Thursday, May 24, 2012

Focaccia for Papa

It has taken four years. Four years and the little green Ford Ranger has lost the smell. We noticed it after the car wash, Mom first with her keen senses and heartache of longing. "The truck doesn't smell like your Dad anymore." she said softly, tears welling and the sigh of loss so strong it shakes her to the core of her being.  The mix of glass cleaner and vinyl treatment overshadowing the last of the lingering scent of Aqua Velva, glass putty, Irish Spring, a little smoke and him.

1987 Ford Ranger worth the wait to drive
 I spent a good deal of my life riding around in shop trucks, those work-a-day beasts that carried the tools of his trade as we traveled from home to school, school to aftercare, grocery shopping and the bakery. Sometimes, he'd surprise me with a box of animal crackers, you know the one, with the circus labels and the string attached. And although the trucks changed over time from the gargantuan International for big jobs and glass racks, the 1956 Chevy Stepside painted bright yellow, the Fords and then the last two Rangers each had that smell, now indelibly imprinted in my brain and heart. Funny how that works.  My youngest, at age 13 asked,  "Grandpa,  could someday I buy your truck?" This truck, more than just the wheels,  represented and embodied a man so adored. "For a buck," he replied with a twinkly eye and so the boy had his first vehicle before he could get his license, willing to wait three long years until he could drive it on his own.

Before the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, Plaza Bakery proudly sat at the head of the Santa Cruz Pacific Garden Mall, prominently on the first floor of the Flatiron Building, opposite the Post Office. The new building has paid homage to the old in shape and design and I still expect to smell the warm yeast and sugar to come wafting from the doors, instead of the fruity, wheat grass concoctions of Jamba Juice. In my mind's eye, I can still see the counters of pastries, shelves of loaves and the bread slicer that rumbled and shook as it sliced our weekly purchases before they were slipped into a paper bag. We would get there early on Saturday mornings, while the bread was still warm and sometimes... just sometimes would eat a slice or two right out of the bag. Occasionally the baker would bake up some anchovy focaccia. Dad would nonchalantly order it up with everything else. It looked pretty, but smelled awfully fishy and as a child I wondered a combination of "what on earth? and "why would you?" as it sat beside me on the way home. Always generous, he'd offer me a slice and though I tried it a couple of times, it was not for me, or really for anyone but Dad. His own indulgent pleasure, like kipper snacks and soda crackers that no one else would even consider eating. Ever.

Times change, tastes change and I have begun to appreciate the little fish, so with vivid memory I set out to recreate the bread he loved so much.

Focaccia with tomato sauce and anchovies
Like breadcrumbs leading to a memory, the steps compelling me here came gently across the blogosphere. First my friend Jamie at Life's a Feast posted a beautiful sweet Cherry Almond Focaccia recipe at that danced gaily across the wires. Then she enticed me to visit her friends Lora of Cake Duchess, Shulie of Food Wanderings and Marneley of Cooking with Books who were baking Focaccia together for their newly formed Breaking Bread Society. Inspiration set, motivation and deadline in place and I got baking.

Coaxing the yeast to bloom
I am a reluctant baker. Yeast and I are not unacquainted, but we are wary of each other. My home too cool and patience often too short to make me willing to subject myself to possible and sometimes probable disappointment of yeast that fails to bloom or dough that will not rise. But, fortified with a memory of Dad's favorite so strong I could taste it, I plowed on deciding that two focaccias would be better than one. One for him and one for me.

The yeast took forever to bloom and the dough nearly two hours to rise the first time. So much for baking bread in the morning at my house! I have so much to learn. Perhaps the Society will encourage me along the way.

Focaccia Trials
For Dad's, I used the dough recipe as written on Lora's site adapted from How to Bake by Nick Malgieri and found as she did the dough was rather wet. The only modification made, per her  suggestion to add a bit more flour. I still didn't get the elastic ball of dough I was looking for. For the topping I made a simple tomato puree with canned whole tomatoes with basil and a bit of tomato paste, then sprinkled the top with fresh Italian Oregano and anchovy fillets. Success, it really did taste exactly as I remember, but did I like it. Still not so much, however, that bite gave way to memory and a  glimpse into the flavors and favorites that made up Dad's guilty pleasures. For that this exercise was priceless.

For the second, I was tasting the sweet caramelized onions as I visually scanned Lora's post and knew I must have some! Mixing it up a bit, I used a kalamata olive dough found on Epicurious (Gourmet 1997 Olive Focaccia Dough) and topped it with these threads of gold. The result was totally delightful, and when I do this again will use a smaller pan so it puffs up a bit more and, truthfully be more patient to let the dough actually double before baking.

Kalamata Olive Focaccia with Caramelized Onions
And, as a postscript in a household that is very real and chaotic with three dogs. Overnight as the breads rested on the counter and in a stealth-like operation, Georgia decided to eat the onion focaccia. Leaving the anchovy one neatly wrapped and untouched I guess the dog didn't like anchovies much either.

A boy, a truck, and a dog.

Breaking Bread Society
Gourmet 1997 Olive Focaccia Dough
Life's a Feast: Cherry Almond Focaccia


  1. The sweetest memories. Loved that you joining breaking bread and shared with us. I absolutely love anchovies, now if only my guys will be on board with that! :) From the look of the focaccia I wouldn;t know you are tepid with yeast. Both focaccias look mouth watering!

    1. So wonderful to play along the Breaking Bread Society fun, Shulie! If you do play with the anchovies, I'd tear 'em up in smaller bits instead of leaving them whole fillets, a bit much in a bite so to say.

  2. I feel the same about certain foods from my childhood I didn't like at all but now start to appreciate. Some trigger memories more than others and make me miss my dad a lot too. It's beautifully written Robin! And another gorgeous photo!

  3. Eyesight blurry, throat tight, heart full. Beautifully written, prepared and photographed. Well done you.

  4. Hello my dear Princess, funny how time changes things huh. Must keep practicing.

  5. Thank you for sharing this gorgeous, heartfelt and moving essay, Robin. You inspire me!

    1. Dear Bentobird, your reviews always touch my heart. Hope you have a great weekend adventure awaiting you!

  6. Robin, you have a most wonderful way with words. Your prose makes me feel hugged, warm.. and it's as if I've lived what you did. I love foccacia but have never tried anchovie foccacia. I sometimes use anchovies and end up with a fabulous result. Other times it is just unbearable.

  7. My darling Valentina, I miss sitting next to you at the table sharing our stories, shoulder to shoulder in that Tuscan dining room.

    My luck with anchovies match yours, and I think I just need to find the right preparation to win me over entirely.

  8. Robin, oh Robin, can I tell you how perfect this post is? Perfectly written and I am one envious writer! What a story only made better by the telling. You are a master and I say that honestly and from the heart. And the focaccia! Well, I am thrilled that I could introduce you to my friends and have you bake along with us. And lucky Giorgia - I think I would have chosen the onion over the anchovy one, too. But for you and your dad I'll eat a slice of the anchovy as well. xo

    1. Gracious praise Jamie! I am enjoying breaking bread and sharing stories with you. xo back at 'cha

  9. Love the way you write, Robin. You've got the ability to touch people with your words, it's special!

    I also love your pictures, also those new pictures that keep popping up on Facebook: gorgeous! I don't know if it's a new lens or camera, or just an improvement in technique; but you are truly talented!

    (Oh, and I wise I could come over for a bite of that focaccia by the way!)

    1. Hello dear Denise, you made me smile so big just now ;-) I *have* been working on both writing and photos and appreciate your sweet feedback so much. And, I would gladly share focaccia with you any day, any time.


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