Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Montezuma Well, part 1: Focaccia

Perhaps the greatest thing about car camping is that you can bring just about any food you like. You're not limited by weight, you can do most of the prep work beforehand, and most of your cuisine will keep in a well-stocked cooler for a few days.  Anything that can be roasted over a fire, heated up on a camp stove, or just sliced and snacked on at the picnic table is fair game.

Of course, this didn't stop my parents from feeding Hamburger Helper to my brother and me on many a summer camping trip. Now, thankfully, boxed meals like that are no longer on my menu, since 1) I'm vegetarian, 2) real food takes only a few minutes longer to prepare, and 3) they're icky.

On a recent camping excursion near Sedona, AZ, that included a trip to Montezuma Well (the subject of the upcoming science accompaniment to this post), I packed a loaf of focaccia bread. Okay, the trip wasn't actually that recent, but I'm behind on my posting, so let's just go with it.

...oh, you were thinking I was going to post an actual camping recipe, right? Probably something involving a campfire? Sorry, not this time.

This flatbread holds a special place in my heart because my mom bakes it all the time. A kitchen filled with the yeasty aroma of baking focaccia smells like home to me. Mom, please read this bit and forgive the above disparaging comment about Hamburger Helper.

Mom makes hers in a bread machine, I use my KitchenAid, and you can knead it by hand if you like. The end result is pretty much the same: chewy, salty, herbed goodness.

Start by measuring some water. This should help you ease into things if you're not accustomed to baking bread.

You want it to feel warm--not hot, not cold--on your wrist. "The temperature of a warm bath," as most recipes say. Too toasty, you murder the yeast. Too chilly, they'll refuse to work for you.

Once you mix the yeast into the water, let it sit while you mix together the flour, salt and rosemary. I use about half bread flour and half all-purpose flour for a chewier bread. It's okay to just use all-purpose flour if you haven't got the high-gluten stuff, but don't use 100% bread flour… that crosses the line from pleasantly chewy to too-much-work-to-chew chewy.

Looks like it's time to get some more yeast and rosemary…

When you make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the yeasty water and oil, it's gonna look like you cracked an egg from a giant, diseased chicken in there.


Stir it all together, knead it for about 10min by hand or by hook (or both, if you've lost your hand to a crocodile), and coat the dough in lots of oil. Cover the bowl with a towel and stick it someplace warm; technically you could use plastic wrap, but towels are washable and plastic wrap is pretty much a one-time-only, petroleum-derived, landfill-destined deal.

After an hour, the yeasty action going on inside should make the dough double in size. If, however, you live in an arid environment, didn't coat it in enough oil, and put the dough out in the dry desert air to rise, it'll have formed a crust on top and won't have reached its full potential.

See how the blob on the left is all moist and oily, and the blob on the right is not? It'll still make fine bread if that happened, but just expect the top to get a bit wrinkly when it bakes (see the photo below).

Take this opportunity to release some aggression and punch down that dough. Oil it, sprinkle it with salt and herbs, let it rise some more, poke little holes in it, bake it, let it cool, eat it.

Makes one loaf

1 cup warm water
1 package yeast (2 heaping teaspoons)
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp rosemary
3 Tbsp olive oil, plus more to brush on top
Italian herbs and kosher salt to sprinkle on top

1.   Stir yeast into warm water and let sit for 5 min.

2.   Meanwhile, mix together the flours, salt, and rosemary in a large bowl.

3.   Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the water/yeast mix and the oil. Stir together.

4.   Knead for about 10 min.

5.   Coat the bowl and dough with plenty of olive oil. Let rise in a warm place for an hour or until doubled.

6.   Punch down the dough (WHAM!). Shape it into a sort of dome and plop it on an oiled baking sheet. Brush with more oil and sprinkle with the kosher salt and Italian herbs (you could also add some grated hard cheese--please use the real stuff if you choose parmesan, not the awful powder that comes in those green plastic canisters), and let the dough rise for another 45 min. Preheat the oven to 400˚F midway through the second rising.

7.   Now for my favorite step: poke holes all over the top of the dough!

8.   Bake for 19 min or until golden brown.

Bread machine note: If you're lucky enough to own a bread machine, you can add the ingredients in this order: water, oil, salt, flours, rosemary, yeast. If your machine has a pizza dough setting, that should work for this.


  1. You're forgetting spaghetti, and Dutch oven peach cobbler, and tossed salad, and other delicious meals. The main reason H.H. was used was that it was something you and your brother would both actually eat - a novelty food.

    Oh, and I like to add Parmesan and garlic to the dough for even more flavor.

  2. Yeah, yeah, but the Hamburger Helper is forever seared into my mind!

    Mmmmm garlic...

  3. I love your blog! I remember reading it a few months back, and I loved rediscovering it. Science and cooking, so neat! I'm trying to learn how to cook and I'm definitely trying this recipe. The Parmesan is a good idea. =)

    ~Jennifer (From Duerden's)