December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Loafing in Coronaville

By |2020-04-19T00:09:43+02:00April 19th, 2020|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Fingers play a critical role in focaccia. Author photos.

o here we are, all of us in the same pickle, or so it seems. But are we really?

I will start by saying that anyone who does not believe isolation and distance between us does not aid in conquering the coronavirus is either asleep or an idiot.

Late responses by certain European countries and the United States have proved lethal. If you have any doubts about the strategy, take a look at New Zealand, which has flattened both the infection and death curves through public isolation and stopping travel. If you don’t believe me, do the math.

For pizza a taglio, carefully stretch the dough.

That rant aside, my intelligent husband started our isolation more than five weeks ago — thank you, husband. I was happy to go along immediately and fell into a daily ritual that might easily be continued when the pandemic ends. If.

But in the here and now, I find that making bread of all kinds is a bright beginning to any day, along with myriad WhatsApp funnies that bring laughter to our breakfasts of toasted focaccia with butter and whatever’s around — jam, jelly, marmalade, peanut butter, hummus, avocado, chopped tomato and basil, poached eggs, tuna or chicken salad, and, well, lots more.

Our bakeries are closed, with good reason. A shop where two or three people are in a small space with hands in the dough stopped attracting customers.

I am a professional; bread is in my blood, And the very simple recipe I’m about to give you here can easily be made by adults or kids; in fact, it’s a great way to keep antsy children interested, as they can make animals out of the dough, or shape breadsticks into flowers, or simply take out their frustrations at being trapped by plunging their little washed hands into the focaccia to make the holes.

Here then is the magic recipe for focaccia, pizza, breadsticks, loaf bread, rolls, Austrian flammkuchen, French pissaladiére, you name it:

  • In a mixing bowl combine 2 cups tepid water, 2 packages of dry yeast, 4 cups of flour (any white flour will do in this limited shopping arena), 2 teaspoons of salt and mix well until the dough pulls slightly away from the sides of the bowl. You may add a spoon or two of olive oil if you wish.
  • Cover the bowl tight (not tightly!) with plastic wrap and set your oven to 40C or lower to raise the dough quickly. Leave the oven slightly open. Some ovens have a raising temperature on the dial, but a low oven works well. Or just set the dough aside for about 40 minutes, meditate, read, exercise, and it will double. If you have fresh rosemary, chop up a few leaves.
  • Heat the oven as high as it will go. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil.
  • When the dough is double, using a spatula, loosen the raised dough from the sides of the bowl and pour, and I mean pour the dough onto the baking sheet without losing the rise! When the dough is on the sheet and the oven ready, oil your washed fingers and plunge them vertically into the dough, but with care, and pull gently sideways to make about six dough holes a couple of inches across. That is the shape of your focaccia.
  • If you have deflated the dough a bit with the finger thingy, and the dough has lost its oomph, let it sit in a warm place (sunny window?) for about 15 minutes to rise to the occasion.
  • Brush the focaccia with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh rosemary and gross salt and bake for about 10 minutes, depending on your oven. Remove from the oven when it is golden brown. That’s it.

Before your dough gets to cooking, kids can make animals.

If you lack fresh herbs, you can grind fresh pepper over the top or use only gross salt. For a breakfast focaccia, I brush with olive oil and then liberally sprinkle a cinnamon-raw sugar mix over the top.

For fun breadsticks (I’ll skip the bullet points this time, since you get the idea), start by turning the dough out on a floured surface, and roll small, individual pieces of the dough into long sticks. Kids can bend one end of the breadstick into a flower or an initial or anything they wish. Lay the sticks on an oiled baking sheet, brush with olive oil, let rise for 15 minutes and bake for about 10-15 minutes until golden.

For a loaf, use an oiled loaf pan, transferring the dough to the pan in the same way you do the focaccia, trying not to lose the rise. Let rise for another 20 minutes or so and then bake.

For pizza a taglio, carefully stretch the dough with washed palms on an oiled baking sheet, gently pushing the dough from the middle to the edges and trying not to let it tear. If it does, just patch it with a little piece of dough. Stretch it very thin and you’ll most likely have some dough left over. Keep the extra dough in a plastic bag in the fridge to start off your next adventure with making bread. Let it come to room temperature and add it to the next batch in small pieces, then mix well. You have now learned how to use a starter!

I’ve heard several lament that they’re bored in isolation. I’m here to tell you making bread will surely get a rise out of you.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.