For those of us who have tried to make pizza dough at home, we know it’s harder than it looks to get the right texture. But our travels through Italy have helped us demystify it and two other popular Italian breads. For the dough, the key to crispy-bubbly-chewy crust is at least 24 hours of fermentation in the refrigerator — plus a warm bath afterward to get the dough to a pliable temperature. Our recipe for tender-crispy focaccia re-creates the light, open-crumbed version we ate in Bari, with added pops of flavor from briny green olives and crushed cherry tomatoes. And for piadina from Romagna, incorporating lard and yogurt into the dough gave us the blistered flatbread we were after.
Makes 12 servings
To achieve the texture we found in Bari, Italy, the dough must be wet — so wet, in fact, it verges on a thick yet pourable batter. Resist the temptation to add more flour. Shaping such a sticky, high-hydration dough by hand is impossible. Instead, the dough is gently poured and scraped into the oiled baking pan; gravity settles it into an even layer.
If you have trouble finding Castelvetrano olives, substitute any large, meaty green olive.
When slicing baked focaccia for serving, use a serrated knife and a sawing motion to cut without compressing it. If desired, serve with extra virgin olive oil for dipping.
For convenience, the dough can be prepared and transferred to the baking pan a day in advance. After it has settled in the pan, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The next day, prepare the toppings. Uncover, top the dough with the olives and tomatoes, and let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes, then finish and bake as directed.
Leave the dough undisturbed as it rises. Handle the dough gently when transferring it to the baking pan. The goal is to retain as much gas in the dough as possible so the focaccia bakes up with an airy texture. Avoid glass and ceramic baking dishes; neither type will produce a crisp, browned exterior, and glass is not safe to use in a 500 degree oven.
3⅔cups (500 grams) bread flour
5 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 cups water, cool room temperature
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted and halved (see head-note for substitution)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
In a stand mixer with the dough hook, mix the flour, yeast, and sugar on medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds. With the mixer on low, drizzle in the water, then increase to medium and mix until the ingredients form a very wet, smooth dough, about 5 minutes. Turn off the mixer, cover the bowl, and let stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, coat the bottom and sides of a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of oil; set aside.
Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of salt over the dough, then knead on medium until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes; the dough will be wet enough to cling to the sides of the bowl. Using a silicone spatula, scrape the dough into the oiled bowl. Dip your fingers into the oil pooled at the sides of the bowl and dab the surface of the dough until completely coated with oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 5½ to 6 hours; during this time, the dough will double in volume, deflate, then rise again (but will not double in volume again).
After the dough has risen for about 4½ hours, heat the oven to 500 degrees with a baking steel or stone on the middle rack. Mist a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray, then pour 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil in the center of the pan; set aside.
When the dough is ready, gently pour it into the prepared pan, scraping the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula to loosen; try to retain as much air in the dough as possible. Eventually the dough will settle into an even layer in the pan; do not spread the dough with a spatula, as this will cause it to deflate. Set aside while you prepare the tomatoes.
In a medium bowl, use a potato masher to lightly crush the tomatoes. Scatter the olives over the dough, then do the same with the tomatoes, leaving the juice and seeds in the bowl. If the dough has not filled the pan, use your hands to lightly press the toppings to push the dough into the corners. Let stand uncovered at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Drizzle the dough with the remaining 4 tablespoons oil, making sure each tomato is coated. Sprinkle evenly with the oregano, remaining 1½ teaspoons salt, and the pepper. Place the pan on the baking steel or stone and bake until golden brown and the sides of the focaccia have pulled away from the pan, 20 to 22 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Using a wide metal spatula, lift the focaccia from the pan and slide it onto the rack. Cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Italian Flatbread (Piadina)
Makes four 10-inch flatbreads
One of our favorite variations of flatbread originated in Romagna, in northern Italy. There they throw together flour, salt, water or milk, and lard or olive oil to make a quick dough. After a short rest, the flatbread — a piadina — is cooked on a griddle or skillet. The cooked flatbreads then are stuffed with sweet or savory fillings and folded to make a sandwich.
We started by finding the right fat for our dough. Butter was wrong. Olive oil gave us a pleasant texture and flavor, but something was missing. So we gave lard a shot. And what a difference. The flatbreads were tender with just the right chew. But we wanted more suppleness and found our answer in naan, a tender flatbread from India that adds yogurt to the dough. Fat hinders gluten development, keeping bread soft. It worked well and gave the dough more complex flavor. Vegetable shortening works as a substitute for lard, though it isn’t as flavorful.
If the dough doesn’t ball up in the processor, gather it together and briefly knead it by hand. Roll out the rounds as evenly as possible. Let the dough rest if it resists rolling or snaps back. And if the char on the first piadina is too light, heat the pan several minutes longer.
½ cup water
¼ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
2 cups (274 grams) bread flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup (63 grams) lard, room temperature
In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together ¼ cup of the water and the yogurt. In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, and baking powder. Process for 5 seconds. Add the lard and process until combined, about 10 seconds. With the processor running, add the yogurt mixture. Then add the remaining water 1 tablespoon at a time — with the processor still running — until the dough forms a smooth, moist ball, about 1 minute.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each into a ball, then cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare toppings.
Roll each dough ball into a 10-inch round. Poke the surfaces all over with a fork. Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium until a drop of water sizzles immediately, 4 to 6 minutes. One at a time, place a dough round in the skillet and cook until the bottom is charred in spots, 1 to 2 minutes. Using tongs, flip and cook for 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely with foil.
Makes four 8-ounce portions
Though any brand of bread flour will work in this recipe, we like King Arthur Flour best. It has a higher protein content, producing crusts with good flavor, nicely crisped surfaces, and a satisfying chew. We found that making the dough with cool or cold water helps prolong fermentation, which developed better flavor. For fermenting the dough, quart-size zip-close plastic bags coated inside with cooking spray are easiest, but well-oiled 1-pint bowls or plastic containers with lids work well, too. Following the overnight fermentation, the dough can be frozen for longer storage; to use, let thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then proceed with the recipe.
The dough requires at least 24 hours in the refrigerator to ferment, then needs to come up to 75 degrees before shaping.
4 cups (548 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon white sugar
¾ teaspoon instant yeast
1½ cups cool (65 degrees) water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, and yeast. Mix on low to combine, about 15 seconds. With the mixer running, slowly add the water, then mix on low until a slightly bumpy dough forms and the dough clears the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.
Uncover the bowl, sprinkle the salt over the dough, and mix on low until smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. If the dough climbs up the hook, stop the mixer, push it down, and continue kneading.
Scrape the dough onto a well-floured counter and divide it into 4 pieces. With floured hands, form each into a taut ball and dust with flour. Mist 4 quart-size plastic bags with cooking spray, then add 1 ball to each. Seal and refrigerate for 24 to 72 hours.
About 1 hour before making pizza, lightly oil 4 small bowls. Remove the dough from the bags and set each in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, then set each bowl into a larger bowl of 100-degree water for 30 minutes, or until the dough reaches 75 degrees, changing the water as needed. Shape each 8-ounce portion of dough into a 12-inch round, top as desired, and bake on a pizza steel or stone that has been heated for at least 1 hour in a 500 degree oven until the pizza is well browned, 9 to 12 minutes.
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