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On Making Focaccia

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The hassles of living in New York can make even the most upbeat among us whine. There's little redeeming about the crowded 4 train, the way everything costs a fortune, or the challenge of finding cabs downtown on weekend nights. I am first to admit, though, that what sometimes gets overlooked are New York's redeeming qualities, the way you can find a resource for whatever it is you want to do, even if what you want to do is learn to make samosas. I don't think there are that many other cities (or least there weren't about a decade ago), where you could find amateur and even kid-oriented cooking classes at a professional institution. In New York, you can.

But when I was a teenager, I'd occasionally take a day-long class at the Institute of Culinary Education. In different courses, I made Indian flatbread and perfect vinaigrettes; my sister learned to roll sushi and stir her way to faultless risotto. Once, my mom and I took a focaccia course together. The only slight annoyance about making focaccia -- waiting for it to rise -- didn't affect us, since as soon as we'd covered one bowl, we would start on another recipe in order to get the most out of the class. We brought home a lot of bread that day, in various thicknesses and sizes, and all with different toppings. Through the years, we've made focaccia regularly, to accompany light dinners, as the crust for homemade pizza, or as an appetizer with tomato or olive oil to dip it in.

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One of the most unusual toppings we plastered the focaccia with that first day in class was potatoes. I think we sprinkled rosemary, cheese and onions on the potatoes, but I couldn't quite remember. When I consulted the worldwide web on "potato focaccia," all I found were breads with potato in the dough. Since there was no instructor, electronic or otherwise, to guide me, I wound up layering thinly sliced potato over a coating of pesto.

Taking the first bite of my potato focaccia didn't exactly bring back the same memory of class, especially since I had a sinkful of dirty dishes, and at the Institute of Culinary Education, full-time cooking students disappear your used bowls as soon as you've scraped out the last bit of dough. But I felt pretty good about the skills I'd acquired there so long ago and about the current toying around I was doing, good enough to assure you that this focaccia is not very hard and really must be made.

--by Cara Eisenpress of Big Girls, Small Kitchen

Potato-Pesto Focaccia
Makes one large focaccia

This is not an exact science. Depending on the way you measure flour and the humidity of the day, you'll need to add slightly more flour to make the dough workable. But since you don't knead focaccia at all, it's okay for the dough to be kind of sticky.

Ingredients
1 package yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water (at the right temp, if you run water on your wrist, you shouldn't be able to feel it)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for greasing the pan and brushing the top
4 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt

2 small potatoes (any kind), thinly sliced
1/4 cup pesto
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Mix together the water with the yeast and sugar. Let it sit until it bubbles, about 5 minutes. Add the olive oil. and whisk.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until well combined. Stir an additional minute or two.

Transfer to a clean, well oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1-1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450°. Spread about 1/2 of the dough in a greased 9 x 13" brownie pan and the rest in a round 8" cake pan. Cover each and allow to rise again, about 20-30 minutes. Spread the rectangular focaccia with pesto, then layer with potato slices and brush with olive oil and sprinkle with cheese and coarse salt.

Bake for 12-20 minutes, until the breads have risen and browned, and the crusts are very crispy. If necessary, cut into the center to make sure the dough is all cooked - these are not like chocolate chip cookies and aren't really good underbaked. Serve warm in slices or wedges, or at room temperature.