Veneziana


Longtime readers may recall that we spent the week before Christmas last year in Venice. One of my fondest memories is some sweet bread offered to us while we were on our way to an event.

On our way we passed through a small parrish Christmas celebration. There was an elderly gentleman in a worn Santa costume, an accordian player, and suddenly we were accosted by Venetians offering us the most delectable Christmas sweet bread imaginable. It was so warm and soft, and the music so adorable, I just about started crying in my bread. We were also offered Coke and orange soda.

I have been obsessing over that bread ever since, and by November had determined that I would try to make some this Christmas. The only problem is, I don't bake. Baking requires precision and patience; you can't improvise your way through it the way you can with cooking. Baking, I've always throught, is the domain of perfectionists. It's for those people who care about all the details, not just the interesting ones.

I can never get bread to rise. I think it's my lack of faith in general, I don't know. Or maybe it has something to do with never getting yeast infections. Maybe I'm a yeast killer. I've even tried that "no knead" bread everyone went crazy about last year and somehow even that bread wouldn't rise.

Furthermore, I'm terrible at kneading. I have skinny grover arms (well, not as skinny as they used to be, but weak for sure), and you really need big, thick, strong arms to knead effectively. I always feel like the dough is stronger than I am.

But I really needed that bread.

Then there was the problem of finding a recipe. I did a little research and found that focaccia Veneziana is very similar to the Milanese bread panettone. On Italian message boards I found some discussion and a recipe, but my Italian is not good enough -- and Goggle's translator is almost as bad. I went searching through the cookbooks at the Coop and came upon Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb, which has a recipe for panettone. Good enough -- I'd attempt the panettone this year and spend the next year searching for the holy grail recipe.

The first loaf defeated me. It rose a bit, but not enough and was brick-like. The second loaf rose beautifully, if a litte lopsided, but I had to knead it for an hour (instead of 15 minutes) before I could feel any elasticity. This meant I had to continue adding flour, so I didn't get that moist, gooey bread I've been dreaming about. But I decided I'd gone far enough for now and I needed to start spending time with my family.

I will return. Oh yes, I will return to the bread baking.

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