Focaccia bread

Focaccia bread

Scroll down for recipe for focaccia bread

TAVARNELLE VAL D’PESA, Italy— For the past two decades, my body weight has fluctuated substantially, up and down, gaining and losing, in both directions. It’s nothing I’m proud of, but it’s also not something I worry too much about. My personal physician stays on my case about dropping poundage (as he should) and— save the emails— I know constant weight gain and weight loss is not healthy. This is how I see it: In the early 1980s, I gave up drinking all forms of alcohol and other dangerous recreational substances. In the 1990s I gave up smoking. I got married and basically gave up sex. I am going to eat. It’s the last vice I’m hanging onto before I check into a monastery.

Robert St. John

Robert St. John

My closet is full of clothes in multiple sizes. When we are recipe-testing to open a new restaurant or developing a new cookbook, I pull from the larger sizes. When there is no major food development project going on, I pull from the less large sizes (there are no “smaller” sizes in my closet these days). There are, however, a few bins with smaller sized clothes I used to wear on the top shelf, that are there just in case I ever get motivated to go on an all-out exercise regimen (note: early 1990s fashion will need to be back in style if that ever happens).

I have wintered well. I left for Italy at a record-high weight for me. The walking and food choices over here in Italy will help me be able to choose clothes in my closet that are one size down when I return home. Last spring, I dropped 15 pounds in a month while leading three tour groups over here.

 When I tell our guests that I lose weight over here, they laugh and think I’m making a joke to help them feel less guilty about eating all of the food we are about to serve them over the next week. We eat a lot of food on these trips. Seriously, a lot of food. Though the food here, basically a modified Mediterranean diet, must process differently in my system. That, in combination with all of the walking, is the only explanation I have to offer when asked, “How can that be (that you lose weight)?”

I am always encouraged when people return home and send an email stating, “You were right. I lost a little weight.”

We don’t eat like Italians eat while on these trips. We eat WHAT Italians eat, we just eat more courses than Italians eat. It’s my desire to cover all of the bases for our guests. I want them to get on the plane on the ride home and look back over the course of the week and be able to check all of the boxes. I try to leave no stone unturned when it comes to eating authentic Tuscan food. It might be the only time that person ever visits this part of the world. I don’t want them to miss anything.

All of the food is authentic, and we never grace the doors of a tourist trap, but we order more food than Italians would typically order. Yet we still lose weight. It’s another reason I love this area.

I love bread. Seriously, I really, really, really, really, really love bread. I love the Almighty, my wife, my kids, my family, my friends, and bread— in that order. If there were a 12-step program for habitual bread eaters, I would be a candidate. “I am Robert, and I am a breadaholic. It’s been 30 minutes since I last ate some bread.” I would be living in constant relapse and would have way more problems living without bread than I have living without alcohol.

There is a reason many believe that the “manna from heaven” was bread. In Tuscany the bread is not made with salt. It’s one of the only things I disagree with when it comes to local food over here. Though, when you boil it all down, it’s my personal preference vs. 2,000d years of bread-making history. There is a reason they don’t put salt in the bread. I am told by a few of the locals, “bread doesn’t need salt.” Others state that it has to do with the way bread is digested in our systems. Tuscans are keenly aware of how foods react in their bodies. I love that. But I also love salt in my bread.

When I am eating bread and olive oil over here, I always sprinkle a little salt on it. The locals would never do that, but it makes sense to me. 

If I were ever given the choice to have a 32-inch waist with 10 percent bodyfat or live without bread for the rest of my life, it would be one of the easiest decisions of my life — point me to the big-and-tall section and hand me a pastry.

Onward.

Focaccia bread

5 ½ cups bread flour

2 1/2 tbsp Kosher salt

2 each ¼-ounce packages rapid rise yeast

1 tbsp sugar

½ cup pure olive oil

¾ cup biga 

2 cups water (use warm water if your biga is refrigerated)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp sea salt

2 tbsp house herb blend

• Combine the first seven ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix for 3-4 minutes on slow, then increase speed to medium for an additional 4 minutes. It should be a little wet and very sticky.

• Remove from the bowl and knead briefly on a lightly floured surface to form a smooth ball. Transfer to a lightly oiled, covered bowl and leave in the refrigerator overnight or leave at room temperature to rise for 30-45 minutes. If refrigerating, it will take longer the following day for the dough to rise.

• Preheat the oven to 400.

• Punch down dough and transfer into a lightly oiled 11-by-17-inch rimmed sheet pan and press and stretch the dough using your hands to fill the pan. Use your fingertips to lightly dimple the surface. Brush with the extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and herb blend. Rest uncovered at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

• Bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Immediately transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly before slicing.

Sourdough biga (Sourdough starter)

1 cup water

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 each ¼-ounce package yeast

• Combine ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and mix with a spatula, scraping down the sides.

• Transfer to a clear, covered 2-quart container and leave out at room temperature. It will almost triple in volume in about 6-8 hours and then will slowly begin to fall. If you plan to use the biga that day it is important to use it before it deflates too much.

• If you plan to use it the following day, let the biga rise at room temp for 1 hour, then place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours before using.

House herb blend

2 tbsp dried oregano

2 tbsp dried basil

2 tbsp dried thyme

1 tbsp dried rosemary

1 tbsp dried marjoram

Combine all ingredients.

Yield: ½ cup

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