Teaching my kids how to make focaccia helped my family find peace

This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.

By Sarah Walker Caron

In the autumn of 2019, long before coronavirus and COVID-19 became part of everyone’s vocabulary, my son had weekly dinners with his cross country team. They’d gather in someone’s yard or barn, sharing pasta, bread, salad and dessert on the evening before their meets. It was a time of comradery and team-building, the runners together without the coaches.

It was tradition.

Several times that fall, it fell upon the freshmen to bring the bread—the meal was always mostly potluck; the host provided the pasta—and I set out to find the best bread to contribute. One freshman’s mom stumbled on frozen garlic knots, which excited everyone—except me when my son broke a bracket on his brand-new braces on an otherwise soft garlic knot. 

That autumn, I discovered focaccia from a local breakfast spot and picked that up for a team dinner.

Bagel Central in downtown Bangor, Maine, only makes a few loaves of focaccia a week and only on Thursdays (which happened to be the day of most pasta parties). The loaf is more like a sheet, densely flavored with rosemary, sea salt and olive oil. It looks impressive and better yet, it tastes amazing. But with such small quantities, getting one means fitting in a stop early in my day—if I waited until lunchtime, the focaccia would be sold out. So I planned my morning around the stop. More than once, I scored the loaf and had them wrap it in plastic for the trek back to my office and into my son’s hands.

My son declared the bread his new favorite. Better yet, he said there were never any leftovers at the parties.

Fall ended and so did cross country season. The indoor track team didn’t have the same traditions, so there were no more pasta parties to attend. And then, as we rounded the corner into March 2020, looking ahead to the outdoor track season, the world grounded to a halt. The pandemic closed schools, cancelled sports seasons and left us at home for months and months and months. 

When school resumed, sort-of, in the fall, sports returned but the traditions were paused for the year. No pasta parties. No gathering of the team beyond small practices. 

But there was still focaccia. 

Although Bagel Central still makes a wonderful loaf, I grasped the opportunity to teach my kids to make it themselves. 

What I found through the process—from the blooming of the yeast to pulling the loaf from the oven—was that the lessons went beyond when to plunge your fingers into the dough or how much rosemary to sprinkle on top. There was a sense of science at work as we watched the yeast bubble and later as the dough ball expanded. There was a sense of accomplishment as the loaf was stretched to fit the pan. And there was a sense of triumph as we tasted our first bites. 

But more than that, teaching my children to make focaccia—a bread that requires two rises, punching down and repeatedly poke with clean fingers to form indents all over it—was a form of catharsis. It gave them a purpose; a way to take some of the frustration about the challenged times we’re living in and channel it into something positive and nourishing.

In making bread, we made peace with the year. 

I wish I could say this became a weekly traditionor that my kids loved it so much they made it again and again. That didn’t happen. But they know how to make focaccia now and that matters more to me. There’s power in knowing you can do something creative, an act of transformation that is nurturing and delicious, even in a world turned upside down.

Homemade Rosemary Romano Focaccia

Yields 1 loaf
1 ⅓ cups warm water
1 (¼-oz) package dry active yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional for sprinkling
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
fresh ground pepper

In a small bowl, add the warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let sit for 6-7 minutes, until the yeast foams. Stir well.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix together the flour, butter, salt, rosemary and the yeast mixture. Allow to mix for about 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic-y.

Turn the dough out into a bowl sprayed with cooking oil spray, and turn to coat. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set in a cool, dry place to rise for 1 hour.

Brush a 9×13-inch rimmed baking sheet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spread dough out on the sheet press with fingers to dimple all over. Brush with remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and grated romano cheese. Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rise an additional 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden.

Let cool slightly before removing from the pan and cutting into pieces. Serve warm.

Sarah Walker Caron is a writer who moms. The author of six cookbooks including The Easy Frugal Cookbook and the forthcoming Disney Princess Tea Parties Cookbook, she specializes in quick and easy from-scratch recipes. She’s also the editor of Bangor Metro magazine and a journalism instructor at the University of Maine. Read more of her food writing at sarahscucinabella.com.

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