The 50/50 Lottery that is Smelling Other People’s Cooking

So, on the quasi-mythical and much sought-after list of Top 20 Ways To Guarantee Girls Will Always Be Attracted To You, having a food blog comes in at number 18, having been closely been beaten out by #17 (Owning a Hot Air Balloon) and #15 (Being Colin Farrell).  This would possibly explain why I was at home last Thursday night watching re-runs of a sitcom that was doing its best to show that being neurotic is okay as long as you wear low-cut tops, instead of out making a sex-tape.

Now I don’t know if it was the whole plot of this particular episode, but somewhere along the line the Surprisingly Intelligent Blonde was making cookies for the Tortured But Suspiciously Clean-Shaven Artist so that he’d be attracted to the smell of baking in her flat, which is when I got distracted by my own feet and stopped watching.

But the idea is a good one. I know this, because the block of flats where I live might well be the previously undiscovered 29th Province of India. Yes, it’s me, a small family of strange Eastern-bloc refugees, and the last 30 families of the Gujarat dynasty living in a four-story Art-deco flat-block in Central Johannesburg. But let me tell you, when those little Indian grannies roll up their sleeves and get their mojo working over the spice-pot, one literally floats along the rolling wave of the aromas that leak out of their kitchens. It’s a staggering experience; you can’t help wanting to just slump up against their front doors and lick them until something starts to taste of Tandoor. This is when living jammed up against a whole lot of other people is an awesome experience, something to be treasure and savoured.

Of course it cuts both ways, because it’s all well and lovely when what’s being made around you is something you don’t mind smelling whether you want to or not. However, a couple of days later when I was coming home from work, I got out of the lift on the fourth floor of my building and was assaulted by possibly one of the worst smells I’ve ever experienced since the time I found out the hard way why you really shouldn’t fix your own toilet. It was almost as though someone had decided to boil pure evil for an hour and then finish it off with at least seven of the ten biblical plagues, except that next door someone was about to call this ‘dinner’. Escaping to into my house didn’t help either, because, like creeping death, cockroaches and dirty underpants, it found every nook and cranny and just slowly soaked its way into my house until I had a headache.

Now there are three ways to combat Wafting Death: a) Leave immediately. b) Leave immediately and c) Leave. Immediately. But call me reckless, because one particular evening when the same next-door neighbours (I’d narrowed it down to the Eastern Block refugees) had fired up the home cooker and were looking forward to a big plate of boiled fellow-asylum-seeker, and perhaps inspired by my Surprisingly Intelligent Sitcom Blonde, I decided to fight fire with fire. And of course – there is no better weapon against other people’s horrible cooking than the best smell on the planet: fresh-baked bread. And of course it’s quick, fairly easy, and you can store excess dough for later.

The Utterly Awesome Secret Pot Technique
The Utterly Awesome Secret Pot Technique

Whatever-you-want-on-it Focaccia

Ingredients:

Basic Dough

500g flour
300ml of warmish water
1 sachet dried yeast
2 tablespoons of honey
1 tbsp salt
1 capful of olive oil
extra flour for dusting

Topping

Whatever you want – in this instance I used cherry tomatoes cut into quarters, some sliced onion, chopped olives and a healthy sprinkle of dried origanum. But you can really use whatever you like – the secret is not to slather on too much stuff! This isn’t a pizza, it’s more about the crusty fresh-baked bread with some added bonus-bits on top.

What To Do:

Add the honey into the warmish water and mix it up until dissolved. Then add the packet of dried yeast to the water/honey and gently mix that in as well. Set it aside until its started to foam gently and smell all caramelly and delicious.

Sift together the flour and the salt, and then dump it out onto a clean work-counter.

Now this is the bit where you’re going to freak out, because it’s going to get messy, you’re going to think its ruined and that you’ve fucked it all up. But don’t worry, bread is the most forgiving of substances, as long you somehow get it all together, it doesn’t much mind how you get there. So, don’t give up when you’re in the midst of a sloppy mess – it’s going to be okay.

Make a well in the centre of your flour and salt, then pour in the capful of olive oil. Then, slowly – bit by bit, start pouring the water/honey/yeast mix into the well, swirling in the flour as you go. Add some water, mix in the flour until it becomes a paste, then add more water. Keep doing this until all the liquid has been added and then you can start to soak up all the remaining flour. At this point, if it’s too dry, feel free to add more water. Similarly if it’s too wet, add more flour – it’s really okay.

Once you have a nice dough, kneed it until smooth and then set aside on a bread-board in a warm part of your house. Over the course of about half-an-hour or so it should double in size.

Now this is the secret bit of this recipe that’s going to make it truly awesome. Get a heavy, flat-based pot and put it on a stove plate that’s turned up as high as it can go. At the same time, get the grill in your oven on, also as high as it can go: this is what’s going to give you an insanely crispy exterior with a lovely inside.

Cut off a piece of dough about the size of a child’s fist and, on a floured surface, start to roughly kneed it into a disc with your fingers. It doesn’t have to be too neat because you want it to have shape and character.

Focaccia like to huddle together for warmth.
Focaccia like to huddle together for warmth.

Brush the top of your disc with some olive oil, add your topping (again I’m going to say, not too much) and then, carefully take the pot off the heat, turn it over and put the focaccia onto the base. You’ll hear a hiss, and that’s the signal to get it in the oven as quick as possible. You see, the heat from the base of the pot will cook the bottom, while the grill in your oven is going to sizzle the top in no time (usually about two minutes or so), making it crusty and chewy all at the same time. From experience, I recommend you use oven-gloves, I’ve been burnt a lot trying to be a hero.

Make as many as you think you can eat and then wrap the rest of the dough in clingfilm and store it in the fridge. It can keep for about 4 days.

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