It’s 8:13 AM. On the street below a man is hosing down the entryway to a shrine for Saint Agrippina, garnished with over forty red roses. There has been an Italian feast here in Boston’s North End, waging a war of sweets, meats, and muddied acoustics outside my window for days.
The best way to describe it is to call to mind a state fair; the Great New York State Fair is my reference point. Except picture more teeth and truncated consonants and swap out the secular wine slushies and spiedies for tents filled with blessed arancini balls and cannoli shells.
The smell of things fried in oil wafting up to a bedroom window may sound charming. It can be. The sound of when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie while cooking dinner may sound romantic. It can be.
The resonance of a cover of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” at 10:15 PM when you are trying to sleep is neither charming, nor romantic. Especially when it is not—in fact—the last dance of the evening. Under the auspices of broken promises, the age of disco continues to rage for another half hour.
For most of July, I took things to the limit traveling up and down the northeastern coast to the Cape, Vermont, and Rhode Island. Trampling across beaches, up mountains, and settling on green grass to listen to banjos and acoustic guitars.
I mention this because during these weekends away from the city I’ve felt stronger, often on less sleep, and more booze. I also found myself reflecting a good deal as, I think, traveling tends to nudge. There are things to help this process if you are willing to listen and open wide.
Recently, this has included a Texas gentleman who goes by the name Shakey Graves. I saw him in Newport last weekend at the epic folk festival. His gritty, soulful lyrics are matched by his lone guitar and suitcase kick drum. And I haven’t felt this way about music since I was thirteen and discovering The Beatles for the first time.
The man can sing.
So sit back and watch me go
Bored and lazy
Yeah, watch me go, just passin’ through
Follow me beyond the mountain
Yeah go howl at the ol’ big moon
Oh strip them clothes right from your body
Dress your skin in sticks and stones
Doesn’t matter where we’re headed oh
Yeah cause some of us were built
Yeah, well, some of us were built
Yeah, well you know that some of us
Oh we were built to roam
So there’s that.
There’s also been this here focaccia that has done its fair share of traveling. To Barnstable County accompanying pan-fried fish and a tomato casserole. To Newport alongside smashed avocado and six-minute eggs. To a motor lodge with cheese from a farm in Vermont with rosé drank from Styrofoam cups. To my beloved wineshop on Hanover Street because those wonderful folks deserve good bread.
It goes most places, easily. With pockets of olive oil in its open crevices. Seasoned with pins from a spindly rosemary plant I’ve had for a scant decade. It’s soft, and chewy, and incredibly simple. The recipe is worth holding tightly to and the focaccia slab is suitable to share with as many people as you can.
I’m not spiritual in the sense of god, or saints, or shrines. But I do believe in the power of an acoustic guitar and of things made of flour and of heart. And for me, right now, that’s enough to fill a soul full.
6¼ cups (915g) all-purpose flour, sifted
2 scant tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp instant yeast
3½ cups warm water (a little warmer than room temperature)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan and to drizzle overtop
pinch coarse sea salt
pinch red pepper flakes
2 to 3 tsp minced fresh rosemary
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and yeast; add the warm water and stir until all the flour is incorporated and a sticky dough forms. In a 6-quart container (the bowl of most Kitchen Aids will do) pour in ¼ cup olive oil.
Pour the dough on top of the olive oil and scoop a little oil that pools at the sides of the bowl over top. (It will look like you’ve made a terrible mistake here, the dough will be very loose, almost like porridge.) Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days (I’ve been averaging about 24 hours). The dough will rise and puff up.
When ready to bake, take the dough from the fridge, oil a baking sheet (about 18 x 13), and pour the dough onto your prepared pan. Using your hands, spread the dough gently out to the corners, or as close as you can get it. Let the dough rise until it roughly doubles in volume (about 1 hour). It is ready when it is puffed up and spread out.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine a tablespoon or two of olive oil with a pinch of red pepper and salt, plus the rosemary.
Set the oven to 450 degrees. Make a number of indentations in the puffed dough with your fingers, like you are playing the piano. Give the olive oil mixture a quick stir and drizzle it evenly over the top of the focaccia, allowing it to pool in the dimples created.
Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the top turns golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack and then cut into slices in the pan.
Makes enough for 12 sandwiches (or 24 narrow strips for snacking)
-Start this recipe a day ahead. This may seem annoying, but it’s not a lot of work: there's no kneading.
-The focaccia will last up to 2 days sealed in a plastic bag on the countertop. If you won’t use all of it right away, it freezes brilliantly. (If you want it for sandwiches, slice before freezing.)
-See Shakey sing. (Lyrics from "Built to Roam.")