Last month, my team and I reopened our flagship restaurant, Spago Beverly Hills, after a complete two-month-long remodel, its first new look since we opened at that location in 1997. I'm thrilled with the elegant, clean-lined space, and with the fresh new dishes coming from our kitchen.
One excited comment I keep hearing from our guests is how delighted they are with the new selection of house-baked breads we're offering, including a wonderfully flavorful sourdough and a crispy seeded flatbread. "So many people tell us how much they like them," the waitstaff tells me, too. "Everybody loves the new menu, of course. But they also can't stop talking about the bread."
I'm not surprised. That's just the way it is with freshly baked bread. Warm, flavorful, and full of texture, it makes the perfect accompaniment to a special meal, and is one of the items guests talk about the most.
So, I wonder, why aren't more people planning on baking bread for their holiday celebrations, especially for Thanksgiving, just a week away? The answer may have something to do with the fact that most home cooks think of bread-making as a difficult and time-consuming activity, what with all the mixing and kneading and rising and shaping involved.
But making bread doesn't have to be so hard. First of all, a good-quality electric stand-mixer, now available to home cooks at surprisingly reasonable prices, does all of the mixing and kneading for you. Active dry yeast is virtually foolproof as long as you follow the simple directions from the manufacturer and those in the recipe you're using. And if you make a rustic flatbread like Italian focaccia, shaping the dough isn't really much of an issue, since all you have to do is spread it out in a large oiled pan and dimple its surface with your fingertips.
Once you've flattened the dough and brushed it with olive oil, you also have the option of flavoring its surface in any way you like: sprinkling it with kosher salt, black pepper, and fresh thyme leaves, as I do here; making it spicy with some crushed red pepper flakes; scattering freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top; or maybe pressing whole seedless grapes or pieces of dried fruit down into the dough. However you embellish it, the thin dough bakes quickly, meaning you can pop it into the oven when you take out the holiday roast to rest, and you'll have freshly baked bread ready to serve when you carve that turkey or ham.
Just be prepared for the possibility that the guests at your holiday table will lavish as much praise on the focaccia as they do on your main course!
FOCACCIA WITH FRESH THYME
1-3/4 cups water, at warm room temperature
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