The Science of Science

The other day, I told a friend I would make and bring focaccia to her party.

I started with a recipe sent to me years ago by my college friend, David. As you can see, he has quite the scientific sense of humor.

Sadly, while beautiful to behold, it did not come out well. It was one big, thick cracker - hard as a rock. What could have gone wrong?? Science is suppose to be... well, science!

I panicked, as I needed to produce good focaccia in the few hours remaining till the party started. I reached out immediately to friends Lynn and Lee, collectors - nay curators - of trusted recipes. They had their perfect recipe, which they sent posthaste. (FYI - Lee is also a scientist.) How did we survive such crises without the immediacy of email?

The next batch of focaccia came out perfectly, but almost repeated the disaster of the first attempt. For some reason, I decided to check the bread at 20 minutes, just over half the prescribed baking time. It was already a deep golden brown. I immediately took it out of the oven and tested it. At 20 minutes, it was perfect.

In the end, David’s recipe is perfectly fine; it simply needed to be taken out of the oven sooner, as I discovered with Lynn and Lee’s. You see, both recipes had similar instructions – “bake 35-45 minutes” on one, and “for 30 minutes, till golden” on the other.

While the ingredients and dough were similar, they gave two different timings. The key to success, for me, was the addition of color as an indicator. Time and color are two very different instructions, right? One assumes these two indicators would happen simultaneously... yet they didn’t. I went with color the second time and was very happy I did.

Scientists always insert that there is a perfectly good scientific reason for these anomalies. They are probably right. Oven temperature. Type of pan. Placement in the oven. Moisture. Yeast. Blah blah blah. For those of us non-scientists, we just do what looks and feels good. It’s our own kind of science.

The science of science is funny, isn’t it?

~ David

Rosemary Focaccia
Minimally adapted from Lynn and Lee’s recipe. 

1 1/4 cups warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (1 packet)
2 tablespoons powdered milk
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour, plus and extra 1/4 cup
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for topping
1/3 cup white wine, room temperature
2 sprigs rosemary, stripped and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, such as Maldon

Measure the water in a shatter-proof beaker and microwave for 30 seconds. It should be slightly warm to the touch. Add the yeast and milk powder and stir to combine.

Place 3 1/2 cups flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steal blade. Add the salt, olive oil, and wine, and pulse 5 times to combine. With the motor running, add the water/yeast mixture through the feed tube in a steady stream, but do it quickly so the flour doesn’t have a chance to clump.

Once all the ingredients are combined, process for an additional 30 seconds until it has formed a smooth and shiny ball around the blade.

Spread the remaining 1/4 cup flour on your board or countertop, and knead the dough for a minute or so to absorb just the right amount of extra flour. Make a smooth ball,

Oil a large mixing bowl. Place the dough ball rounded side down into the oil, then turn. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free place and allow to triple in volume - 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, brush the bottom of a 12-inch by 18-inch jelly roll pan with olive oil. When the dough has tripled, spread it evenly in the pan to create a rectangle. Use the palms of your hand, as fingertips can easily tear the dough.

Brush the top of the dough lightly with olive oil, then cover with plastic and allow to rise/rest again for 30 minutes. Set the oven rack to the bottom third, and preheat to 400°F.

When the dough has finished its final rise, poke it all over with your fingers to create little dimples, then drizzle with olive oil. Spread the oil gently with a brush, but leave oil in the dimples. Sprinkle evenly with the rosemary and salt, and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or - as the recipe states - until golden.

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