Baking is how I decompress at the beginning of most days. Does that sound weird? I tend to wake up with a jumble of ideas spilling out of my head and an annoying level of Morning Person energy, but instead of waking my husband up to discuss whatever revelation I’ve had about whichever film we watched the night before that resulted in an hour-long post-film conversation until we collapsed into bed, me still jabbering away until I fell asleep mid-sentence (which is finished, of course, as I awake) – well, instead I just let him continue sleeping, and I channel this energy into my favorite wooden mixing spoon. It must be exhausting to live with someone like me! They deserve a muffin.
muffins and whatnot always reside under the dome of this cake stand // hilariously enough (to me), Under the Dome is the only novel by King I have not read // if you’re a King fan, hurry up and get a copy of Doctor Sleep and read it and then let me know because I’m going crazy not having anyone to talk to about it!
On weekdays, it’s muffins or cookies and sometimes even a cake. If I can mix it up before the oven finishes preheating and shower in the time it takes to bake, it’s fair game. On weekends I get a little more creative. I have the time to experiment with pastry dough, with anything that begs to be stuffed or layered, and lately – yeasted breads. In fact, most weekends begin with two rounds of focacce.
autumn hiking essentials for my munchkin vegan (also a Morning Person, yay!): bamboo wrist warmers, linen/cotton hat, wedge of tomato-kissed focaccia
I’ve baked a lot of bread by ratio, dutifully taring my kitchen scale before the addition of each new ingredient, confident that the outcome will be essentially fail proof. But you know what? Failure can be fun. Most of the time I prefer to bake by intuition, with minimal measuring of ingredients and all caution thrown to the wind. I’m a fly by the seat of my pants baker at heart, and it serves me well.
yeast + potatoes = magic
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This is a really wet, sticky dough, and I only make it with a stand mixer. If you decide to make it by hand, just remember that you want the dough to be somewhat sticky. Also, the potatoes used in this recipe should be waxy and creamy (yukons), not dry and fluffy (russets). Do not use baking potatoes, they have an entirely different water and starch content that does not work well in this bread. Also! You will need to reserve your cooking water, and it will need to be lukewarm – not hot – when you combine it with the yeast. To speed things up I often put my reserved cooking water into the freezer to cool it down while I’m whipping the potatoes. If you get busy and leave your cooked potatoes to hang out for an hour or so, that’s okay too! This is a very forgiving recipe. As long as you don’t kill your yeast by using too-hot water (105 degrees), you’re good to go.
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3-4 medium yellow-fleshed or red-skinned potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 Cup reserved cooking water, divided
2 1/2 teaspoons (or 1 packet) dry active yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4-5 Cups white spelt flour
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
(optional) fresh minced herbs or chopped olives
Combine the chopped potatoes with a generous amount of cold water in a large pot and simmer until fork tender. Do not drain.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked potatoes to the bowl of your stand mixer along with 1/3 cup reserved cooking water. With the paddle attachment, whip the potatoes until creamy. A few lumps are fine. Set aside until both the whipped potatoes and the remaining reserved cooking water have cooled.
Switch out the paddle for the dough hook attachment. Add the remaining 2/3 cup cooled potato water to the mixing bowl, allowing it to pool on top of the potatoes. Sprinkle the yeast and salt into the water; the yeast should start to look creamy after a couple of minutes. Add one cup of flour to the mixing bowl and mix on low until fully incorporated. Continue adding flour one cup at a time until you’ve added four cups total. Continue adding flour in quarter cup increments until your dough starts forming a sticky ball around the hook; it will look a lot like taffy, or a glob of melted marshmallow. Increase mixing speed to medium and let the dough hook knead the dough for five minutes. You may need to stop the mixer once or twice to scrape the dough off the hook.
Drizzle a thin stream of olive oil around the inside perimeter of the bowl. Using a silicone spatula, work the dough into a large ball by sliding the spatula around the edge of the mixing bowl where it meets the dough, using the spatula to coat the dough ball with oil as you turn it. Cover with a tea towel and leave to sit in a warm spot for 60-90 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Lightly oil two 9-inch round cake pans. Using your best estimate, put half of the dough into each pan. If you need to pinch some from one pan and transfer it to the other, no problem! The dough is very forgiving. Using a silicone spatula or lightly oiled fingers, stretch the dough along the bottom of each pan until it reaches the edge and forms an even layer. Allow to rest for fifteen minutes.
Use your fingers to make dimples in the surface of the dough. Cover and allow to rest for another 45 minutes.
Twenty minutes before your dough is finished with this last rise, set a rack in the bottom position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
When the oven is heated and your dough has finished rising, it’s time to add your topping. Mix the tomato paste with a few drops of oil until it is slightly thinned. Gently brush the tomato mixture over the surface of the dough. Sprinkle with fresh herbs or olives, if using.
Place both pans on the bottom rack of the oven and immediately decrease the temperature to 375. Bake for 30 minutes or until the loaves are golden on top and pulling away from the edges of each pan. Carefully remove each focaccia from its pan and transfer to a cooling rack. This bread may be sliced immediately as long as you use a sharp serrated knife.
Total time (mostly inactive): 3 ½ – 4 hours | Bake time: 30 minutes