Wednesday, March 17, 2010

From Focaccia "Destiny" to Focaccia Awesomeness

After much planning and dithering, my friend Layla and I finally took a class on making focaccia at the Meat Hook in Brooklyn. We've tried a few times to register for the popular pickling class, but space for it always sells out very quickly. The focaccia class was also within our price range, so we thought if it's still available when our next payday rolls around, then we'll register. It would be what we laughingly referred to as "focaccia destiny". Would we get in? Yes!

During the day, we both come from the foodie entertainment industry, but couldn't be further removed from the entertainment product or from the actual food itself. Focaccia class was an excuse for our second excursion to this outer-borough vittles outpost (newly merged with the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs from around the corner). My friend and I love coming to this stunningly simple and laid-back atmosphere. It's a food-lover's nirvana without pretense, but with the implication that preparing food at the base level can be a really fun experience. Back in December, we took a much-needed break from Christmas shopping and other holiday pressures, and went to a cabernet-soaked book reading by Julie Powell (as in Julie and Julia)- but more on that event later. 

Back to the class- standing in tonight for the scheduled "bread professor" was the very approachable and zen-like Matt Tilden, founder of Scratch Bread. The outer boroughs of New York City are undergoing an alimentary renaissance. Matt is also very much an active participant in the new culinary movement or wave happening in Brooklyn consisting of food ambassadors who are collectively making a positive impact in trendy neighborhoods like mine. His theory about food is as simple as it gets: the less processed, the better. Get away from the junky, low-quality, mass-produced food generated by corporate food factory giants. Make it yourself. After some personal health setbacks and seeing movies like Food, Inc., I've become much more knowledgeable about what goes on my plate, so I couldn't agree more.

We learned how to make the bread from scratch, and it was surprisingly easy. It was a very sensory experience combined with the hunger-inspiring visuals of the beautiful fresh toppings. While the term "food porn" originates with gorgeous, glossy dishes in the television and media sphere, it could also apply to this hands-on experience.
For toppings, we used sweet red onions, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, cracked pepper, gray salt (that looked like stars), lemon zest, mustard, parmagiano reggiano, fennel seeds, freshly cut real bacon, and prosciutto. Later at home, I also tried tuna, tomatoes, and mushrooms- with all of these appealing and colorful ingredients, there could be endless variations.
As a whole, we were pretty timid at first. But as the ingredients started to come together into a real photogenic work of art, the "food paparazzi" emerged, and the cameras came out. During class, a case of Brooklyn Lager (naturally- it's also from the neighborhood) arrived for us to help us get through the oven waiting period. At the end of the night, there was the big reveal and we were finally able to sample our delicious creations with pride. My favorite combination was the purple onions with fennel seed, salt, and grated parmagiano.

As I walked back to my apartment after class, I glanced down at my bag of take-home goodies from the night. I thought to myself that people passing me on the street would never guess what's in here: excess raw yeast, some unusual crystalline gray salt, and my ever-expanding, fluffy and active, "dough baby" covered in an olive oil sheen; primed and ready for the oven.

I also realized that I have a new appreciation for the homemade dedication of grandmas and that I learned several things tonight: kneading the dough by hand gives your arms a great workout (leave that electric mixer unplugged), the combination of ingredients makes your winterized hands soft again, and most importantly, there's something about food that does something to people. It brings down the uncomfortable tension of being thrust into a room with strangers, and elevates the spirit of friendliness by immediately putting everyone at ease. At the beginning of the class, everyone was awkward and squirrely. By the end of the night, we were loudly and excitedly exchanging large cubes of freshly baked bread, talking about music and past food experiences, suggesting ingredient combinations for next time, and bidding each other a good night; all with the promise to ourselves of taking another class soon....maybe pickling!

Batches of kombucha.
Digging in!

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