Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Miss and a Surprise Hit

When Summer comes full force into your backyard filled with BBQs and picnics, not to mention lots of fresh salads that need nothing more than a light vinaigrette, a light bread and oil dipper alongside the classic offerings is all you need to cap off a meal al fresco. But really, who wants to be in the kitchen making bread when it's 30 degrees outside (and 40 inside!)? Well, if you remember a while back when I reviewed a biscotti mix by Epicure Selections I also mentioned that they had also graciously sent along a packet mix for focaccia, in Sun-Dried Tomato and Herb flavour. So, I had a chance to do another recipe to box mix comparison, hoping to emerge with results just as close as the cookie comparison (which was too close to call, taste-wise).

There are numerous benefits to using the mix approach for busy cooks out there, or for those who need a convenient way to whip up something "home made" without filling up the pantry with various flours and other ingredients. I'm lucky enough these days that I have nothing but time (and a very large pantry!) on my hands and so eschew baking mixes (unless baking for my extremely picky sister, which is another story entirely), but given the relative success of the other product I went into the kitchen open-minded.

True to the package advertising, the Epicure mix was easy and fast to make, without the need for a mixer and only 2 additions from home - water and olive oil. All the remaining ingredients, including the seasoned topping, were included, and were separately packaged as the box (retailing at $13 CDN) makes 2 loaves. Nutritional information is on the box for both the dry and prepared mix (though still absent from the website and customer service requests). The biggest benefit for this or any box mix is that it provides a consistent result and almost fool-proof method for even the shyest of chefs: there is minimal measuring, and dead-easy instructions.

So, how did the loaf fare? I have to say, as I was combining the ingredients I was immensely more impressed than with the biscotti. The dough came together well, and with the inclusion of instant yeast there was no proofing required before shaping and baking the disc. The only problem I had with the resulting dough was that unlike the traditional focaccia loaves I had seen and made previously, the Epicure mix did not yield the deep dimples associated with it's kind (and shown in full colour on the box panel).

Popping into the oven, I perused the ingredients list which again was mercifully short and pronounceable, but odd. In with the typical flour, yeast and salt, the ingredients of sugar (in a hefty dose going by the hierarchal list) and orange extract were listed. I could see a touch of sugar being added for yeast growth, but what the heck was so much of it doing in a supposedly savoury loaf, well ahead of the sun-dried tomatoes (which were invisible)? I also noticed the vast amount of packaging that this mix entailed: in addition to the box, each bread mix, yeast packet, and topping mix was wrapped in a silver foil/plastic bag that then went right into the trash. Coupling that with the shipping the purchase of each of these mixes requires (the Epicure line is not sold in stores), the carbon footprint for a bread meant to be simple and rustic was growing rapidly.

The resulting bread was nothing if not beautiful looking - perfectly browned, though still without any dimples. A slice revealed a very soft and tender crumb - almost a cakey texture, but with a crust that was satisfyingly chewy. The taste was, however, as I suspected. The panel (of my parents and Italian stepfamily, as well as Andrew and his family) all declared the bread to be "too sweet" and "good, but not focaccia". There was also question as to whether there was any sundried tomatoes in the mix at all, and the topping was pretty though a little bland. A side of garlic and chile dipping oil helped, but the sweetness was still noticeable. Instead of becoming a side to a salad lunch or dinner, it was finished with afternoon tea and enjoyed as more of a cake or scone.

Undaunted, I set out to make focaccia from a recipe I had earmarked previously, from Nick Malgeri's book "A Baker's Tour". Just as simple on paper as the mix - more so in the ingredients as it had no sugar or extracts of any kind, the dough again came together very simply and quickly. Malgeri's recipe used dry active, rather than instant, yeast which meant two rises were needed, but using a packet of instant yeast would yield equal speed to the pre-mix. To keep the comparison as close as possible, I added diced tomatoes that I had dried last year, along with some Italian seasoning. For the frugal-minded readers, the total cost of all the ingredients I used (including the same fancy-pants olive oil I made the mix with) came out to $4.21CDN. No shipping fees, no packaging, and the freedom to add or change ingredients such as flours, seasoning and even the yeast depending on your mood.

The tradeoff with the recipe is that it yields a rougher looking loaf, which is appropriate for such a dough. The crust is crisper, thicker and chewier, while the crumb is tight. The recipe's dough did dimple extremely well, and held the dimples to keep the bread flat like a storebought focaccia. The taste was also better recieved, being clearly savoury with pieces of tomato and the tang of the olive oil shining through, and the loaf was finished as a mop with spaghetti dinner and the next day's salad.

Sundried Tomato And Herb Focaccia Alla Novese
Makes 2 rounds, 10 wedges each
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp Kosher salt
4 tbsp full-bodied olive oil, divided
20 dry-pack sundied tomato halves, chopped (I use kitchen shears to cut them into 2-3 pieces)
2 tbsp Italian seasoning, divided
2 tsp dry active yeast
1 2/3 cups warm water
Kosher salt and coarse-ground pepper
  1. Combine the flour, salt, 3 tbsp of the oil, tomatoes and 1 tbsp of the Italian seasoning in a large mixing bowl until oil is well dispersed and mixture is crumbly-looking.
  2. In a small bowl or cup, combine yeast and water, let stand 10 minutes, until foamy.
  3. Stir yeast mixture into the flour, beating well to thoroughly hydrate the dough.
  4. Place into a lightly greased bowl, cover and allow to rise 1 hour.
  5. Deflate the dough gently, then divide in half.
  6. Stretch and press into two flattened 8-9 inch rounds. They don't have to be perfect!
  7. Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of each round, then brush the surfaces of the dough with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with last tbsp of Italian seasoning.
  8. Add Kosher salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Cover and allow to rise 45 minutes further.
  10. Preheat oven to 425F, place an oven rack on the lowest tier of the oven.
  11. Bake loaves 30 minutes, until golden all over and hollow sounding when tapped.
  12. Remove to wire racks immediately and cool.
  13. These can be served warm, or room temperature. Wrap in heavy foil and freeze for storage.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 124.6
Total Fat: 3.2 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 233.9 mg
Total Carbs: 20.3 g
Dietary Fiber: 0.8 g
Protein: 3.4 g

So, unfortunately, I can't reccommend the Sun-Dried Tomato and Herb mix for those of you looking for a savoury side this summer. As a bread mix, it is solid, and the other packet of ingredients will probably be transformed into a raisin and cinnamon studded affair. However, all is not completely lost on the Epicure label, as when I was at the Oshawa Market two weeks ago (when I bought the gorgeous berries for the pie) I found a woman selling the Epicure products at the same stall. She convinced me (who is a die-hard mustard freak) to try one of their Summer offerings, labeled Sweet & Spicy Mustard. Divine, divine, divine! It is almost impossible to describe it, as at first it's reminiscent of a honey-mustard, but it transforms into a rich deli style flavour and finishes with just enough kick to let you know that somewhere, there's a pepper or two lurking. I can only dream of the ways I could use it, I would definitely top grilled portabellos with it or use it as a base for salad dressing, and it's balanced enough that a big spoonful into coleslaw mix would blow it away. It's only available through their seasonal catalogue, unfortunately, and since I'm not really in the market for mail-order foods I had to take a pass. If it ever makes it's way into the retail market though, I will be first in line!

6 comments :

kat said...

I have to say I find most bread mixes to be a little sweet. Since I do the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day method making homemade bread is so quick I'd rather just do that

Sylvia said...

Love the focaccia, I also adore sun dried tomatoes.Thanks for share

Sippity Sup said...

I am always wary of products like this...unless I get a great rec like this. GREG

onlinepastrychef said...

What a great, solid review! Thanks for that:) I must say that sweet focaccia sounds odd, to say the least. Plus, the expense is kind of crazy; bread is so cheap to make. I bet most of the cost is all that packaging!

SweetThings said...

yum.... carbs! thanks for the recipe

Kelsey B. said...

I love focaccia and this looks amazing, I can't wait to try it!