It was a 87 perfect degrees in New York City today and I spied an actual pumpkin at the farmers market. I love this time of year, when you expect it to feel like fall but it decidedly does not; it’s like Bonus Summer: cool enough to bust out cardigans at night but warm enough it feels too soon to audition any of the heavier dishes to come this winter. I’ve been gushing over what Sam Sifton called “valedictory meals” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine — “fall dinners pretending to be summer ones” — and I imagine that wedges of focaccia baked with a grape you can only find this time of year, a roasted tomato salad, many formats of cheese and a lush glass of pink wine would nicely fit the bill.
Still, it feels blasphemous saying this, given that this is a Claudia Fleming recipe and I adore her baking so, but it really drove me crazy. The dough was too soft, there was more oil/butter in there than even possible to apply (and I’m not one who willingly cuts back on butter in recipes) and have you ever tried to seed a Concord grape? Take a seat, it will be a while. An almost paper-like exterior gives way to a gelatinous center that has no interest or inclination to give up its one to four (4!) seeds.
But when all that is done and you pull this from the oven, you might taste the most amazing focaccia you have ever eaten. I know I did. I couldn’t get enough of the sweet/salty/olive oil/grape/rosemary thing with the crisp edges and so much texture, it was nothing like those leaden squares speckled with dry olives you might be used to. I imagine this will go into heavy rotation if we ever start having cocktail parties again. Or cocktails.
Cooking this last week also forced me to reconsider something I never thought I’d have to. Warning, a tangent is nigh! One of my greatest pet peeves (and a conversation I encourage you to never start with me, because I just go on and on about how much it “annoys” me until you roll your eyes, or at least that’s what my husband does) is what companies get away with printing on product labels. “A good source of calcium!” “Boosts childrens immunity!” “Fat free!” (Dude, it’s ketchup.) And especially: 100% juice! (Welch’s). Because I had eaten grapes (tons, actually, in the 9 months before this sock monkey thief came along) and they didn’t taste anything like that ridiculousless in the bottle. How do they get away with making such false claims? And then, last week I had my first Concord grape. And guys, it tasted precise like… bottled grape juice (or Kedem, for those of you ushering in 5771 wine-free this week). Have I been wr-r-r- (this word, it hurts) -ong? Is it possible that nutritional claims made on labels might not be universally dubious? Some people read Ayn Rand and suddenly have to reconsider everything they once thought they knew about the world; me, I ate a grape. My mind has been buzzing with this new development, and I pondered it as I ate piece after piece of my focaccia heaven. I’m thinking about making another batch, just so I can “consider” this some more.
Grape Focaccia with Rosemary
Adapted from Claudia Fleming’s Last Course
As I mention above, I tweaked this recipe a lot. I have streamlined several steps, swapped butter with oil (because I’m nuts about the olive oil/sea salt/rosemary combination), used less than she suggested (which, trust me, will not leave this focaccia lacking), swapped powdered milk for a smaller amount of fresh, increased the flour so that the dough is only moderately and not “so sticky that someone who has baked hundreds of breads in her life is going out of her mind” (ahem). What stays, however, is bliss: a gorgeous focaccia that’s begging to served with wine and cheese, preferably on a deck. Do that for me, will ya?
To seed your Concord grapes, I recommend re-sharpening your sharpest paring knife, halving them and then using the tip of the knife to excavate the seed or seeds. They make a lovely (albeit teeth- and fingernail-staining) snack while you work, so make sure you buy extra.
P.S. If you want to buy a copy of this utterly fantastic dessert cookbook, one of my favorites, I recommend calling the North Fork Table & Inn, where Fleming now spends her days and asking if you can buy one from their supply. I bought mine there a couple years ago, and they only charge the cover price, unlike many resellers.
3/4 cup (177 ml) warm water (105° to 110°F)
2 tablespoons (30 ml) milk, slightly warmed
1 1/2 teaspoons (6 grams) sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons (5 grams) active dry yeast
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
6 tablespoons (90 ml) olive oil
1 1/2 cups halved Concord, red or black grapes, seeded
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary needles
2 tablespoons (8 grams) raw or another coarse sugar
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt (heads up: some are finding this too salty; if you’re worried, use less)
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the water, milk, sugar, and yeast. Let the mixture sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the flour, salt and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the yeast mixture and mix well on low. Attach the dough hook, raise the speed to medium-low and knead the dough for 8 minutes longer.
[And yes, you can stir this together entirely by hand with a wooden spoon, then smash it around on a floured counter to “knead” it for a bit. It’ll be sticky, but doable, and of course you’ll get to say you made bread “old school” style.]
Brush a large bowl with a generous amount of olive oil. Scrape dough into the bowl and brush the top with additional oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a cool place until it doubles in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Press the dough down with a floured hand. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide it into two balls. Brush a large baking sheet (or two small ones) with olive oil, place the balls of dough on it and brush the top with more oil. Set it aside for 20 minutes, lightly covered with a kitchen towel. After 20 minutes, dip your fingers in olive oil and press and stretch each ball of dough into a 8 to 9-inch circle-ish shape. It will be dimpled from your fingers. Cover again with the towel and let it rise for another 1 1/4 hours in a cool place.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Brush tops of dough with remaining olive oil and top the sprinkle grapes, rosemary, coarse sugar and coarse sea salt evenly over the dough. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and puffed around edges. Let cool before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Try not to eat the whole thing like, uh, some people we might know.