Mom’s Ravioli

September 27, 2017

My strongest olfactory memory of childhood is gradually waking up on Sunday morning to the smell (perfume is a better characterization as far as I’m concerned) of garlic being sautéed in olive oil.

That was how most Sundays started.

My mother would get up early and start making her long-simmered Southern Italian Tomato Sauce (referred to as Ragu or Sugo if one’s Italian roots were close, “Gravy” if one grew up in New York or nearby, and often just “Sauce”). We unceremoniously called it “Spaghetti Sauce” though it was used on much more than spaghetti!

I think the better part of my culinary-cultural history is represented by that sauce. Every Italian family’s sauce is different, even if stylistic similarities can be identified. The sauces made by my mother and her two sisters that I knew, Aunt Margie and Aunt Mamie, were clearly related but also different. Each was good but it’s not as if they didn’t deviate from my Grandmother’s recipe. They were similar in that garlic and meat were browned in oil; tomato products, water, and seasonings were added; and the whole thing simmered for hours. The meats varied, the tomato products (tomato paste, tomato puree, whole canned tomatoes, etc.) and the proportions of them definitely varied as did the seasonings and other aromatics.

My mother’s “Spaghetti Sauce” to call it by its “historic” name, a name that I no longer use, is, without doubt, my most precious culinary treasure. I have only ever given the recipe out twice. In the 1970’s I gave it to John Bowker and his wife Margaret Roper Bowker. John was the dean of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Recently I gave it to Robert Reddington and John O’Malley in Palm Springs after Bob lamented the loss of the recipe for the long-simmered tomato sauce he learned to make while living in Chicago.

With my mother’s sauce as the near-constant backdrop to our Sunday dinners, the rest of the meal varied. The sauce could be served with spaghetti or some other cut of dry pasta, or with my mother’s home-made fettuccine, or with ravioli. Although my favorite pasta is gnocchi, we never had those on Sundays as my father didn’t like them. Gnocchi (always home-made) were reserved for a weeknight meal during the times that my father worked out of town.

The sauce has an abundant amount of meat in it, pork, always cut in big pieces, never ground or chopped. Nonetheless, the pasta was often accompanied by my mother’s slow-cooked roast pork or maybe a roast chicken.

It seems incongruous now, but in the 1960s, before the widespread use of antibiotics, chickens were expensive! (I’m not in favor of the prophylactic use of antibiotics but I’m just saying that’s why chickens are relatively inexpensive now.) I still have a handful of my mother’s “City Chicken” sticks from the 1960s. They are round, pointed sticks slimmer than a pencil but thicker than bamboo skewers. Pieces of pork and veal would be skewered in alternating fashion on the sticks, breaded, and fried like chicken drumsticks. This was less expensive than chicken!!

City Chicken sticks

But back to Sundays…

Sometimes, after the sauce was bubbling away, my mother would make ravioli. Next to gnocchi, they are my favorite pasta, but manicotti and lasagna aren’t far behind.

We would eat our big meal around 1 PM on Sunday and my mother would get all of this done in time for that meal, including taking time to go to church, during which my Aunt Mamie, who lived upstairs, would be tasked with stirring the “Spaghetti Sauce.”

My mother’s (now my) ravioli mold.

Making ravioli in a group is a lot more fun. I also find that making the ravioli on a different day from the day they are cooked and eaten means that I am not as tired and I enjoy them more. The pictures in this post are from a Sunday when I got together with Rich DePippo, Susan Vinci-Lucero, and my in-laws, Marisa and Frank Pieri, to make ravioli. I think we made about 30 dozen ravioli!


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Mom's Ravioli
The filling can be made a day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. Ravioli freeze well. To do so, lightly flour a sheet pan that will fit in your freezer and put the ravioli in a single layer. Freeze about 30-45 minutes, until firm. Quickly put the ravioli in a zipper-lock bag and return to the freezer. Repeat with the remaining ravioli. My mother always made her dough by hand but I use a kitchen mixer and the beater, not the dough hook. Years ago, ground meat was not labeled with the percent fat. My mother would select a cut of sirloin, have the butcher trim off all visible fat and then grind it. I find that 93% lean ground beef replicates the experience.
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Prep Time 2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
Filling
Dough
Prep Time 2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Filling
Dough
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Instructions
Filling
  1. Put the frozen spinach in a small saucepan. Add a few tablespoons of water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is completely thawed.
  2. Pour the spinach into a large sieve.
  3. After the spinach has cooled enough to handle, squeeze handfuls of the spinach to remove as much liquid as possible.
  4. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan until shimmering. Add the beef.
  5. Cook over high heat until the liquid has evaporated, breaking up the meat while cooking.
  6. Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, and black pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for 2-3 minutes more.
  7. Add the spinach to the beef.
  8. Continue to cook over medium to medium-low heat while breaking up the spinach and completely combining it with the beef.
  9. When the beef and spinach are well combined and no obvious liquid remains in the pan, add the beaten egg. Stir well and cook two minutes more. The egg should completely incorporate into the filling and no longer be visible.
  10. Adjust salt and pepper.
  11. On low heat, add 1/4-1/3 cup of breadcrumbs and combine well to absorb any remaining liquid or oil. If necessary to absorb any remaining liquid, add another tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs. If you cooked off all the liquid when browning the beef, and used lean beef, 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs should be enough.
  12. Cool the filling to room temperature before filling the ravioli.
Dough
  1. Put the flour, egg, and egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with a paddle.
  2. Mix on low until combined.
  3. Add the water, a little at a time, until the dough just comes together. The dough should not be the slightest bit tacky. You may not need all the water.
  4. Remove the dough from the mixer and roll into a log. Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes before rolling out.
Assembly
  1. Set up your pasta machine, either a hand crank version or an attachment for your mixer.
  2. Cut off a small handful of dough.
  3. Flatten the dough, dust with flour, and run it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting.
  4. If the dough is catching on the rollers it may be too wet. Sprinkle liberally with flour.
  5. Run the dough through the same setting one more time.
  6. Run the dough through the pasta machine narrowing the setting by one notch each time. If the dough is getting too long to cover much more than two lengths of the ravioli mold, cut off the excess and continue.
  7. When rolling out the dough, use slow, even motion. If the dough is not rolling out to the full width of the machine, or at least wide enough to cover the width of the ravioli mold, fold it in half crosswise and run it through the machine again on whatever the last setting was.
  8. If the dough is not rolling out smoothly, and the issue is not that it is too damp, run the dough through the machine again on the same setting.
  9. On most pasta machines with five settings for thickness, you will want to stop rolling out the dough on the next-to-thinnest setting.
  10. Put the rolled out dough on a lightly floured surface and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with 2 or 3 more portions of dough.
  11. Allow the remaining dough to rest, covered, while filling and cutting the first batch of ravioli.
  12. To fill the ravioli, take the rolled out dough and lay it across the ravioli mold.
  13. Add a slightly rounded teaspoonful of filling to each ravioli. Do not overfill or the ravioli may break when being cooked.
  14. Fold the dough over the top.
  15. Lightly pat the top sheet of dough.
  16. Using a rolling pin, cut the dough along the zig-zag edges. Be careful to fully cut through the dough around the edges as well as between each raviolo.
  17. Remove the ravioli and place on a lightly floured surface. Cover lightly with a kitchen towel.
  18. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
  19. Cook, refrigerate, or freeze the ravioli.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Slovak Potato Cake (Baba or Bubba)

June 7, 2017

Baba was a favorite food in our house.  We often joked that my mother should open a shop selling pizza and baba.  We were convinced it would be a success, as were a number of family friends.

Although Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was originally founded by Germans (everyone, regardless of ethnic background, had sauerkraut, sausages, and pork on New Year’s Day), Italians and Eastern Europeans were among the largest ethnic groups when I lived there.  So, a “fusion” shop selling pizza and baba wasn’t so far-fetched!

Baba means old woman in Slovak.  I can’t tell you how it came to be applied to this very specific type of potato cake and whether it was just in our family or more widespread, though I suspect the latter.

Other than the crispy skin of our Thanksgiving turkey, this is the only food my sister and I fought over.  This, however, was three-way guerilla warfare also involving my father.  Crispy turkey skin has an immediacy about it.  It needs to be eaten right away, hot and crispy, or it loses its appeal.  The fight is right out there in the open, a virtual “land grab.”

Baba is different.  As good as it is freshly made, we all preferred it after a day or two.  Any leftover baba would be wrapped in aluminum foil and put in the oven, which had a pilot light way back then.  That kept it ever so slightly warmer than room temperature.  The baba would become chewy.

The natural tension that developed was between letting the baba mature till it had the optimum chewiness versus losing out entirely if someone else ate it first.

We all kept our eyes on the oven which was conveniently located at eye-level.  If it looked like the package had been disturbed, we could swing into action, grabbing what was left and eating it even if it didn’t have the optimum chew.  “Any baba is better than no baba” was definitely the operative mentality.

There was always the chance, however, that the first person to go for the baba would eat all of it, especially if there were only a few pieces left.

There was also the chance (sometimes turned into reality) that someone could deftly open the package, remove a piece of baba, close the package, and put it back in the oven it in a way that made it look undisturbed.  Well implemented, this was a strategy for getting more baba since others could be lulled into complacency thinking the cache of baba was still available to them for the taking.

The ingredients of baba are pretty standard potato cake fare, potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, flour and, depending on the cook, egg.  Two things make it unusual in my experience: caraway seed and the cooking method.  To be sure, Slovaks put caraway seed in lots of foods but I have yet to find a recipe for Slovak potato cakes that contains caraway seed.

As for cooking method, baba is cooked in the oven in a rimmed baking sheet.  Remembering that my grandparents raised seven sons, who in later years were augmented by daughters-in-law and grandchildren, baba was made in large quantities.  When there wasn’t enough batter to fill another baking sheet “to the thickness of your finger,” as my Aunt Mary would say, the remaining batter would be turned into individual potato “pancakes” in a frying pan in shallow oil.

The proportions given here will nicely fill an 11” by 17” baking sheet.  If you prefer to fry the potato cakes rather than bake them, by all means do!

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Slovak Potato Cake (Baba)
I remember watching my mother make this, and learning from her. Though it always tasted the same in the end, it seemed like the lack of precise measurements was an issue. My mother had no difficulty cooking her regular canon of Italian food without measurements. My suspicion is that the issue with Baba is that she didn’t make it all that often. I make it even less often (though I think that’s changing) which prompted me to carefully measure ingredients until I got a perfect batch and then stick with those measurements going forward. My mother put an egg in her Baba. My Aunt Mary did not. Aunt Mary, who lived next door to my Slovak grandparents for years, insists that Grandma never used egg. I have not tried it without the egg, being happy to stick with a recipe that works. Before food processors, the potatoes and onion were grated on the fine side of a box grater. The food processor eliminates the most tedious part of making Baba.
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Peel the potatoes. Rinse and dry them and cut into 1 inch cubes.
  2. Weigh out 1600 grams (3 ½ pounds) of potato cubes.
  3. Cut onion into 1 inch chunks.
  4. In two or three batches, depending on the size of your food processor, thoroughly grind the potato and onion, putting some potato and some onion in each batch.
  5. Put the ground potatoes and onions into a large mixing bowl. Add the lightly beaten egg, salt, black pepper, and caraway seed.
  6. Mix well.
  7. Stir in about ¾ of the flour. Add enough of the remaining flour to thickly coat a spoon. Chances are you will need all the flour. If in doubt, just add it.
  8. Very, very generously grease an 11” x 17” x 1” baking sheet with lard. After you think you’ve used enough, add more! Remember, most potato cakes are fried. These are baked. They definitely need some fat for texture.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Dot very generously with lard.
  10. Bake 425°F until browned on the bottom, about 30-40 minutes, turning the pan front to back after 20 minutes.
  11. When the bottom is brown, you’ll need to flip the Baba upside down. To do this, set another baking sheet of the same size on top of the Baba. The bottom of the baking sheet should be sitting on top of the Bubba.
  12. Flip the pans over. If you had enough lard in the pan, the Baba should release from the pan and be sitting, upside down, on the bottom of the other baking pan.
  13. Slide the Baba back into the original baking pan with the browned bottom now facing up.
  14. Bake another 20 minutes or so until browned on the bottom and thoroughly cooked.
  15. Turn out of the pan onto a large cutting board.
  16. Cut into 16 pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe Notes

Although you can use solid vegetable shortening in this recipe, I suggest you use lard for better taste and better health. You can find information about lard vs. vegetable shortening in this post.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Homemade Dumplings

May 19, 2017

It is unfathomable to me that someone could voluntarily go on a low carbohydrate diet.

Avoiding gluten, short of having full-blown celiac disease, is equally unthinkable.

All of my most favorite foods start with flour.

Some contain flour and potatoes.

Roughly in order these are Potato Gnocchi, my Slovak Grandmother’s Potato Cakes and a three-way tie between Pasta (of almost any sort), Dumplings, and my Aunt Mary’s Bread Rolls Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes and rubbed with garlic and oil.

Of those five foods, the only one I get on a regular basis is pasta.  I have pasta 3 or 4 (or 5 or 6) times per week.  I could probably have it every day and never tire of it.  A few days without pasta and I begin to have serious cravings.

Until just recently, I had a frenetic travel schedule for work.  One of the first things I would do upon landing in a city that I was likely to return to over and over for work was to find a really good restaurant, preferably an Italian restaurant or one with a goodly number of Italian dishes on the menu.  Failing that, I would look for a restaurant with an ingredient-driven menu that was not into precious or pretentious presentation!

Sometimes finding that restaurant was elusive and my pasta cravings would be in full swing by the time I got home.

Over the years, my mother-in-law has learned that the best thing she could make for dinner on a day when I’m returning from a trip is pasta.  Even if I’m not having pasta withdrawal symptoms, there are few foods that I would rather have.  Actually, there’s only one:  gnocchi, which truth be told, is just the Italian word for dumpling, which as you’ve noticed is on my list in its English form, too!

Sometimes the restaurants I’d find were so spot-on perfect that I would just work my way down the menu over successive trips.  In this category are the recently closed Dish Osteria in Pittsburgh, Bari Ristorante in Memphis, Antico in Chicago, and, until the recent change in the menu, Tre Soldi in Chicago.

Sometimes I’d find a chef whose cooking I really enjoyed, as happened with Bruce Bogartz in Knoxville a number of years ago.  My business partner and I followed Bruce through at least three different restaurants.  Sometimes we’d just walk in and sit down and Bruce would come over and say: “Can I just cook for you this evening?”  That would be the sum-total of ordering.

Sometimes my business partner and I would find a restaurant that would accommodate our cravings as happened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We’d usually get to the restaurant late on the day we came into town.  After a few trips, we got bold and asked for something that wasn’t on the menu.  Something simple.  Something Italian.  As I recall it was spaghetti with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and red pepper.  The chef accommodated us.  From then on, at least once during every trip to Harrisburg we asked for the same thing, sometimes we’d mix it up by asking for a bit of fennel seed to be added.  A salad of arugula with olive oil and lemon juice always rounded out the meal.

While it’s easy to find pasta on restaurant menus, it’s pretty difficult to find dumplings unless you’re in a dumpling culture like Eastern Europe.

After two trips to Prague, I discovered that it was basically impossible to just order dumplings.  I frequently found myself ordering some sort of “Hunter’s Plate” which had an array of cooked meats and, you guessed it, dumplings.

I ate the dumplings first.

Dumplings are a breeze to make.  And don’t even think about packaged baking mix.  (For the reasons why, see my post about hydrogenated fats.)

Unless you are seriously trying to avoid carbohydrates or gluten, give these a try.  They honestly take less than 10 minutes to whip up.  You could get a serious paper cut opening up a box of Bisq…er, biscuit mix, in less time!

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Homemade Dumplings
In order for the dumplings to cook properly, they need to be placed on top of food that is just submerged in the cooking liquid. A little bit of the dumpling will sink below the liquid but, basically, the dumplings should sit on top of the food and steam, rather than boil in the liquid itself. Growing up, the “food” below the dumplings was often kielbasa and sauerkraut. For this post it was turkey with mushrooms and peas in a light cream sauce due to the presence of leftover roast turkey in the fridge. Stir the contents of the pot before adding the dumplings as you won’t be able to do it afterwards. Prior to adding the dumplings, be certain that the heat keeps the liquid at a steady low boil with the lid tightly on the pot.
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Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Lightly beat the egg and ¼ cup of milk. Reserve.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are “lumps” no bigger than flakes of oatmeal.
  4. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the beaten egg-milk mixture.
  5. Using a fork, gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid by starting in the center of the bowl and stirring in a circular manner, gradually widening the circle to incorporate more and more of the flour.
  6. When the batter will not incorporate more flour, add a few tablespoons of the remaining milk.
  7. Continue stirring and adding milk a few tablespoons at a time, until all the flour is incorporated and you have a fairly stiff but still somewhat sticky batter.
  8. Drop by rounded tablespoonsful on top of whatever you’re cooking in the liquid, such as sauerkraut, pot pie, etc.
  9. Cover tightly and cook 20 minutes without opening the lid. The contents of the pot should stay at a steady, low boil.
  10. Carefully scoop the dumplings onto a serving platter.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Focaccia con Salvia (Focaccia with Sage)

January 9, 2017

I really enjoy baking.  There was a time when my Sunday morning routine included mixing up a batch of bread dough, then reading the New York Times and sipping coffee with our two Italian Greyhounds cuddled up next to me while the dough rose.  The bread would be ready for our main meal, which frequently was around 1 PM on Sunday but often got moved to the evening depending on what was happening that day.

I lost that routine somewhere along the way when work got too busy.  I still make bread frequently but I’ve lost the rhythm of baking every Sunday morning.

When I was growing up, my Aunt Margie baked bread rolls every week.  I’m not sure why, but I think it was on Thursdays. I remember little balls of rising dough, in neat rows, resting on top of the same cabinet, covered by the same cloth, every week.  As a child, I marveled at how they all were exactly the same size. It seemed impossible.

Those rolls were a staple of my childhood.  Lunch often consisted of hot Calabrese salami sandwiched inside one of those rolls.  Sometimes it was peanut butter and jelly.  Other times it was peanut butter and banana, a combination my Italian-born mother-in-law still doesn’t understand!

I still eat sandwiches of Calabrese salami for lunch on a regular basis. Some habits don’t die.  The sandwiches are often on my home-made bread baked in a loaf pan or on a split open chunk of focaccia, but unfortunately, not on Aunt Margie’s bread rolls.

Aunt Margie died a few years back.  Even though she had stopped baking rolls every week long before that, periodically she would ship me a box filled with her home-made bread rolls.  Some I put in the fridge, others went into the freezer.  A quick zap in the microwave, a few slices of salami, and I was re-living a favorite childhood memory.

Memories are funny, though. We never know what experiences will become favorite memories. We just have to take them as they come. Maybe the best we can do is to create experiences that will become favorite memories for others. We just never know what they’ll be.

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Focaccia con Salvia (Focaccia with Sage)
This is a sticky dough. Because of that, it is much easier to mix it using a mixer with a bread hook rather than doing it by hand. On a busy day, when I still want homemade focaccia with dinner, I allow my bread machine to make the dough. When the machine indicates the dough is ready, I just shape it and proceed as described below. I do a lot of baking so I buy dry yeast in one-pound packages rather than in those little envelopes. It doesn’t take many of those envelopes to equal the cost of a full pound of yeast so, even if you throw away a portion of the large package on the expiration date, you will probably have saved money. And who knows, all that yeast sitting in the fridge might just prompt you to bake more, which isn’t a bad thing after all.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Fill the bowl of an electric mixer with hot water. Put the dough hook in the water. Allow the bowl and hook to warm up for a few minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. When ready to proceed, drain and dry the bowl and hook.
  2. Add the 220 ml of warm water, yeast and one tablespoon of the flour to the warmed bowl. Using the dough hook, blend the ingredients briefly. Turn off the machine and allow the mixture to sit until it is bubbling and creamy.
  3. When creamy, approximately 10 minutes, add half the remaining flour and the chopped sage. Using the dough hook, mix to combine.
  4. With the mixer running, add the salt then drizzle in the olive oil. After the oil is incorporated add the remaining flour. Mix approximately 8-10 minutes. The dough should be soft and sticky.
  5. Oil a large bowl with olive oil.
  6. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and shape into a ball. It is easier to do this if you rub some oil on your hands. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and roll it around a bit to coat it with oil.
  7. Put a piece of oiled waxed paper over the bowl and then cover the bowl with a towel. Allow the dough to rise until doubled.
  8. Punch the dough down and form into a ball once again.
  9. Oil a 12-14 inch round pizza pan with a little olive oil.
  10. Put the ball of dough on the pizza pan and begin to press down, using both hands, gently stretching the dough, rotating the pan as you go. The dough will spring back. After six or eight stretches, flip the dough over and repeat. Then, allow the dough to sit for five minutes. Repeat the stretching, flipping, and stretching again. The dough will not spring back quite as much and you’ll be able to get it stretched out a little more. You might have to repeat the stretching-flipping-stretching-waiting routine two or three more times until the dough is shaped into a 12-inch circle. It’s easier use a 14-inch pan because you can overstretch the dough a bit then allow it to spring back to the size you want.
  11. Using your fingertips, press the dough to create a bumpy surface.
  12. Cover the dough and allow it to rise until doubled. This will only take about 20-25 minutes. You can cover it with oiled waxed paper but if you have a deep dish pizza pan, you can just flip the pan upside down over the dough and skip the waxed paper altogether.
  13. While the dough is rising, heat the oven to 425°F.
  14. Make an egg wash by beating the egg with two teaspoons of water.
  15. When the dough has doubled, brush the top with egg wash. Arrange the sage leaves on top of the dough and brush each one with more egg wash.
  16. Bake the focaccia at 425°F until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.
  17. Slide the focaccia off of the pizza pan and onto a rack to cool.
Recipe Notes

If you want to try to mix this in a bread machine, consult the directions for your machine.  You can use what I do as a guide, however.  Combine the flour, salt and chopped sage.  Stir to combine. Put the water in the bottom of the bread pan (do not use warm water).  Put the flour mixture on top of the water.  Make a small well in the top of the flour with the back of a spoon.  Add the yeast to the well, being certain the yeast is above the level of the water. Drizzle the olive oil on top of the flour, not touching yeast.  Use the dough cycle.  When the dough cycle is complete, remove the dough, form into a ball, and proceed with step 9 above.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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