Kombu Focaccia Failure
Let's face it, recipes don't always work. With the endless stream of perfectly-plated, uber-polished food accounts and recipes you see online though, you’d be forgiven in thinking otherwise - that most, if not all recipes are infallible.
With the rise of Photoshop, VSCO, and the hundreds of other photo-editing apps out there, even the dreariest dishes can be made to look like a fanciful feast, creating an internet that is now saturated with millions of recipes presented as 'amazing', 'delicious', 'best you've ever tasted' versions of themselves. But really, when you think about it, can all 1001 recipes for the ‘greatest’ or 'ultimate' salad, cookie, or unicorn cake truly live up to their name..?
Oops, sorry for sounding a little cynical there. I'm not discounting the fact that most recipes out there are super gratifying, making you feel like a real pro when you get them right. But I've also had experiences with recipes that even when followed to a tee, look nothing like what their photos promised, which is suuuper annoying. Rarely do you see recipes admitting to be these mediocre, 6/10 dishes. Instead, all published recipes must be, or at least seem to be, 10/10, outright amazing recipes. This in turn has perhaps created a fallacy that all these chefs, recipe writers, and food bloggers can do no wrong, that everything recipe or dish they think up must be pure magic.
What's sorely missed then, is the hours of tireless research and tests it takes to end up with a truly great recipe. What's missed is the recipes and ideas that didn't make the cut, that shows the human side of cooking. What's missed is the fun exploration of epic failures that contains little lessons and nuggets of wisdom we could all learn from. For instance, there's probably no good way of making a durian-flavoured liquor, or trying to work fish into dessert say (🤮), but it would sure make for an interesting read! (Or am I just plain weird?)
And trust me, in my short span of time being a cook / food blogger, I've had my fair share of spectacular failures. Like the time I thought it’d be a great idea to make a super alcoholic sorbet that ended up never freezing, because I forgot alcohol freezes at -114°C, nearly 100°C lower than your average freezer. (As a chemical engineer, I was very disappointed in myself.) Or the time when I got very distracted by FIFA and forgot about a pot of mussels on the stove. (Sorry Vic!) Or the time I made a mango lassi that ended up unintentionally poisoning half the Blue Hill staff... God that was a nightmare, sorry guys!!! Without exploring and learning from these mistakes, I would've remained a pretty shitty cook. (Tbh I probably still am...) But it's these mistakes, and the whole risk-reward factor of trying to come up with new dishes, that makes cooking all the more gratifying!
So in an effort to share a side of cooking that rarely gets to see the light, and to promote a little self-honesty, here's a recipe that is very much a work-in-progress. On I similar note, I also hereby pledge to always be critical of my own creations, especially if they're truly bleh, because I know just how frustrating it is when recipes don't turn out the way you expect them to.
While I wouldn't recommend following the recipe laid out below every step of the way (unless your end goal is a very-mediocre focaccia), if you're up for a bit of experimenting, you can riff off the suggestions I've provided below and try to come up with something great! This is sorta like crowd-sourced recipe development, eh? :P
- - -
I’ve had focaccia on my mind for the longest time. So when I came across Saltie’s focaccia recipe on Food52, I knew it was time to make one. But me being me, I didn’t want to make just any old focaccia; I wanted one that was weird and audacious, but also had the potential to be great. So for whatever reason I ended up trying to make a kombu-flavoured focaccia.
I started off with the Food52 recipe, which, according to 350+ ratings, was real good. But in my deviousness, I made two significant changes, one in terms of taste and the other texture. In hindsight, these alterations probably harmed the recipe more than it helped.
Anyway, first, to make it taste of kombu, I added some dried kombu powder to the recipe (made by drying kombu/kelp in an oven at low temperature, then pulverising it in a blender). I also ended up adding some mushroom powder (made in a similar manner) to bump up the umami since kombu is quite a subtle flavour.
Next, with the end goal of a frickin-fluffy focaccia, I messed with the ratio of flour:water. I heard somewhere that “a wetter dough is a better dough”, so I thought I’d be real smart and make a super wet, sticky dough that would hopefully yield a really light, airy bread.
Now let me preface this by saying there’s probably nothing wrong with Saltie’s recipe. The issues with this probably stemmed from my own tinkering of a solid recipe.
Now when I set out to make a kombu focaccia, I wanted it to at least taste a little of kombu, of that salty briny sea kelp, like a whiff of sea breeze brushing against your cheek as you stroll across the sandy beach. This did not do that; It just tasted like a regular focaccia, with some dark bits of kombu speckled throughout the dough. Disappointing.
The second, probably bigger problem was that the dough ended up being a little too wet to handle. Perhaps to a master baker, working with this dough wouldn't be a problem, but with this being my second time ever making focaccia, I might've been slightly out of my depth. I ended up adding more flour to the dough until it was at a stickiness level that I was comfortable with, and in the process probably worked the dough way too much, which explains why the bread was a little tough and chewy post-bake. Sad.
(Re: the title. Yes I have an addiction to alliteration. Sorryyy.)
Honestly this focaccia recipe wasn’t bad per se; My family polished off all the focaccia within 2 days after all, as breakfast sandwiches or a mid-afternoon snack. But it was just a little underwhelming, not displaying enough kombu flavour, and with a texture much too hard for my liking. It definitely still needs a few tweaks, so here are some notes for future-me (or you!) to iterate off.
To bump up the kombu flavour, I'd try upping the amount of kombu used. Or perhaps instead of grinding it down into a powder, it'd be a better bet to infuse the kombu in water to extract the flavour out, then use that kombu-flavoured water to make the dough. Also, maybe a little soy sauce would help! (Soy sauce in bread sounds a little odd I know, but it could work to bolster the umami I'm looking for!)
Also, it's important to not knead the dough too much, as I probably did when trying to correct for the consistency of the dough. So either start of with the right flour:water ratio, or be super gentle when adjusting it to reach the right hydration.
In any case, here's the recipe I started off with, bared for y'all to see, learn from, and possibly help improve upon! 😊
- - -
makes one 18 x 13-inch (46 x 33 cm) focaccia, or half a sheet pan’s worth; recipe adapted from Saltie’s Focaccia on Food52.
2 tbsp salt
1 tsp yeast
2 pieces (~20g) kombu
2-3 pieces (~10g) dried mushrooms, shiitake or cepes would work well
60ml olive oil, plus more for oiling baking tray
5g sea salt
3-5 sprigs of rosemary, optional
- Blend the kombu and dried mushrooms together until they turn into a fine powder. It’s essential that the kombu and mushrooms are fully dry and contains no moisture at all. If they’re not fully dried, dry them in a dehydrator or an oven set at 70°C for at least 1 hour, or for up to 12 hours until they’re completely dry.
- Sift the flour, salt, yeast, kombu and mushroom powder into a large bowl. Add the water to the flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon or spatula until a sticky dough forms. Don’t knead it too much as it’ll cause the dough to be tough and chewy post-bake.
- Pour half of the olive oil into a separate large container or bowl. (This container bowl should be ~3 times as large as the focaccia bowl.) Transfer the focaccia dough into the container, and pour the rest of olive oil around the sides of the dough, lifting the dough around the sides and letting the oil run down the sides. This helps the dough not stick too much to the container. Place the container in the refrigerator to proof for at least 8 hours, or for up to 2 days.
- After the proof, the dough should be really poofy and pillow-y. Oil a baking tray (this recipe is meant for 18x13 baking trays, but it could work for smaller or larger ones too, though your focaccia will be slightly taller/flatter depending on the size of the tray.) Transfer the dough to the oiled tray, then using your fingers, spread the dough so it covers the whole tray. Add the oil from the proofing bowl as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the tray. Leave the dough at room temperature for around 30-60 minutes, until it doubles in size.
- Now using your fingertips, poke dimples on the surface of the focaccia dough and to get that characteristic crater-y focaccia crust. Bake the dough in an oven preheated to 220°C for 15-20 minutes, rotating halfway through the baking time, until the top is all a uniform golden brown.
- When done, slide the focaccia off the baking tray onto a wire rack to cool down. It’s best eaten fresh out of the oven!