Kathryn Stamm / Sun News Editor

Focaccia gardens were among the gastronomical quarantine trends — the writer’s loaf did not look like this.

February 14, 2021

AUSTIN | From Fear To Focaccia

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I hate being in my apartment alone. Every creak of the floorboards or slam of the front door sends me scurrying to the kitchen for some sort of self-defense weapon. And don’t even get me started on having to kill bugs. So, when I moved back after winter break nearly a week before my roommate, I had to find ways to keep myself occupied. Otherwise, my imagination would run wild, turning the snowman across the street into a lurking kidnapper with a propensity for unsuspecting five-foot-tall girls. It was the perfect time to turn to some good old fashioned comfort baking. 

When I think of comfort food, I think of chocolate chip cookies. But alas, between the three Moosewood cookbooks I own, there is nary a chocolate chip cookie recipe in sight. I had to go to the next best thing: bread. 

For the past week, my Instagram explore page has been filled with videos of baked tomato and feta cheese pasta. As much as I appreciate having another person in the apartment (because there was a ginormous bug this week that I had to kill), being alone gives me free reign in the kitchen. Mainly, I don’t have to worry about catering to someone else’s food preferences (read: my roommate doesn’t eat cooked tomatoes or feta cheese) which allowed me to branch out a bit and create way more food than two people could possibly eat. Since the salt from the feta, the oil from the roasted tomatoes and the starch from the pasta, weren’t sufficient for the bulking necessary to survive an Ithaca winter, focaccia bread was an essential addition. 

Focaccia doesn’t tend to require more than the basic pantry staples of yeast, flour, water and oil, so I didn’t have to worry about going out to buy any additional ingredients. However, I think these Moosewood recipes have a personal vendetta against my sparse Collegetown pantry. Obviously a simple focaccia with some sea salt sprinkled on top is child’s play, so we had to over-complicate the dough by adding rosemary. Since I just got back to Ithaca and had to re-stock my pantry, fresh herbs weren’t exactly at the top of my shopping list. But, I had thyme in my freezer, and that’s basically the same thing… right?

The dough was easy enough to put together. It was a bit stiffer than I expected it to be, but I assumed it would become more elastic as I kneaded — it didn’t. During the confusion, I forgot to add my freezer-burned thyme, a mistake that had me using some outside knowledge. In the meantime, I stuck the dough in my oven to proof in a desperate attempt to outsmart my freezing apartment. 

Although I was 90 percent sure my yeast was dead and that I had overworked the dough, it still doubled in size. I spread the dough on a rectangular sheet pan, causing the ends to be rather puffy and the middle stretched super thin since the dough wasn’t particularly malleable. Although the recipe called for it to be circular, my rectangle ended up being more of a pill shape, which I consider a very happy (though unintentional) compromise.

I had already messed up by overworking the dough, but I was still under the impression I was some sort of bread-making prodigy — so, I took matters into my own hands. In the Netflix show “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” Samin Nosrat dimpled the surface of a focaccia dough to create spaces for the toppings to go. Since I had forgotten to mix the thyme into the dough, I crushed it up and sprinkled it on top. Thanks to Samin Nosrat and my ability to somehow bring a completely new cookbook author into my dedicated Moosewood journey, there were divots in the bread, providing the thyme a soft place to land (and stick to since I forgot to put the olive oil on first). 

I threw the focaccia in the oven, sent up a prayer hoping that it would come out somewhat edible and set to work on boiling the water for the pasta. After the timer went off for the bread, I took it out of the oven and actually gasped in surprise — it didn’t look half bad! The dimples and oblong shape made it look rustic and charming, and the thyme on top added some color to an otherwise brown-ish meal (which seems to be the only color my cooking is capable of producing). Now, if I only didn’t have to taste it… 

I was disappointed by the way this recipe turned out. I expected a perfectly fluffy, cloudlike focaccia — not something that challenged my upper-arm strength. Granted, ripping chunks of bread isn’t the most sanitary of practices, but it definitely added to the conviviality of the entire meal. Although I wasn’t impressed by the end product, it allowed me to realize something about this journey. Food doesn’t just have to be for eating. I didn’t need this bread to fulfill my basic psychological needs of food and water, but rather my basic need of safety. My fear of being in the apartment alone was quickly eclipsed by my fear of turning out a subpar bread. However, with all of that in mind, who would turn up their nose at fresh baked bread?

Sarah Austin is a sophomore in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. She can be reached at sarahaustin@cornellsun.com.