Friday, July 27, 2012

Focus on Focaccia

A quick post for a summer’s day. Quick because it’s finally not too hazy, hot, and humid to be outside. To go for a bike ride, spend the day at the beach, or even just to take a walk without feeling that one is melting. Beautiful as the day is, though, I know that the dinner hour will come and everyone will want to eat. But I’ll have been out enjoying myself and ordering in for pizza just doesn’t do it for me on a day like this.

It’s funny how some people can spend an afternoon at the beach, roasting themselves in the sun until their skin turns roast-turkey-burnished-brown and then go out for a slice of pizza. I don’t get it. Oily cheese, oreganoey tomato sauce, and pepperoni do nothing for me after a day in the hot sun. Even a perfect summer day like this one doesn’t find me wanting pizza—not sauce-laden American-style pizzas, that is.

But a focaccia? Now you’re talking. For those of you less familiar with focaccia than you are with pizza, here’s Carol Field, author of The Italian Baker, on the subject, which she claims “has become a national dish”: “Focacce [the plural form of the word] are simplicity itself; herbs of the countryside and the golden oils of Liguria flavor the interior, while a little local garlic or tiny savory olives stud its surface. In Puglia a variety called puddica is enriched with the ingredients of a pastoral people—tomatoes, garlic, oregano, capers, and oil.” How good does that sound?

Its very name indicates how central (I couldn’t resist the pun) focaccia has been throughout the history of Italy. It comes to us from the Latin focus, which meant “center,” “hearth” or “fireplace” (they amount to the same, the hearth or fireplace being the traditional center of the house). And the flat bread was indeed baked in the ashes of the fireplace. It’s even been claimed that focaccia is “pre-pizza.”

One can debate which came first. One can point out that focaccia is more popular in the north of Italy while pizza reigns supreme in the south. One can try to distinguish between the two on the basis of dough thickness; on whether olive oil and fresh herbs are incorporated into the dough or drizzled and sprinkled on top; or on whether it’s got toppings or not. But there’s one thing I’m not going to debate. 

On a beautiful summer’s day, a home-baked olive oil and rosemary focaccia with local tomatoes and basil is the perfect dinner.

This morning I made a focaccia dough which is slowly rising in the refrigerator. When I get back, I won’t even bother to roll it out. I’ll just press it into a large rectangle, dimple its surface with my fingertips, sprinkle it with some coarse salt, chopped rosemary, and some chopped tomatoes—maybe even a diced up eggplant. And then I’ll bake it, not in the ashes of my fireplace, but in the oven (I haven’t yet tried to do so, but I know that some people grill their focacce). With some fresh basil strewed about, my focaccia will hit a spot that pizza never would have.

Focaccia with Rosemary, Tomatoes, and Basil

For the garlic oil:
¾ cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
¾ tsp dried crushed red pepper

For the dough:
2 cups warm water
1 tbsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
5-6 cups unbleached all purpose flour (or bread flour, if you’ve got it)
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary

For the topping:
4-5 tomatoes
2 tbsp coarse salt
1 eggplant, unpeeled & chopped (if you want it)
2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
2 tbsp thinly sliced fresh basil
Grated fresh parmesan

For the garlic oil: heat the oil, garlic, and red pepper in a small saucepan for 5-10 minutes, until the garlic is golden. Remove from the heat & let stand, covered, for an hour. You can make this way ahead of time and store it in a jar in the fridge.

For the dough: dissolve the yeast & sugar in the water & let stand until foamy. Add 3 tbsp of the garlic oil. Combine 2 cups flour & 2 tsp salt in the bowl of a mixer. Add the yeast mixture and rosemary and beat until incorporated. Add remaining flour, a cup at a time, until the dough is smooth & soft, just barely sticking to the bowl. Brush large bowl with a bit of garlic oil, and transfer the dough to the bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap & either let rise on the counter for an hour or so, or slowly in the refrigerator, until double in bulk.

About an hour before eating, chop the tomatoes and toss with 1 tbsp coarse salt in a colander set over the sink, allowing the liquid to drain off. Punch down the dough and transfer to a 10 x 15 baking sheet that’s been brushed with about a tablespoon of garlic oil. Using oiled fingers, stretch the dough to shape and then dimple the surface with your fingertips. Sprinkle with rosemary & tomatoes (& eggplant, if using), pressing gently into the dough. Sprinkle with salt & bake at 450 for about 30 minutes. Transfer to rack, sprinkle with basil and grate as much parmesan as you like over the top. Let cool just a bit, cut into squares, and serve. 
(Note: With special thanks to Dylan Epstein for his photography!)

Friday, July 20, 2012

On Crisco, Christ, and the Crisco Kid


When you like words as much as I do, you end up spending more time than you’d care to admit pondering where they come from. Why?, one might very legitimately ask. Does it really matter where they come from? In the final analysis, probably not, but you know what they say. There are two types of people: those who think about words and those who don’t. I’m solidly in the first camp.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Crisco. Maybe it’s that I’ve just moved into a new home, and while packing up the old one, discovered a great big dusty can of the stuff in the back of a cabinet, not to mention a few half-used sticks lurking in the nether reaches of my fridge. (Sidenote: convenient, isn’t it, that Crisco now comes in easy-to-measure sticks? I can remember either having to pack measuring cups with greasy white globs to get the requisite third of a cup or resorting to the displacement method, using a Pyrex measuring cup and a given quantity of water.)

Anyway, the fact that I had so much old Crisco on hand suggests that I don’t use it all that often. I’m not much given to frying chicken, and when it comes to baking, I’m very much of a butter person, although I do acknowledge that the flakiest piecrusts are made with lard. Mostly I use Crisco only when I bake molasses cookies, which, for some reason, never come out as good any other way, although for the life of me, I don’t know why this should be.

So what is it about Crisco that appeals to me? Certainly not its nutritional merits, hydrogenated fats having long since been tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Truth be told, it’s the name I love. So made-up. So cheery. So expressive of early 20th century optimism, commercialization, and infatuation with technology. Jell-O, Nabisco, Oreo. Crisco. Something about names that end in -o just seemed to work—and still do. 

But there’s more. I used to think Crisco had something to do with Christ. It is a kind of oil—hydrogenated soybean oil, to be precise—and Christ comes from the Greek christos which means “anointed,” as in with oil, so you can understand why I would think the words are related. I’m not alone in this belief. In his The Rector's Blog, Archdeacon John W.G. Clarke similarly connects the two: “The word ‘crisco’ comes from the same Latin root word as ‘Christ,’” he writes, concluding that Jesus “is, after all, the Crisco Kid.” 

Unfortunately we’re both wrong, the archdeacon and I. There’s no connection whatsoever between the lard-like shortening and the son of God. Crisco doesn’t come from a Latin or Greek root; it turns out that it’s a sort of acronym derived from the first letters of CRYStalized Cottonseed Oil, the product from which it was originally made (before the cottonseed oil was replaced by soybean). So much for the Crisco Kid.

That said, it did almost start life under the name Cryst, which certainly sounds a lot like Christ. Originally Procter & Gamble had thought to market its new solid all-vegetable oil shortening under the name Krispo. Another company already sold crackers by that name, however, and so Krispo briefly became Cryst until someone in management expressed concern that the new name sounded vaguely—or perhaps overtly—messianic. Renamed once again, Crisco appeared on the market in 1911 with the name by which it is still known, loved, and scorned to this day. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

My Daughter the Dairymaid

Go figure. My daughter decided to spend her last summer before leaving for college in New York City working on a dairy farm in northern Vermont, and, doting mother that I am, I have just returned from a visit up to the land of cows, hay bales, and maple syrup. It’s quite a feeling to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and make your bleary way to a barn where some 40 Holsteins stand, patiently (or not) waiting to be milked. As my daughter, in her dirty jeans and muddy wellies, got to work cleaning teats and attaching what to my eyes looked like a four-limbed metal octopus to almost unbelievably massive udders, I, in typical fashion, got to pondering. The longer she milked, the more my mind wandered, its meanderings accompanied by the hypnotic whooshing of the milking machine, the gentle lowing of the cows, and the sweet grassy smell of new mown hay. 

What is it about dairies, I wondered, that exerts such a fascination over me? Is it that I’m forced to acknowledge that milk doesn’t, after all, begin life as a fat-free homogenized pasteurized tasteless liquid in a plastic jug container—not to mention the fact that it certainly wasn't intended to be drunk by the likes of us? Step one foot into the dairy and you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that nature meant milk to be drunk warm and full of fat.

Or is something less practical responsible for my fascination?

Is it that, literary type that I am, novel after novel comes to mind, first and foremost Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles with its description of the “large-veined udders [that] hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock”? 

Anyone’s who’s fond of 19th century novels is bound to think of a milkmaid or two. For that matter, anyone’s who’s fond of northern European painting is bound to think of all those canvasses of milkmaids, Vermeer’s the most well known of them all.  

It’s no accident that dairies have traditionally been tended by milkmaids, whether in life or art. In fact there’s even more of a connection between the two than meets the eye. The first syllable of dairy comes from an Old English word dæge which meant “female servant” or “housekeeper.” More literally still, it meant “kneader of bread”—it’s from dæge that we also get our word dough. Obviously it fell to the female servants to both knead the dough and milk the cows. The last syllable of our “lady,” by the way, comes from that same Old English dæge, which means that no matter how refined the lady, there’s still a bit of the dairy in her.

But make no mistake. The milkmaid of yore did not have a lady-like life. As an 18th century farming treatise noted, “she may be known by her red plump arms and hands and clumsy fingers: for in most great farms they are forced to milk their cows abroad, a great part of the year; I may say, almost all the year even in frosts and snows, while their fingers are ready to freeze in the action: and sometimes while they stand in dirt and water, and indeed, it may be justly said of these, that their work is never done.”

And so my thoughts wander as my daughter patiently makes her way down the line of cows, each one collapsing into a ponderous mass of flesh and bone after having been milked. From a cow's perspective, milking is as exhausting a business as it was to the milkmaids of a pre-industrial age.  All things considered, even with milking machines and automated round hay bale feeders, my daughter’s likely to find life easier come September when she heads off to college. At least her arms and hands will.