There are a few basic rules and tricks that will help you ensure faultless results.
Firstly, ‘wetter is better’, by which I mean that the wetter the dough is the better the finished dough will be. When you start kneading, the dough may seem a little sticky but resist the urge to add more flour as this will result in a heavy and denser baked bread. All you need to do is keep working the dough and you will find that after 7-10 minutes of kneading it will no longer stick to your work surface. I prefer to work my dough by hand as, without sounding pompous, I feel that I have a greater ‘connection’ with the bread but feel to use a sturdy stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. In this regard, I will admit that there are some breads which are much easier to mix using a stand mixer because they are incredibly sticky! Brioche and the following recipe for focaccia are examples of dough that are incredibly sticky.
Salt is the enemy of yeast and if too much comes into contact with the yeast it will kill it and your bread will fail before you have even started. Make sure you distribute the salt through the flour before adding the yeast.
Some people dissolve the yeast in water before adding it to the dry ingredients but I tend to just crumble it in and have never had any failures by doing this.
If you can’t get your hands on fresh yeast, by all means use dried yeast but remember that you will only require half the stated amount. So, for example if the recipe states that 15g of fresh yeast is required, you will only need 7g or 8g of dried yeast. I prefer the results that I get with using fresh yeast but I would often use dried yeast as well and you can’t argue with the fact that it is so easy to store. Some people claim that fresh yeast can be frozen and then defrosted before using but it has never worked for me so I tend to buy small 50g blocks of it from my local Polish store and store any that I do not immediately use in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
These are just a few tips… There are many more but what I recommend is get your hands on a few basic recipes and have a go. There is nothing quite as appealing as the smell of freshly baked bread.
The following recipe for potato focaccia is fabulous and despite being a sticky dough this recipe is very achievable. I knead the dough by hand using a dough scraper to lift the dough from my work surface and would strongly recommend using one as they make life so much easier but, as I said above, use a stand mixer fitter with a dough hook if you prefer.
This bread keeps well because of the amount of olive oil that is included. I have topped my focaccia with thinly sliced new potatoes and some fresh rosemary but do experiment with different toppings. Focaccia made with just a sprinkling of flaky sea salt is particularly delicious.
Ingredients:500g strong white flour10g fine sea salt
10g fresh yeast
100g olive oil plus a little extra to sprinkle on the baked bread
2 medium sized potatoes, thinly sliced
Small sprigs of fresh rosemary
Flaky sea salt
Method:1. Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and, using your hands, mix together so that the salt is well distributed. Crumble in the yeast and mix through. Make a well in the centre and add the water followed by the olive oil. Use your hands to mix everything together to create a slightly sticky dough.
2. Turn the dough out on to a clean work surface and knead for 10-12 minutes until it is smooth and velvety and is no longer sticking to the work surface. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Set aside for an hour or until the dough has risen and doubled in size.
3. Line a large baking tray (roughly 35cms x 20cms) with some non-stick baking parchment sprinkled with a little flour or semolina.
4. Tip the proved dough out onto a clean work surface and knock back. Place it on to the lined baking and flatten it with your hands and fingertips until it almost reaches the edges of the baking tray. It will be quite thin and will retain some of the dimples you have created with your fingertips when rolling it out.
5. Place the sliced potatoes on top of the dough and press some sprigs of rosemary into the dough at regular intervals. Drizzle with a little olive oil and cover loosely with cling film and allow to rise again for 45 minutes.
6. Just before baking the bread, preheat the oven to 200C/Fan Oven 180C/Gas Mark 6. Sprinkle the focaccia with a little flaky sea salt and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and Cooked through and the potatoes are beginning to turn crispy at the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before eating.
Make 1 large focaccia.