I spent several days last week in Chicago, covering HOW Design Live on social media. The event (for people in graphic design, advertising and related creative professions) is dear to my heart, as I spent many years as HOW’s brand leader and the event’s host. This year, I contributed marketing content and copywriting to support the event. And as a writer with strong design sensibilities, I got quite a lot of inspiration out of the experience.
Of course, I engaged in some food-related activity while I was in Chicago. (Food is part of my business, after all.) I spent some quick but quality time with my brother, a baker and chef who owns Baker & Nosh in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. I met a friend for dinner at Naha, where we feasted on James Beard Award-Winning chef Carrie Nahabedian’s Mediterranean fusion cuisine. (Hello, beet hummus! Sweetbreads, you are so delicious!)
Twice, I convinced a willing compatriot to go with me to Eataly, Mario Batali’s Italian food emporium. Mind you, I’m no celebrity chef groupie, but I do love a food emporium … and my God, this place! (Speaking of graphic design, the store’s branding, merchandising and environment are beautiful and thoughtful.)
As my colleague Marilyn and I were leaving after lunch, we passed the focaccia bar … and couldn’t resist grabbing fat slices of potato-topped focaccia for a later-in-the-day snack. It made a satisfying dinner in the airport on my way home. And over the weekend, I made a batch of homemade focaccia inspired by Mario’s.
This is an adaptation of my brother’s homemade focaccia recipe, with plenty of olive oil, salt and thinly sliced potatoes on top. I used dried thyme underneath the potatoes for an extra pop of flavor and fresh thyme leaves on top for a pretty finish, but you could use either fresh or dried in both applications.
Oh, and don’t be intimidated by making your own focaccia. It’s easy and foolproof, kind of a gateway to home bread baking. The dough is compliant and doesn’t require shaping, and you can mix it up in a Kitchen Aid. You can mix the dough and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight before finishing off the process, or do the whole recipe in an afternoon. Give it a try!
potato and thyme focaccia recipe
1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cup very warm water
Pinch of flour
Pinch of sugar
4 cups all-purpose or bread flour (or a combination)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more for finishing
1 russet potato, peeled
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper
In a small bowl, whisk together the yeast and water; add a pinch of flour and sugar to feed the yeast. Let the mixture rest until it's very foamy (like the head of a beer); this may take up to 30 minutes. In the bowl of a stand mixer using the dough hook, combine the flour and olive oil; add the water/yeast and stir just to combine. Sprinkle kosher salt over the dough and mix; then knead the dough for 3–4 minutes, until it is very smooth. The dough will be slightly tacky to the touch; if it's very sticky, add a bit of flour 1 tablespoon at a time. Scoop the dough out into an oiled bowl or lidded container and turn the dough over so it's well-coated with oil. Let the dough rise until it's doubled in bulk — either overnight in the refrigerator or for 2–3 hours in a warm place.
Liberally coat the bottom and sides of a 10.5 x 15.5-inch rimmed baking sheet with olive oil. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and press it out with your fingers (if the dough is cold, it may spring back on you; just let it rest for about 20 minutes and again press it into the corners). Brush a piece of plastic wrap with oil and cover the pan loosely. Let the dough rise again in a warm place until it's bubbly and completely fills the pan, about 2 hours. The dough will be jiggly when it's ready to bake.
Preheat oven to 450°. Brush the dough lightly with olive oil, then sprinkle with kosher salt, ground pepper and dried thyme. Peel and very thinly slice the potato. Arrange the slices atop the dough, overlapping slightly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake the focaccia for 25–30 minutes, until the edges are deeply golden brown and the potatoes are slightly crispy. Scatter fresh thyme leaves over the top before serving.