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Blind Baking

July 4, 2010

I was in Phoenix, driving west at 5 p.m., when I officially lost my Desert Cred.

I was wearing sunglasses, had the visor down, and shaded my eyes with one hand. I still could not see the road, and I could not tell if this was because my retinas had vaporized or because the skin on my face was melting into my eyes. Since I moved to Seattle from Phoenix two years ago, my vision has somehow adjusted to the greyness. Did you know that Seattleites buy more sunglasses than anyone else in the country, because they get a pair and then lose them before the next sunny day?

Every time I went outside while visiting home for my brother’s college graduation, I squinted into the pale-blue Phoenician sky, like a giant mole in lip gloss and gladiator sandals. My legs matched the putty-colored cool decking around the backyard pool where I scampered many a sunny afternoon. Since this is a food blog, I will not discuss in detail the hot-weather body-crevice phenomenon I lovingly refer to as the Chub Rub. Suffice it to say that I blanch at how quickly I’ve forgotten the days when sweaty bits were just something you lived with, like rush-hour traffic and Facebook friend requests from people you would never befriend in real life.

Losing the Desert Cred is no small thing. It means I officially have Moved Away, and I’m not going to lie and say I don’t feel guilty about it.  And there was something about surviving that stultifying heat every year. I feel like I need Garrison Keillor to describe it. One small example: In Seattle, I’m spoiled. Except for a few weeks in the summer when I weep and wail for Phoenix’s ubiquitous air conditioning, I can pretty much roast, char, and bake willy-nilly. In Phoenix, as May wanes, you start to think: Is this the last day I’m going to be able to use the oven without needing to take an ice bath afterward?

I had gotten my mother a subscription to Canal House Cooking for Mother’s Day a week before I arrived in the Valley of the Sun. (She loves all three volumes, and I highly recommend gifting them.) There were a ton a spring recipes we wanted to try. All of their food pictures were so simple and elegant and non-sweaty. We could have pleaded no-bake weather. The lemon rosemary focaccia from Volume 3 required a smoking hot oven.

But slicing lemons paper-thin next to a pile of chopped fresh rosemary almost works an evap cooler, really. We flung the windows open. We sweated and swilled iced tea. We baked with purpose, because we knew this would be our last great run until Thanksgiving. When I will be home again.

Lemon Rosemary Focaccia
from Canal House Cooking, Volume 3

This bread is not for the oil-shy. You mix two tablespoons of olive oil in with the yeast mixture. You coat the bowl the dough rises in with two more tablespoons. You coat the pans. You drizzle oil into the little fingerprints you press into the dough pre-baking, and then you re-drizzle after baking. You drizzle it all over you body and glisten by the pool like you are filming an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Now With Olive OIl! commercial featuring you, Fabio, and his glorious mane. The top of the bread comes out this beautiful shimmery brown, dotted with crunchy sea salt and lemon slices that have just began to caramelize and curl at the edges. Well worth the Chub Rub, if you asked me.

For the dough:
1 envelope active dry yeast
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cups bread flour, plus more for kneading
2 teaspoons salt

To assemble:
olive oil
leaves of 2-3 branches fresh rosemary, chopped
2 lemons, washed in hot water to melt off any wax and sliced into rounds, as thin as you can get them
coarse sea salt (I used Maldon)

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Add 1 and 1/4 cups water and 2 tablespoons olive oil to yeast mixture. In another bowl, mix flour and salt together. Add yeast mixture to this and mix for about a minute. (The original recipe recommended a food processor for this step; I used a stand mixer.) Briefly knead dough and shape into a ball. Coat a bowl with 2 Tbs. olive oil, roll the dough ball around in it to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours.

Pour a thin film of oil into 4 8-inch cake pans. Quarter the dough and press one quarter into the bottom of each pan. (As Canal House advises, let the dough rest for a few minutes if it does not stretch easily; it should cooperate on your next try).

Cover pans with damp dishcloths and let rise for 30-60 minutes. When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle dough with rosemary, press in dimples with your fingertips, pour olive oil over liberally, arrange thin slices of lemon on top, drizzle with more olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. (Next time I will put 6-7 slices of lemon on each pan. They shrink up a little when they cook, and underneath each slice, you’ll get a hit of concentrated lemoniness.) Bake until golden brown, 20-30 minutes, and drizzle with more oil while warm.

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