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To my surprise and delight I find myself hosting this month’s challenge for Fresh from the Oven, after the scheduled host had to withdraw at the last moment. Being Signor Biscotti, I just had to come up with something Italian for people to get their teeth into. That’s quite an appropriate metaphor, as this focaccia has a crunchy caramelised topping of salty butter and sugar, which settles into the dips in the surface as a sort of caramel sauce.

Perhaps it’s a bit cheeky actually calling it salted caramel focaccia, but I decided to brazen it out with that name. The Italian recipe that I’ve translated and adapted it from has the wonderful, but for English speaking people slightly indigestible, name of La focaccia dolce della sciùra Maria (the sweet focaccia of Signora Maria). As it happens, that recipe simply gives butter as an ingredient, which would almost certainly mean the unsalted kind. It was the fact that focaccia often has a salty topping that made me think of using salted butter. I could have simply called my version Sweet Focaccia, but that didn’t seem to create enough of a fanfare, and so Salted Caramel Focaccia it was.

If you’ve never made focaccia before, don’t panic! It’s really not as hard as it’s sometimes made out to be. Sure, the dough is quite wet, but you can, if you wish, prepare it in a mixer. But why not have a go at working it by hand? It’s messy, but it’s fun and very rewarding. I’ve given you instructions for both methods below.

Ingredients

  • 175g strong white flour
  • 175g type 00 flour
  • 7g fine sea salt
  • 7g quick action yeast
  • 1 teaspoon caster sugar
  • 240g warm water (=240ml – it’s easier to weigh it)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 100g mixed candied peel (or other fruit – see below)
  • 75g sultanas
  • 50g cold salted butter (If possible, the Brittany kind, with sea salt crystals)
  • 50g caster sugar
  • A baking tray, approximately 30 x 21cm and 2.5cm deep, lined with non-stick baking parchment to a depth of about 5cm.

If you can find some whole pieces of candied peel and cut them up yourself, that will taste much better than the ready chopped kind. Of course you could also use some other kind of dried or fresh fruit instead of the peel, as long as it was robust enough to cope with a bit of rough handling in the dough. As it happens, the original recipe specified 100g of peeled eating apple cut into small pieces, but I just happened to have some peel that needed using. I thought it worked very well, but I will try the apple the next time.

Method

If using your hands

  • Put the two flours, salt, dried yeast and the teaspoon of sugar into a large bowl, Add the olive oil and water. Mix everything together until no dry flour is visible.
  • Scrape the dough out onto an unfloured surface. It will be quite wet and loose, and will probably look something like thick, lumpy porridge. Work the dough (see here) for 5-10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. It will still be a bit sticky, but as long as there are no lumps and it’s had a good work-out it will be fine.
  • Work the sultanas and mixed peel into the dough.
  • Scatter a little flour around the dough and use your scraper to gather it into a rough ball. Return it to the bowl, cover, and leave to rise for about 2 hours until doubled in size.

If using a mixer

  • Put the two flours, salt, dried yeast and the teaspoon of sugar into the bowl and mix briefly on slow speed, using the paddle beater. Keeping the motor running, slowly add the olive oil and water and mix everything together well.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead for about 5 minutes, still on slow, until the mixture is smooth and elastic. It will still be a bit sticky, but as long as there are no lumps and it’s had a good work-out it will be fine.
  • Add the sultanas and mixed peel and mix briefly.
  • Remove the bowl from the mixer, scrape the dough into a rough ball, cover, and leave to rise for about 2 hours, until doubled in size.

Once the dough has risen, scrape it straight into the baking tray and gently press it out to the edges, trying to squeeze as little air out of it as possible. Dipping your finger tips into a bowl of cold water will help you spread the dough out, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go fully out to all the edges.

Dot the surface with thin flakes of the cold butter, then scatter the sugar on top.

Leave to rise for about an hour until at least doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 250C (adjust for fan oven) and put a baking stone or tray in to heat up.

Just before baking, make some holes in the surface of the focaccia by dipping a finger into water and pressing it almost all the way to the bottom of the dough. Put the focaccia in its tray on top of the pre-heated baking stone or tray. After 10 minutes, turn it round and reduce the temperature to 200C (adjust for fan oven). Give it another 10 minutes or so, until the top is a rich golden brown and caramelised.

Allow to cool for about 5 minutes then remove carefully from the tray and peel off the baking parchment. Cool on a wire rack.

This focaccia is best eaten on the day it is made, as the topping will soften after that.

Notes

The original recipe is on Mamma Vittoria’s Semplice Semplice blog, and was given to her by Sciùra Maria, the much loved proprietor of a popular bakery in her neighbourhood in Lombardy. Signora Maria has run the bakery for 50 years and is still working there in her 80s, always ready with a wink and a joke for her customers. She was amazed and delighted to learn that her recipe might find itself being made in far flung corners of the world. She has, it seems, a relaxed approach to her recipes, so much so that when she gave Vittoria a sample of the focaccia to photograph, it had thin slices of apple on the top, something which it had never had before. “Well, I had some left over, so I used it”, she said. You can just imagine the Italian shrug at that point. I think she might approve of my spontaneous use of mixed peel instead of apple.

The Italian version of the recipe was this month’s challenge for the on-line cooking group Quanti modi di fare e rifare (so many ways to make and remake), which is rather like Fresh from the Oven in that everyone bakes the same recipe, and we have fun looking at the many different ways it has been realised. I am very grateful to the organizers of the group for allowing me to use this recipe for Fresh from the Oven, and also for letting me publish my entry ahead of the usually strictly enforced 6th of the month. My Italian post will however appear on that date.

You’ll find details about how to take part in the Fresh from the Oven challenge here, and Michelle from Utterly Scrummy Food for Families will host a round-up of the entries at the end of September.

I can’t wait to see your versions!

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