On this very day last year, I was enjoying the view from the balcony of a lovely guest house, La Mala in Vernazza, a seaside town in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Traveling around the five cities by train each day was an adventure not only for the beautiful scenery, but enjoying the tantalizing Ligurian food. The Italians not only have breakfast, lunch and dinner, but tucked between these main meals are two small casual meals called merende, Italian for “small bites”. The ancient Romans ate very light main meals, and many could not return to their homes after a busy day in the marketplace to eat, so these little bites from taverns or osterie kept them nourished throughout the day.
The tradition of merende continues today in modern day Italy whether in a caffe, wine bar or while casually walking the streets. Good bread is an integral part of the merende. Pizza, focaccia, bruschetta, crostini and piadina, even polenta, topped with a myriad of fresh seasonal ingredients become a small bite that is easily eaten by hand.
Fresh figs are prolific in the summer and fall months in Italy and make a perfect topping for bread or other appetizers and desserts. Dried figs work just as well for this focaccia if fresh ones are not available. Just soak them covered with warm water, then drain. A rustic country bread, this sweet fig focaccia is made from dough enriched with butter and eggs, similar to a brioche dough. The dough is easily made in a bread machine, although it can be made by hand. A more flavorful dough begins with a sponge which can be made anywhere from 30 minutes-24 hours ahead.
Sweet Fig Focaccia
2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup warm water (105°-115°F)
1-3/4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour or bread flour
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter,
cut into 6 pieces, room temperature
For the starter: According to the manufacturer’s directions for your bread machine, place the ingredients for the starter in the bread machine pan. Process on the dough cycle. When fully mixed, turn off machine and let ingredients sit in the pan until bubbly, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, if using dried figs, soak in warm water for 30 minutes, drain and pat dry before using.
For the dough: To the pan, add the flour, sea salt and unsalted butter. Process on the dough cycle. When finished, remove dough from pan and place on a lightly floured surface. Oil a 10-1/2x 15-1/2-inch baking sheet. Stretch the soft, somewhat sticky dough out to fit the oiled pan. Cover the dough with a towel and let rest 10 minutes to relax the dough. Then stretch it again to completely cover the sheet. Scatter the figs and turbinado sugar over the dough. Cover and let rise until nearly doubled. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
For the topping: 1 pound sliced fresh or dried figs, 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar.
Bake the focaccia for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 375°F and continue baking for another 15 minutes, until top is golden. Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then remove and cool on a rack.