Photo: Shimon & Tammar
Imagine a dish so simple, versatile, and easy to prepare that in the course of 24 hours it can (a) adorn an informal brunch, (b) serve as the perfect side dish at an elegant dinner party, (c) rev up your breakfast the following morning, and (d) provide a tantalizing wrap for a gorgeous noontime sandwich. Imagine a food that not only tastes great plain but, with the right toppings—caramelized onions, chèvre, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, or anything else that comes to mind—reaches levels of pure transcendence. Focaccia, the classic little black dress of Italian breads, does all that and more. "When Oprah entertains, we always have homemade focaccia," says Art Smith, Oprah's whiz personal chef. "It takes a really simple meal and makes it totally star."
An ancient recipe of flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil, and herbs, focaccia found its niche in America as an exotic stand-in for pizza—which it decidedly is not. "People tend to put too many toppings on focaccia, forgetting that its role is to enhance the meal, not become the meal," Smith says. "Focaccia is about the bread. Pizza is about the crust." Nor should cooks confuse focaccia with bruschetta, those toasted, rowboat-shaped slices of French or Tuscan bread: Focaccia is flat and thin; bruschetta is plump and crunchy. The third thing focaccia isn't? Time consuming.
Smith makes his by hand in about an hour, plus an unattended hour or so for rising. "Focaccia is one of the easiest doughs in the world," he says. "And it fills the house with this wonderful smell of bread, combined with whatever you're putting on top—onions or herbs or tomatoes." Using a heavy-duty mixer cuts down on time, but Smith prefers to go the traditional route: "I have a big bowl and a spoon. I add my yeast and warm water, and I make the dough into a ball right in the bowl with my hands."
Like many chefs, Smith dimples the uncooked dough with his fingers and then dabs the top with extra-virgin olive oil just before placing it in the oven. His definition of a perfect loaf? "Every little piece should taste of good olive oil."
Choose your toppings according to the season, says Smith. In winter, when good, fresh produce is sometimes hard to come by, he uses caramelized onions and goat cheese—a favorite of Oprah and her best friend, Gayle. "They love to make wonderful turkey sandwiches with it, fresh from the oven," Smith says. You can substitute Gorgonzola for the goat cheese or—if you're playing it really safe—fresh Parmesan. The finer the ingredients, the lusher the flavor. "None of that fake stuff!" he says of pregrated supermarket cheese. "If you work that hard to make a great bread, make sure the toppings are the best." When the weather warms up, Smith serves focaccia topped with fresh basil leaves and sliced tomatoes as a side dish for a grilled midsummer feast.
Best of all, focaccia can be prepared in advance, making it an accomplished host's secret weapon. You can mix the dough the day before and let it rest in the fridge. A couple of hours before your guests arrive, take it out to warm to room temperature. Then, Smith says, you need only "stretch it out, slide it into an olive-oiled pan, and put it in the oven." This is one little black dress you'll be wearing morning, noon, and night.