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RBR Tailgating: Baked Feta with Focaccia

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In these uncertain times we are all in this together so stay safe. Be strong. 

“ON CAMPUS TAILGATING

In accordance with CDC, state and local guidelines relating to social distancing and large gatherings, tailgating will not be permitted on The University of Alabama campus for the 2020 football season.

No tailgating will be permitted at the public parking lots, the Quad, Moore Hall, Little Hall, Presidential Park, Ferguson Lawn or any other on campus area.“

- uagameday.com

They didn’t come right out and say that violators will be publically hanged (in a venue that abides by strict social distancing as prescribed by the CDC, no doubt) to discourage others from attempting the same, but it was implied.

There will be no grills in the shadow of Bryant-Denny this year. I don’t want to get to maudlin, but I’m really going to miss wafting the bourbon breeze.

The stadium won’t be empty this year, at least ours won’t. The SEC has always had a whiff of federalism about it so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that member schools were allowed to decide how limited attendance would be at their own venues. I’m sure commissioner Sankey was set and ready to make a few leaning in “I saw your attendance cut-off. Seems a little high.” type phone calls but it looked like everyone erred on the side of caution with the highest allowed in at 25%. Vanderbilt is the outlier allowing none. I guess they didn’t want people to notice that the number of fans in the seats under reduced attendance looks pretty much like the number of fans in the seats at your typical Vanderbilt game in a year with regular attendance.

Alabama is allowing 20% capacity (@20,364.2 people) for our home games. This is an away game (Mizzou is letting in 25% or 15,655) but since there would be no tailgating even were we to play at home, this is going to be more or less a kitchen-gating series this year. I’m assuming that rather than being limited to a Weber, a cooler, and maybe a Coleman burner you’ll have access to a full kitchen with ovens, broilers, multiple stove eyes, and a food processor. I’ve typically treated away games in this fashion in the past, but COVID-19 doth make home games of them all, at least for the purposes of these communiqués.

There’s a silver lining. According to what I’ve been reading, the kitchen should be more familiar to some of you as of late. Restaurant closings and variously and self enforced quarantines apparently got a lot people cooking. More often mentioned, and as evidenced by a mid-summer dearth of flour and yeast at my local supermarket, is how popular baking became. I’m guessing people got tired of sitting around all day watching TV (television). It can be dispiriting to sit around all day doing nothing. In baking they found purpose. You can sit around all day watching TV (television) and tell yourself that you’re not doing nothing. You’re proofing dough.

This week’s dish does require baking but, in case this Wall Street Journal headline is applicable to any of you, it’s about the easiest baking possible.

I first had this at Bottega Café in Birmingham. You see it on Italian menus all over these days, but then it was a rare treat. At least part of its popularity must have to do with how sharable it is; one as an appetizer placed in the middle of the table and everybody digs in. For the home tailgate (or kitchen-gate) it makes a great alternative to traditional dips.

Baked Feta with Focaccia

- focaccia

- 1 ⅓ cup warm water (@110˚)

- 2 tsp. granulated sugar

- 1 (.25 oz.) package active dry yeast

- 3 ½ cup all purpose flour

- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle atop dough

- 2 tsp. kosher salt with more reserved to sprinkle atop dough

- marinara sauce

- 1 28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes with their juice

- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

- pinch red pepper flakes or more to taste

- 1 tsp. dried oregano or more to taste

- salt to taste

- ½ cup dry white wine (optional)

- feta cheese

If you have a Kitchen-Aide style stand mixer with a dough attachment you’re way ahead. If not, don’t despair. The focaccia dough comes together just as well stirred by hand in a mixing bowl. It just takes a little longer.

In the mixer’s bowl add the sugar and warm water and stir with a fork until a suspension is formed. Add the yeast, stir gently once or twice and then let ferment for 5 to 10 minutes until the yeast blooms.

To the yeasty water, add 2 cups of the flour, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and mix at low. Slowly add the remaining flour and then increase speed to medium low. The dough should shortly form around the dough hook, within no more than 5 minutes and maybe in as few as 3. If it seems too sticky, sparingly add more flour - just a pinch at a time. If it seems too dry, do the same with water (room temperature water is fine.)

Remove the dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Form the dough into a ball and roll it in the flour until it’s no longer sticky. Brush off any excess flour and place the ball in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the ball, turning it until coated. With the dough in the bottom of the bowl, cover with a damp towel and set in a warm location (more specifically not in a cold location - room temperature will do if need be.) Leave it to proof for 45 minutes to an hour.

If you don’t have a stand mixer, combine everything in the steps described above but stir with a wooden spoon rather than letting the mixer do the job and when you have an identifiable dough, remove it to the lightly floured surface. Knead it for 5 minutes before coating in oil and setting it to proof.

Once proofed, gently compress the dough as it will have become a little airy in the process. I say gently because slightly spongy is okay, desired actually.

Spread the dough out on a lightly floured surface and form it into a square about ½ to 1 inch high. Cover directly with the damp towel again and let proof in its square form for another 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes transfer the dough to a parchment or silicon baking sheet covered sheet pan and stretch it out to fit the dimensions of the pan as best as can be done while maintaining that ½ inch thickness.

Start poking it. Push your fingers deep into the dough and dimple it up like a golf ball.

Next drizzle with olive oil and spread it over the dimpled surface with your hand.

I occasionally add some chopped herbs to the top before baking - chopped rosemary is amazing on this - but herb flavors would likely get lost in the marinara and feta. Leave them off this time but keep them in mind for the future. Salt generously and put it an oven preheated to 400˚.

I let it bake for 10 minutes, turn the pan around because all ovens have hot spots and cook for a further 10 minutes and then one more turn of the pan and another 5 minutes under the heat. Usually it’s beginning to show spots of golden brown by this point but I have had to bake for a second 5 minutes once before. Every batch is a little different.

Let sit to cool for 10 - 15 minutes before cutting.

If you have a favorite store bought marinara, by all means feel free to use that. I prefer to make my own. It’s quick and simple and I think a little more flavorful when you do it yourself. If you choose to follow my lead, pour the canned tomatoes with their juices into a medium mixing bowl and with your hands, tear them apart. You can use a puree if you prefer, but most producers save the best tomatoes to be sold whole and you can tell the quality difference in the flavor. An added advantage to whole torn tomatoes is that they have tendrils of fruit flesh that cling to pasta or, in this case, bread.

Pour a few glugs of olive oil into a sauce pan and add the garlic. Turn the heat to high and stir. When the garlic is aromatic but not much changed in color (do not let the garlic burn) add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, oregano, and if you are using it, the white wine. Stir to mix and bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. If you are using the wine, let boil with an occasional stir for 2 or 3 minutes to cook off some of the alcohol before reducing heat. Stirring every few minutes, allow to cook for 20 minutes. Salt to taste.

In an ovenproof bowl, combine feta and marinara. The proportions are up to you. I want to make sure that there is plenty of cheese in each bite so mine is pretty thick and chunky, but there is no wrong here. Be sure and save some feta to sprinkle on the top.

Put the bowl into an oven preheated to 400˚ and bake until the sauce starts to bubble; about 8 to 10 minutes.

Now you have baked feta. To serve set the bowl of cheese and sauce on a platter and surround with focaccia cut into soldiers. Place it in the middle of a table and watch people dig in.

I’m on the record as supporting the existence of cupcake games. I worry about the future of directional school scholarships without the payday thumpings the P5 provide every year. That said, the idea of an all SEC schedule sends a little tingle up my leg. This is going to be fun.

Enjoy, no injuries, Roll Tide, and grant me the opportunity to ring up my cousins in St. Louis so I can act sympathetically encouraging and drive home the point that we are that much better than them in a manner that cuts much deeper than the traditional boastful post win phone call.