An easy-going loaf, Fougasse

June 12th, 2009


There is no easier bread to bake than Fougasse. That was my conclusion this morning when I stirred up a small batch of this ever-so-basic bread before lunch.  Fougasse was originally an unleavened “hearth bread”, baked under the coals or cinders in the fireplace or bake oven in the “casa foganha“, the kitchen of an Occitan farm. Clearly, it is humble fare.  Traveling across southeastern France today, the region of Occitania called Provence, one doesn’t hear the Occitan language spoken (except, occasionally in the back country livestock fairs) anymore. You may sometimes hear the rustic Fougasse called “ladder bread”  shaped in circles, rectangles or leaves with slits in the dough. Some bakers top the dough with olives, salt, seeds and herbs, while others make a simply unadorned, delicious loaf.

To have Fougasse for lunch, begin 2 to 3 hours ahead by letting 1 teaspoon of dry yeast proof in 3 tablespoons warm water for 10 minutes. Warm bowls and flour at room temperature speed up the process. Measure* 250 g/2 cups bread flour (a light whole wheat flour works well – I use organic T80) into a warm bowl and make a well in the center, pour the dissolved and slightly thickened yeast mixture into the well.  Dissolve 1 teaspoon sea salt in 2 tablespoons water (it should not be mixed directly with the yeast), then mix it with the flour:  use a long handled wooden spoon or stand mixer with a dough-hook (wish I had space for one!), sprinkling more flour to make a workable dough as it pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Oil your hands with olive oil, pull the dough together and knead on a lightly oiled surface. Add a little more flour if needed, turn and pummel the dough as it becomes more elastic, then form into a ball. Let it rise in an oiled bowl until doubled (about 2 hours, depending on temperature), punch down and split in half; on an oiled metal baking sheet, shape into rectangles and flatten them out to form 2 leaves or rectangles. Let rest, covered, for 30 to 50 minutes. Turn the oven on to 225°c/420° to preheat for 35 minutes.  At this point, you can make slits like the veins of a leaf, poke the top with a fork, or poke with your finger overall to make a dimpled surface. Brush with oil, lightly press 1 tablespoon chopped fresh (Not dried) rosemary leaves and sea salt over the surface. To top with olives, gently press halves of pitted olives into the top. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower temperature to 200°c/400°f  for another 15 minutes – but watch that it doesn’t brown too much. For a crunchy crust, spray with a water-mist sprayer when you put them into the oven, or put a pan of water in the lower half of the oven. If you like a puffier bread, don’t roll it too thin and avoid misting. The thinner style of Fougasse is more like a crisp Ligurian Focacia – a close cousin – both traced to the Latin foyer, hearth or focus of the home.  Toss a green salad, set forth a plate of local cheeses, pour chilled rosé into glasses all around…. an easy-going summer lunch is ready!

*For larger loaves (more coming for lunch?) follow a ratio of 5 parts flour to 3 parts water as  proportions. This and heaps of other sensible advice is at hand in Michael Ruhlman’s book: RATIO, The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking, published this year by Scribner. Keep it IN the kitchen, for referral on everything from custard and ganache to toffee.

Note: Rosemary, romarin, is tender in June, the perfect time to chop it onto a fougasse or to freeze stems for later use – by the end of the summer, the rosemary leaves stiffen up like little green needles…. gather your rosemary while ye may.

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