One excited comment I keep hearing from our guests is how delighted they are with the new selection of house-baked breads we're offering, including a wonderfully flavorful sourdough and a crispy seeded flatbread. "So many people tell us how much they like them," the waitstaff tells me, too. "Everybody loves the new menu, of course. But they also can't stop talking about the bread."
So, I wonder, why aren't more people planning on baking bread for their holiday celebrations, especially for Thanksgiving, just a week away? The answer may have something to do with the fact that most home cooks think of bread-making as a difficult and time-consuming activity, what with all the mixing and kneading and rising and shaping involved.
But making bread doesn't have to be so hard. First of all, a good-quality electric stand-mixer, now available to home cooks at surprisingly reasonable prices, does all of the mixing and kneading for you. Active dry yeast is virtually foolproof as long as you follow the simple directions from the manufacturer and those in the recipe you're using. And if you make a rustic flatbread like Italian focaccia, shaping the dough isn't really much of an issue, since all you have to do is spread it out in a large oiled pan and dimple its surface with your fingertips.
Once you've flattened the dough and brushed it with olive oil, you also have the option of flavoring its surface in any way you like: sprinkling it with kosher salt, black pepper, and fresh thyme leaves, as I do here; making it spicy with some crushed red pepper flakes; scattering freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top; or maybe pressing whole seedless grapes or pieces of dried fruit down into the dough. However you embellish it, the thin dough bakes quickly, meaning you can pop it into the oven when you take out the holiday roast to rest, and you'll have freshly baked bread ready to serve when you carve that turkey or ham.
Just be prepared for the possibility that the guests at your holiday table will lavish as much praise on the focaccia as they do on your main course!
FOCACCIA WITH FRESH THYME
1-3/4 cups water, at warm room temperature
1 packet active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1-1/2 pounds bread flour
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh thyme leaves, minced
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, put 1/2 cup of the water. Add the yeast and honey and stir until the yeast dissolves completely. With a whisk, stir in 2 ounces of the flour to make a sponge. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside at warm room temperature until bubbling and risen to double the volume, about 45 minutes.
Brush a 15-by-11-inch metal baking tray with oil. Set aside.
Secure the bowl of yeast-and-flour sponge in the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. At low speed, gradually add the remaining flour, water, 1/2 cup oil, and salt until a soft dough forms. Switch to the dough hook attachment and beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Turn off the machine, scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and leave the dough to relax for 10 minutes.
Turn on the mixer again and continue to beat the dough at medium speed for 5 minutes longer, until it looks velvety and elastic. Stop the machine and transfer the dough to the prepared baking tray.
With your hands, stretch and push out the dough to fill the tray. Cover it loosely with a clean kitchen towel and leave to rise at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Uncover the dough and stretch and push it out again to cover the entire baking tray. Brush it with olive oil and, with your fingertips, press down all over the surface to form dimples in the dough. Sprinkle with kosher salt, pepper, and thyme. Leave uncovered at room temperature to rise for 15 minutes longer.
Put the baking tray in the preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes. Then, rotate the tray and continue baking until the focaccia is well-risen and golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes longer.
Remove from the oven to a wire rack. Let the focaccia rest for about 10 minutes before cutting into squares or rectangles and serving hot, warm, or at room temperature.