How to Decorate Focaccia Bread Like a Work of Edible Art
Some dishes look good enough to eat while some dishes are all looks and no flavor. But this picture-perfect focaccia is a beautiful piece of bread art that also happens to be incredibly delicious — and surprisingly easy to make.
Inspired by the decorated focaccia breads of @vineyardbaker and other bread makers, I wanted to try my hand at this beautiful baking-meets-art project, fancy enough for a brunch or inspired picnic, and easy enough for a simple weeknight meal.
What is Focaccia?
Focaccia is an Italian bread that is often shaped and baked into a large, flat rectangle, and is very similar in flavor and texture to pizza dough, and there are as many focaccia recipes as there are Italian grandmothers. Recipes can range from incredibly time consuming to quick and easy, and everywhere in between.
Some make their focaccia fairly thin, while others like a thick, spongy dough. Which is best? It depends on your personal taste and your recipe (some bakers take up to two days to ferment their dough, while others take considerably less time, which affects the texture of the dough). Whether you like your focaccia thick or thin, with a long rise or short, most often it is topped with olive oil and herbs and has characteristic dimples on the surface.
After trying many different techniques and ingredients, I came up with a focaccia recipe that strikes a nice balance between a traditional yeasted dough and something quick enough to prepare in a leisurely weekend bake.
Making Focaccia Dough
Get the recipe: Decorated Focaccia Bread
Follow along for step-by-step instructions and some helpful tips I learned along the way for making and shaping the dough, and embellishing it with vegetables and herbs.
Start by combining 2 cups of the flour along with the yeast, dried herbs, and salt in a large bowl or stand mixer. (You'll add the rest of the flour a little later). If you use a stand mixer you can alleviate some of the work required for mixing the dough. Otherwise, it's perfectly okay to mix the dough the "old fashioned" way with some elbow grease and wooden spoon.
Add the warm water, warm milk, and olive oil to the bowl and beat well until combined. I like using a little milk in this recipe instead of all water; Milk gives the yeast the sugar it needs to bloom (you'll notice I didn't add any extra sugar or honey in this recipe), plus it adds a nice richness to the dough.
Tip: Yeast likes water around 105 to 110 degrees F. It's a Goldilocks situation. When the water is too hot, the yeast will die; too cold and the yeast won't activate properly. If you don't have a kitchen thermometer handy, you can get an approximate idea of the water and milk temperature with this easy test: if you can leave your finger in the water for 5 to 10 seconds, it's around 105 degrees F. If a quick dip proves too hot, let the liquids cool for a bit. If you can stick your finger in the water forever, zap it in the microwave for a few seconds to warm up.
Add the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, until a soft, sticky dough forms. If mixing with a whisk, switch to a wooden spoon as soon as the work gets hard. You don't want to dump all the flour in at once. Different factors, like local humidity (a rainy day versus a sunny day) or the brand of flour you use will change how your dough comes together. Sometimes it takes a little more flour, sometimes a little less.
Resting the dough.
The dough needs to rest (proof) for a short time. To save cleaning another bowl, simply scrape down the sides of the bowl and drizzle the dough with a little olive oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm spot (a sunny window sill, an oven with the pilot on, or even a dishwasher that has recently been run and emptied) until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Stretch it out.
Oil your baking sheet (I used an 11x17-inch rimmed baking sheet) and spread the dough gently, flattening it to fit the entire sheet. If it snaps back when you press it to the corners of the pan, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes. When the dough is stretched out, gently press your fingers into the dough to make light dimples over the entire surface. While the dough is resting, preheat the oven and prepare your ingredients for decoration.
Tip: Creating dimples with your fingers helps to prevent the dough from bubbling up while baking.
Now it is time to get creative! Grab your favorite colorful herbs, vegetables (fresh or pickled), and nuts and seeds. Decorate the dough with your ingredients, gently pressing down so they stay in place. Finish with a fine brush of olive oil over the top.
Try these ideas:
- Sliced mini bell peppers, halved cherry tomatoes, and jarred red and yellow roasted peppers make beautiful flowers.
- Use kalamata olives for the centers of the flowers or pickled asparagus for little trees.
- Sliced shallots make beautiful rocks (or petals).
- Choose "leafy" herbs, where you can use the leaves and stems, to create flower stems, leaves, or grass. Try parsley, basil, chives, dill, or sage.
- Nuts and seeds, like pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, add texture and flavor as the center of flowers or create "soil".
Tip: When working with juicy ingredients like sliced fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers, or olives, pat the ingredients dry with a paper towel before placing them on the dough. Otherwise, they will make your bread soggy and the colors will run.
Brush your masterpiece with a little bit of oil and bake. Let it cool for 5 minutes before sliding it out of the pan and onto a rack to finish cooling. You can eat it at room temperature or admire it lovingly for up to one day before serving.
Tip: Spreading oil on the surface of the dough, either with a brush, fingers, or paper towel, helps to keep the bread moist, adds flavor, and gives it a beautiful shine.
The Shortcut Version
If you're short on time but still want a beautiful result, cheat a bit and skip making your own homemade focaccia. Swap it out for store-bought pizza dough. (Heck, that's what focaccia basically is, right?!) Follow the package directions for thawing and baking, and the decorating steps above. Since pizza dough has a tendency to poof up while baking, use a fork to poke small holes all over the dough before (and sometimes during) baking.
More focaccia recipes to try:
- Chef John's Focaccia is seasoned with rosemary and sea salt.
- This version of focaccia bread is made savory with lots of herbs and garlic, and is topped with two kinds of cheese.
- Focaccia di Recco has a surprise layer of cheese in the middle.
- Want to make focaccia in your bread machine? We've got you covered.