This recipe comes from a pretty sophisticated bread book that I have, definitely not the simplest of recipes. That being said, if you have a lot of time on your hands (such as four weeks of holiday break from college with no responsibilities) it is super fun and rewarding.
Artisan Breads by Eric W. Kastel
For the "Biga"
The Biga is a prefermentation of the dough. You will want to make this the day before you plan to bake the bread, as it must rest for 10+ hours.
1/2 C water at about 55°F *See note
1 1/3 C bread flour
"pinch" of instant dry yeast **
1. I guessed on the temperature because my candy thermometer broke recently. You can be the better person and measure if you want.
2. I just learned the shortcut for the degree symbol!
** Two more comments:
1. I don't really know how much a pinch is either. Honestly, I have a spoon in a teaspoon set that says it measures a pinch, but if you don't have one don't stress. I didn't use it.
2. "Instant Dry" yeast (often called "Bread Machine yeast" or "Rapid Rise") is recommended by the author of this book. Of course I failed to realize this and used "Active dry", which is NOT the same. Don't make my mistake!
Mix the flour and yeast in a bowl. Put the water in the bowl of an electric mixer and add the flour mixture. Mix with the dough hook attachment for about 2 minutes on medium speed. If you don't have a mixer and/or a dough hook, mix the ingredients with a wooden spoon and finish by kneading. Whatever method you use, the biga should end up "stiff and slightly dry". Place it in an oiled mixing bowl and roll it around to coat it in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about 2 hours. After the refrigeration, take the bowl out and leave it at room temperature for 10 to 12 hours (I think I might have let it rest for closer to 14)
For the "Final Dough"
2 C water at ~ 86°F
3 Tbs olive oil
1/8 tsp. malt syrup A.K.A. barley malt syrup (Do you know how tiny 1/8 tsp is!?)
4 C + 2 1/2 Tbs. bread flour
3/4 tsp. Instant dry yeast
1 Tbs. salt
Toppings: I used red onions, Mozarella, and a bit of Parmesan. The possibilities are endless though - you just don't want to overload the bread.
Put the water, oil, malt syrup, and fermented biga into a large bowl. Mix it with your hands for about five minutes, picking up the biga and squeezing it between your fingers to break it up. Combine the flour and yeast in another bowl then add it to the water-biga mixture while stirring. Add the salt too. Continue to knead and work the dough until it is evenly mixed. It will still be very sticky and unstructured. Cover and allow it to ferment in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour.
Next, dump the dough onto a lightly floured counter - I would recommend putting parchment paper down and then flouring that to achieve the cleanest, least sticky experience. Fold the dough over itself into thirds and let it sit, yet again, for about 10 minutes.
Lay out two baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Divide the dough into three equal pieces, lightly flouring the bottoms. Fold each piece in half, then in half the other way. Flip it over so that the folds are on the bottom, and lightly roll it a bit to form a loose ball. This whole shenanigans isn't an exact science...
Put two of the loaves on one sheet and the third on the other sheet. Brush them with olive oil and let them sit, covered, for another ten minutes. Uncover the loaves. Dip your fingers in olive oil and "stipple" the dough by gently stretching it and making light depressions in the dough with your finger tips. You want each loaf to end up about 10 by 6 inches. Cover the dough lightly with plastic wrap and let them sit for half an hour to 45 minutes - the FINAL fermentation!
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475° F. If you have a bread or pizza stone, that's great. If not, just gather a few other baking sheets. About 15 or minutes before you put the loaves in the oven, put whatever baking surfaces you are using into the oven to preheat. Fill an ovenproof tray with a few inches of water and place it in the oven as well in order to create steam.
Prepare your toppings. For me, this meant sauteing the red onion with some oregano and thyme and finishing it off with a bit of balsamic vinegar. I diced the fresh mozzarella into small cubes and grated the Parmesan. You could use any cheese you'd like, and swap out the onions for anything from olives to dried fruit.
When the dough is finally done rising, re-create the light depressions with you fingers but don't stretch it out anymore. Sprinkle on your toppings and transfer the dough to the oven by sliding the parchment paper from the prep trays to the trays/stones in the oven. Immediately turn the heat down to 450°F. If your loaves are spread between various racks, rotate them half way through baking. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes and then remove the tray of water. Bake for another 5 minutes or so, until the bread is browned and "does not give when pressed".
Remove the focaccia from the oven, place it on a wire rack, brush lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle each loaf with a bit of salt.