Let the bread bloom

Covid baking, I have come to realise, comes in waves and is driven by herd instinct.

First came the banana bread, so homey and comforting in a confusing time, so easy to make.

Then we needed to up the ante, to challenge ourselves.

So came the sourdough obsession. Then came the sourdough frustration, when it became clear that these yeasty pets need a lot of tending to, not to mention the daily feeding of lots of very-hard-to-find flour. Which led, inevitably, to sourdough desertion.

In Singapore, I track the trends by looking at what is sold out in stores.

When tapioca starch is scarce, that’s because everyone is making boba. If glutinous rice flour and crushed peanuts are nowhere to be found, there is intense muah chee-making in homes all across the island. No cream cheese? Basque cheesecake.

Of course, I am not immune to all this. I bake to relieve stress and to make my time in isolation count for something. I have been working my way down a list of things I never used to have the time to perfect. Now I do and it has been so satisfying tinkering with recipes.

More importantly, I have had the luxury of giving myself room to fail and time to work on the kinks that prevent me from achieving baking nirvana. Clearly, I am not there yet.

I’m not the herd instinct type, but I feel the urge to make something more involved: bread. It has been some time since I’ve worked with yeast and there is something about the smell of bread baking in the oven that calls out to me.

Until now, I have tiptoed around it, making two-ingredient dough for bagels and pizza using just self-raising flour and Greek yogurt.

I have also turned out many loaves of beer batter bread for friends. It is so easy to make and delicious to eat, especially toasted and slathered with cream cheese or good butter or both.

Now that I have enough flour, from scouring little heartland grocery shops, and instant yeast, which a friend told me was available in – of all places – a Korean snack shop in a quiet mall, I am ready to knead.

Except, well, this week’s recipe for focaccia is so easy, it does not require kneading. You don’t even need bread flour. Plain works just fine. And you won’t need much of it either – a 1kg bag will yield four loaves.

But why settle for a rosemary and salt topping? Why not – yes, that word again – challenge yourself?

Make Garden Focaccia.

I read about it in The New York Times. The craze was started in February by a home baker in Massachusetts. Ms Teri Culletto wanted to knock the socks off her guests at dinner parties. She posted pictures on social media. Then, a thousand bread gardens sprouted all over the world.

Colourful vegetables are pressed onto focaccia dough before baking to create edible gardens.

The trend must have ignited because who doesn’t long for spring, for the outdoors, while sequestered because of a pandemic? If we can only run or brisk-walk grimly in the park while steering clear of other people, well, we can create flora and fauna on our daily bread and stop and smell those vegetable roses.

All the garden focaccia I have seen are beautiful and intricate. I am new to this and my designs are clumsy. But in the past week, I have made five. I cannot stop myself. And I will get better at this.

When considering vegetables, look for vibrantly coloured bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and purple sweet potatoes; and things that have a naturally beautiful shape.

Okra, for example, looks pretty sliced crosswise.

If using feathery herbs, dip the leaves in lemon juice and water to preserve the colour.

Think of ingredients from this part of the world – laksa leaves and chilli can be fashioned into flowers and leaves, for example.

Fortune favours the bold. Slice your vegetables thick and broad because they shrink in the oven. Wispy looks pretty before baking, but shrivels up in the heat.

The dough comes together easily in a food processor or by hand in a bowl. Depending on how hot the day is and how feisty your yeast is, it will take two to three hours to rise. Leave it be while you attend Zoom meetings.

When it is time to shape your focaccia, make a free-form rectangle, square or oval. I bake mine in a 23cm round enamelled cast-iron pan or a 20cm square baking pan because I like structure.

If you yearn for a larger canvas, double the recipe. I bake the larger focaccia in a 28cm enamelled cast-iron pan. The proofing time is the same and I bake it 10 minutes longer.

Be liberal with the olive oil – I love the smell of it on the bread. Before decorating, I sprinkle Maldon salt, either regular or the smoked variety, on top.

Then I let it rip.

My first attempts made me cringe in horror.

No matter. The results were delicious.

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• If you make garden focaccia, post photos of it on Instagram and tag @straitstimesfood and @msposhnosh.

GARDEN FOCACCIA

INGREDIENTS

250g plain flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp instant yeast

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing and brushing

175ml lukewarm water

Vegetables

Coarse sea salt

METHOD

1. Place the flour, salt and instant yeast in the bowl of a food processor. Cover and pulse two or three times to mix the dry ingredients. Add the oil and water. Pulse 14 to 16 times, until a ball of dough forms. To do this by hand, whisk the flour, salt and instant yeast to combine in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre, pour in the water and olive oil, and mix with a large spoon until a sticky dough forms.

2. Lightly flour your hands and shape the dough into a ball. Coat the inside of a mixing bowl with olive oil. Place the ball of dough in it, smearing the bottom with the oil in the bowl. Flip the ball over. Cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let it sit until it has doubled in size. This will take two to three hours, depending on the weather and how active your yeast is.

3. When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down in the bowl. Grease a 20cm square or round cake tin, or a 23cm enamelled cast-iron pan, with olive oil. Transfer the dough to the pan and stretch it so that it reaches the edge of the pan. Or line a baking sheet with baking paper, place the dough on top and shape it however you want. The dough should be about 1cm thick. Cover with plastic wrap or a paper towel and let it rise for 40 minutes.

4. Wash, dry and slice the vegetables with which you intend to decorate the focaccia. Coat with olive oil and set aside. Preheat the oven to 230 deg C.

5. After 40 minutes, brush the top of the dough with olive oil. Sprinkle on coarse sea salt. Decorate the focaccia, pressing the vegetables onto the dough. When done, you can brush the entire top of the focaccia with more olive oil or leave it be.

6. Place in the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 200 deg C. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the focaccia is a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Serves four

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