Why It Works
- A high proportion of olive oil in the dough provides extensibility, making it easy to stretch thin, while bread flour lends enough strength to prevent it from tearing.
- Giving the dough ample time to rest ensures it’s easy to handle and roll.
- A small amount of sugar in the dough promotes browning that otherwise would be difficult to achieve with the lower temperatures of a home oven.
- Tearing small holes in the top of the dough allows steam to escape during baking, which helps keep the crust crisp and tender.
Focaccia is synonymous with Liguria, the northwestern coastal Italian region also famous for its pesto and Pixar child sea monsters. If you were to ask someone to describe the platonic ideal of focaccia, they most likely would describe a plush, yeasted dough, burnished to a golden brown in the oven, soaked with fragrant olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. That’s focaccia genovese, from the region’s capital, and it’s fantastic. But there are plenty of other local styles of focaccia that are worthy of admiration and attention, chief among them being focaccia col formaggio, or focaccia with cheese, from the town of Recco, which is a few miles south of Genoa.
Focaccia di Recco is the ultimate zag to the focaccia most of us are familiar with. Instead of a tender, open-crumb bread, this is a cracker-thin, crunchy, gooey, cheese-filled snack, made with an unleavened dough that’s closer to paratha dough or flour tortilla masa than the kind of high-hydration dough typically used for yeasted focaccia. The dough gets stretched into two paper-thin sheets that are draped over a large round metal baking tray, with dollops of creamy Stracchino cheese sandwiched in between them, before getting drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. A quick bake in a hot oven yields a crisp crust that still has a tender chew, with a bubbling cheesy center.
With no fermentation and proofing times to monitor, making the dough for focaccia di Recco is a breeze. I start by stirring together bread flour, salt, and a pinch of sugar with water and a generous amount of olive oil to form a shaggy dough. Sugar typically isn’t added to this dough, but to compensate for the lower temperatures of home ovens compared to those used in focaccerie and sciamadde (casual Ligurian eateries), I add a little bit to help with browning. I turn the dough onto the counter, knead it by hand until it’s mostly smooth, and then divide it into four portions for making two focacce. A long rest at room temperature gives the dough time to relax, making it easier to roll out and stretch.
The high proportion of olive oil in the dough—ten percent for those who are into using baker’s percentages—also helps make it easy to work with by limiting gluten formation and giving it extensibility. The high protein content of bread flour gives the dough enough strength to allow it to be stretched gossamer thin without tearing.
Typically, the dough is stretched over round copper baking trays two feet in diameter, similar to the ones used for making farinata, another Ligurian specialty. This obviously isn’t a piece of home kitchen equipment, so I developed this recipe to work with affordable round metal pizza trays and a traditional rimmed baking sheet. Place the baking tray on a stable elevated surface, like a large mixing bowl, before stretching the first portion of dough over it. This bottom portion of dough is slightly larger than the top crust, so that it can be rolled and stretched a little bit thicker. With the bottom dough taken care of, it’s time to dollop the cheese.
Stracchino, also known as Crescenza or Stracchino di Crescenza, is a creamy, soft, cow’s milk cheese from the nearby region of Lombardy, with a mild, slightly tart flavor. The inclusion of this “imported” cheese in focaccia col formaggio makes it a bit of an extravagance compared to the more humble olive oil or onion-topped versions found in other parts of Liguria. Nowadays you can find Stracchino at plenty of cheese shops and Italian specialty markets like Eataly, and, like most things, it’s also available online. If you can’t find Stracchino, I tested with both Taleggio, a more aged and funky washed rind cheese from the same region, and a Camembert-style cheese, and they both made for decent substitutes. Keep in mind that those cheeses are more aged, so they boast a more assertive flavor and firmer texture than Stracchino.
Whatever you end up using, dollop it over the surface of the dough, and don’t be shy with the cheese. Next, roll out and stretch the second, smaller portion of dough. The goal here is to make the top crust as thin as possible, before stretching it over the Stracchino-topped dough. I then tear small holes in this top cover of dough, which allow steam to escape during baking so that the focaccia can crisp evenly.
Remove any overhanging dough by running your rolling pin around the edge of the baking tray; elevating the tray on a bowl gives you the proper angle to pull this off (you can also just use a small paring knife or scissors). Add a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt and then put the focaccia into a full-blast oven, ideally on a Baking Steel or stone for maximum browning of the bottom crust, and bake it until the top crust is browned and the cheese is bubbling through the vented holes. Cut it into squares and serve this focaccia di Recco as the ultimate aperitivo snack.