National borders often have little bearing on food. Foods with dual citizenship stimulate competition, friendly rivalries and common bonds. Breads and pastries from different countries may have different names, but are strikingly similar. Certainly, they are made from the same ingredients and derive flavor from fermentation. France and Italy are often acknowledged as leaders of bread quality and production in the modern world. The reverence with which both countries regard their bread is evidenced in the epigrams, platitudes and idioms that pepper their languages. Daily life focuses on bread, and no meal is complete without it.
In Italian, pane francese means French bread, but was its origin a marketing ploy or an homage to the breads of France? As with many traditional foods, conflicting oral and written histories offer many tales, but little insight. Most bread scholars concur it originated in the Lombardia region, an area of Italy that borders France and Switzerland and is acclaimed for its bread. The cuisine of the region reflects the strong, inescapable influences of all three countries giving credence to claims that the bread was born there.
Whatever the facts, the popularity of the bread is due to its inherent characteristics. It is a hybrid of ciabatta and baguettes, capturing the best qualities of each: full-bodied flavor; a thin, crisp crust; and a creamy, open crumb. Biga, used as the preferment, contributes many of the flavors and aromas of a natural starter, but in a more subdued manner. Bigas do not require daily maintenance; they are made the day before the final dough is mixed, allowed to ferment and used in their entirety. Their use originated in Italy at a time when the local flour contained low protein incapable of enduring the lengthy fermentation required for flavor and dough strength. Bakers realized 55 percent hydration and long fermentation at moderate temperatures strengthens the gluten matrix due to the accumulation of organic acids.
Pane francese is popular with consumers who appreciate its complex flavor and texture. It is equally popular with bakers who prize its versatility. The accompanying formula is suitable for large and small focaccias, baguettes, rustic rolls, fougasse and pan bread. Baking it in a deck oven with its thermal mass is ideal; the resulting oven spring and crust are unrivaled. However, the lively nature of the dough makes it possible to obtain excellent results baking the rolls and focaccias in a convection oven equipped with steam injection. Restaurants and hotels can refrigerate shaped products and bake throughout the day for maximum freshness. Bakeries can exploit the same technology to offer fresh product to retail and wholesale customers several times a day.
Producing focaccias from the dough is a profitable strategy. A small investment in olive oil and herbs dramatically increases the perceived value of the product. Sheet pans of focaccia are perfect for portioning into retail units, sandwiches and bread baskets. For each sheet pan of focaccia, spread 180 grams of olive oil in the pan. Divide the dough into large rectangles and place in the oiled pan. Flip the dough to coat both sides with oil. Use your fingertips to gently dimple the dough and stretch it. Allow it to relax, and continue dimpling until it fills the pan. Proof for one hour.
Prior to baking, dimple the dough again to prevent uneven shapes. Directly upon removing the pan from the oven, brush the focaccia with olive oil and sprinkle generously with chopped fresh rosemary and a fine salt, such as fleur de sel. The olive oil extends the shelf life, making the product viable for a second day. To preserve the focaccia, wrap it in foil and store at room temperature overnight. The bread will retain its freshness for sandwiches. It may be grilled for paninis or heated for table service.
In today's market place, pane francese symbolizes the United Nations to bread lovers from all walks of life. French bread…now that's Italian.
Step 1. Divide the dough and pre-shape into focaccia or baguettes. For rustic rolls, simply divide into the desired size, but do not shape.
Step 2. Place loaves and rolls on an oven loader or peel to transfer directly on the floor of a 480°F deck oven.
Step 3. Bake until golden brown, and open the vent at the onset of color. Bake an additional four to five minutes.
Mitch Stamm, is an associate instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., where he teaches Principles and Techniques of Bread Making. He is a Certified Executive Pastry Chef with 40 years experience in foodservice. For more information on Johnson & Wales University, visit www.jwu.edu.