When I find Hazim, Bakehouse bread baker and expert conceptualist, in the Bakehouse courtyard, he’s unshakably focused on his work. I often find him in this state—dusted in a light layer of flour, scribbling in a notebook I can only assume contains endless delicious ideas waiting to be brought to life. He is relentlessly dedicated to the development of new, innovative, and delicious breads. His Green Olive Focaccia is no exception.
Those who’ve tried it know what craveable secrets the humble slice holds. A bounty of fruity Castelvetrano olives crown a crisp-crusted, chewy, bubbly slice of deeply colored whole grain focaccia. A single bite unlocks innumerable layers of flavor. Warm, twangy raw and roasted garlic! Bright, poppy lemon! Fruity, herbaceous coriander! It’s a celebration of simple ingredients inspired by Hazim’s upbringing on the island of Cyprus.
Intrigued by the story behind my new favorite midday snack, I sat down to talk with him about how this savory treat came to be.
Can you tell me a bit about the process of coming up with this focaccia? It’s really such a unique bread.
We went to the Grain Gathering at Washington State University last year and tasted lots of wonderful stuff, and one thing that stuck out was this whole grain focaccia. It was more like a flatbread, not quite a focaccia—it’s kind of a blurry term—but it tasted great. I’d tasted things kind of like that before, but it was a good reminder. Here, we’re always talking about what new breads to work on, and when we came back, Amy (Bakehouse managing partner) said, “I think I want a whole grain focaccia.”
I love working with naturally leavened doughs and freshly milled grain, so this was just perfect. I also tried to base it on what we had in hand. Hard red spring wheat is strong and very flavorful, and spelt is also very flavorful. It’s an ancient grain, but it also has this extensibility that you don’t get with the hard red spring, meaning it’s great for stretching a dough into a flatbread.
I had the formula in my head: a wet dough that gets fermented overnight with a very little bit of starter in it as the jumping-off point. A bit of olive oil, because that’s what focaccia is typically associated with. But the other part of the equation was the sheet pan, which is what we typically bake our focaccias in. I’d tried that once, but I knew these breads would require a lot of heat and our sheet pans don’t necessarily work that way.
Normally, when you bake in a wood-fired oven, you can use sheet pans to cool down the stone hearth. If you imagine putting something in a sheet pan and then putting it on the deck ovens, it’s not going to get as much heat as if you put it directly on the hearth. I tried that and it didn’t really work. I needed really high heat, not the heat that we have going on in these deck ovens. I’d use my little Rofco oven in Cyprus, and when I was making pizzas, I’d just crank it all the way up to 300°C. As I was thinking about that, it just immediately clicked that I should use Detroit-style pizza pans—they have higher sides than a sheet pan, plus they’re made out of cast iron so they retain heat more efficiently.
So you plop the dough in there, let it relax, stretch it out, proof until it gets super bubbly and light. That’s what I really like—you can really push the proof, so the flavors explode and the texture becomes super-tender. The more you ferment, the softer and more tender it gets. Then, when you bake it in a super-hot oven, they’re ready in 15 minutes.
Once we figured out the dough piece, I had to figure out what we were going to top it with. Immediately, the first one in my mind was the combination of halloumi, raw onion, and fresh mint, which we use in Cyprus a lot. Back home, we prepare this dough in round metal pans. It’s not quite focaccia; it’s just a plain dough that’s usually a little yeasted, with a lot of olive oil, and then topped with raw onions, mint, and all that. I had a lot of it when I was growing up. So I ran with that idea, baked it, and we all tasted it and said, “oh… this is GOOD. It’s very good.”
Definitely. I don’t think a lot of people around here are familiar with halloumi or that flavor combination, but it’s really delicious. It’s often only available seasonally though, so how did you land on the winning combination we currently have at the Bakeshop?
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do. I remember trying a roasted broccoli-sausage thing, and it just didn’t work. But then I thought, “I’m using halloumi, so why don’t I try another thing we make a lot in Cyprus?” Something that’d typically go along the same breakfast table: marinated olives. If you came to our house for breakfast, there’d be a little bowl of cracked green olives with coriander, garlic, and lemon, sitting in olive oil, and you could just nibble. And then you’d take your bread and dip it in all the juices at the bottom of the bowl. We don’t have cracked green olives here, but we do have Castelvetrano olives. I love them; we buy them a lot for my daughter.
They ARE so delicious. I love olives, though; I’ll eat them like candy.
Right? The cool part of this bread is that even people who don’t like olives think it’s really good. Beyond the olives, raw garlic was a given, but then I remembered we have roasted garlic, too. That’s just another flavor explosion. And then great olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and crushed coriander seeds. We tasted it, and… that was that. When Amy and Frank tasted it, they were both like, “Yep!” I’m used to going back to the drawing board a little bit to rework things, but these two combinations got the thumbs-up right away.
Awesome. So you had mentioned that it would be part of a breakfast spread. Do you envision the focaccia as part of a breakfast spread? What are some other serving ideas?
I think that would be great. You’d have to have super fresh, in-season tomatoes and cucumbers, the focaccia, a little bit of cheese, a little bit of coffee or tea. What more do you need? Or, if you want, you can fry up a sunny-side-up egg and put it on top of the green olive focaccia. But I think they can be a snack during the day, too. The cool thing about this focaccia is, even if you take it home and take it out the next day at room temperature, it’s still great on its own. If you warm it up it’s even better, but it’s not like a bread that dries out that much for the first two days. After that, though, it would be better if you warm it up. Just snack on it as-is.
Agreed. I’ve only ever eaten it as-is, and I’ve never wanted for anything. I think that it’s super-satisfying, largely because of the whole grain.
I agree. But even though it’s whole grain, the crust is very mild-flavored. You can taste the grain, but it’s very subtle and the toppings just sing. Recently I’ve tried making it with a whole-wheat starter that we have in-house, and then the crust flavor is amped up even further. And then you can just eat that on its own! Bread so good you just want to eat it plain!