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Christmas baking in my house officially starts today. My schedule is packed so tightly with delicious goodies to make that I foresee not leaving the kitchen for the rest of the week. Then I’ll be taking a few days off to visit friends in Toronto; and after that, it’s right back to the mixing bowls and cookie cutters.
Despite the upcoming baking marathon, I still found myself in the kitchen this past Sunday, unable to resist a little preliminary treat making. It had been raining all week, and the puddles were glazed with thin sheets of ice when I went out for my morning walk. The air was still and frigid, the sky empty and gray. The entire world was wet, bleak, and desolate. But by afternoon, snow flurries were dancing merrily outside the windows, and the brittle grass had vanished beneath a carpet of sparkling white. Truly, Christmas time is here.
And what better way could I celebrate the first snowfall than by baking something warm and comforting, all done up with “sugar and spice,” while carols played on the radio and snowflakes swirled against the windowpanes?
However, with all the sweet treats still to come, I didn’t want to make something overly indulgent. So I made focaccia. But it was sweet focaccia: a thick, soft bread dotted with raisins, its top crust strewn with cinnamon sugar instead of coarse salt.
I used a good, strong extra-virgin olive oil to make the focaccia, one with lots of fruit and citrus notes. Its fragrance, in combination with the flavours of cinnamon, yeast, and dried fruit, made the focaccia taste almost like panettone. And since this is the season when the Italian specialty puts in its appearance on grocers’ shelves, it was a welcome resemblance indeed.
It makes a nice, simple coffeecake to serve with a cup of tea in the afternoon, but since it’s not overly sweet, feel free to have it for breakfast, too. (And may I suggest that you try it sliced and toasted with butter?)
The loveliest part about this recipe is that the dough, after it has risen and been punched down, can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. So make it the night before, and then in the morning, all you have to do is press the dough into pans, let the shaped focaccia rest for fifteen minutes, and then bake them. They only take fifteen minutes to bake, so in a little over half an hour, you can be pulling a fresh-baked treat from the oven, the perfect breakfast for holiday guests.
Ingredients:For the dough: 2 cups lukewarm water 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (preferably one with fruit and citrus notes) 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon granulated sugar 5 to 5 ½ cups all-purpose flour 1 cup raisins For finishing: ⅓ cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 2 scant tablespoons olive oil
- Stir the yeast into the warm water and let it stand for five minutes, or until bubbles rise to the surface.
- Place 3 cups of the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and pour in the yeast mixture.
- Mix on low speed to combine, and then add the olive oil, salt, and granulated sugar.
- Continue mixing on low speed, and stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth.
- Use your fingers to flatten the dough into a rectangle and evenly sprinkle the raisins across the surface.
- Starting at one of the short ends, roll up the dough, enclosing the raisins inside.
- Shape back into a round and knead a few times to distribute the raisins throughout the dough.
- Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover, set aside in a warm place, and let rise until doubled in size, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- Punch down the dough, and then transfer it to the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour. At this point, the dough may be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.
- When ready to bake the focaccia, place a large baking sheet on a rack positioned in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon for finishing in a small bowl.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide into two equal halves.
- Pour one tablespoon of the olive oil for finishing into a 9-inch round cake pan. Swirl to evenly coat the bottom of the pan.
- Place one of the pieces of dough in the pan, flip it over so that both sides are oiled, and then “walk” your fingertips across the dough, dimpling it and pressing it out so that it fills the entire pan.
- Sprinkle half of the cinnamon sugar evenly across the top, and lightly walk your fingers across the dough again to press the sugar down into the crevices.
- Repeat with the second half of the dough and the remaining olive oil and cinnamon sugar.
- Let the shaped focaccia rest on the counter for 15 minutes.
- Place the pans of focaccia on the preheated baking sheet and bake until well-risen and dark gold on top, about fifteen minutes.
- Let cool in pans on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the pans and lift the focaccia out onto the wire rack to finish cooling.
- This is best eaten the day it is made, but it may be frozen and then reheated in a low oven.
Yield: 2 9-inch rounds of focaccia