Many traditional cultures celebrate holidays with daylong feasts of lovingly prepared foods, and my Italian family is no exception. Through it all, from antipasti through the main courses (plus sinful slices of alluring desserts), the conversation is loud and lively, the food is fabulous, and the wine flows freely.
Of course, these mouth-watering banquets didn’t just happen. Mamma would start preparations days ahead on her brawny 1954 O’Keefe & Merritt Country Estate range. At 6 feet wide and weighing over 800 pounds, its six burners, two ovens, warming oven, broiler, and “grillevator” held prominent sway in her kitchen, keeping things toasty-warm in winter and sweaty-hot in summer. All shiny white enamel and gleaming polished chrome, the range was like a showroom Cadillac beckoning you to take a drive. In fact, it was the vehicle for Mamma’s expression of love and nourishment with the simple daily meals she prepared for her family as well as the big holiday banquets.
Most mornings she made fugassa, a rectangular shaped, honey-golden flatbread glistening with fragrant olive oil and salt. Different from the common “focaccia,” I’m told in true Genovese dialect it’s pronounced Fûgazza. Though the word got Americanized in my family, the preparation did not. Once you picked up a piece of fugassa, felt the oil slither on your fingers, breathed in its heady aroma … once your teeth crackled through the crusty bottom into the dense interior, once your tongue soaked up the full-bodied flavor, there was no turning back. You were hooked—never again to settle for focaccia!
This is the bread of my heritage, passed down through matrilineal generations from the tiny village of Carsassina in the hills above Genoa. As if through instinct, Mamma would mix the few humble ingredients together, drape the bowl with a flour-sack towel, and allow the dough to come to life in the warming oven. The pillowy white dough would expand, pushing at the towel as if reaching for light. When it became level with the top of the bowl, she would scoop out the dough and punch it down, then stretch it to fit her well-seasoned sheet pan. Under towel again, the irrepressible dough would inflate a second time, sending aromatic, yeasty spores into the atmosphere.
Before baking the fugassa, Mamma’s knuckle came in handy to poke dimples into the dough. Then she liberally splashed greenish-colored olive oil from the big tin she kept near the range, the oil pooling in the fresh dimples. A generous sprinkling of salt was the final dressing before the O’Keefe & Merritt delivered its crowning glory of deep, rich color. This time-honored process of mixing, rising, and baking brought us kids heavenly aromas that set our taste buds salivating. We would hang around the range, waiting for Mamma to give the go-ahead to tear into the warm fugassa, eager to nab a crunchy corner piece.
Mamma taught anyone who was interested to make fugassa. From my own lesson many decades ago I can still hear her crackly voice instructing me to “knead it until it’s sticky but not sticky”—a lesson that can only be garnered through experience, and one you’ll never see in a modern recipe. She even shared her tips in a video that one of my nephews recorded and played at a recent family holiday banquet. There she was, “in living color.” Seeing her in the video, hearing her voice again, brought tears to my eyes and made me realize how much I miss her. Though the venerable O’Keefe & Merritt now occupies a place of honor in my kitchen, I miss being able to ask Mamma questions and hear her stories.
Thus this simple bread preparation became Mamma’s enduring legacy. Her grandchildren have now become masters at fugassa-making and teach others, too. Each time any of us makes a batch of fugassa, we think of Mamma with gratitude, and treasure her gift. We know without doubt that her love and spirit are still with us.
Stories, teaching, sharing our passions and our pleasures—the simple, human side of “who we are” is the most touching gift we can give. Think about your own “immortality” being passed down for generations to come. How would you like your descendants to remember you? What nourishing wisdom can you leave for those who may never have the chance to know you? From your decades of experience, what knowledge can you give that will enrich their lives? What would you like to fully express? I hope Mamma’s simple story inspires you to create an enduring legacy that is uniquely you.
Fugassa Genovese Recipe
Here is how I make Mamma’s special bread. Try using your hands when making it; feel the sensuousness of the dough and the oil and imagine the love from your hands going into the dough. Then enjoy it with family, good friends, good wine, and good times. If you have questions, feel free to call me, 360-317-1448 – let’s talk!
- 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 2/3 cups warm water (105 to 110 degrees)
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1 tablespoon fruity flavored extra virgin olive oil (for dough)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary, olives, or other seasonings (optional)
- 4 ½ cups bread flour
- ½ – ¾ cup fruity flavored extra virgin olive oil (to drizzle on top before baking)
- Kosher or sea salt to sprinkle on top before baking
- Mix yeast in warm water in a glass measuring cup and dissolve thoroughly. Add sugar and blend well. Allow mixture to sit 3 to 5 minutes to proof. (If the mixture starts to become foamy on top, you know the yeast is working.)
- Add salt and 1 tablespoon of olive oil and stir to combine. At this point you can add 1 tablespoon of finely chopped rosemary, olives, or other seasonings you’d like in the dough.
- Pour liquid mixture into a large glass, wooden, or crockery bowl. Mix in approximately 4 to 4½ cups flour, kneading lightly, until dough is no longer sticky.
- Cover bowl with a light cloth. Put it in a warm, draft-free place and let dough rise to 1½ to 2 times in size, about 20 to 25 minutes. If you have an older gas range, placing it on the cook-top area over the pilot light is usually a gently warm place.
- Wipe a generous amount of oil around the bottom and sides of a 14” x 18” pan to prevent sticking. Spread dough into pan, cover and return to warm, draft-free environment. Let rise again until 1½ to 2 times in size, about 30 to 45 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450°F. Using your fingers or the handle-end of a wooden spoon, punch deep dimples in the dough, about 1 inch apart. Drizzle top with olive oil, and be liberal here; the more oil you use, the more golden and full-flavored the bread will be. Sprinkle with salt. Bake in preheated oven 20 to 25 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool at least 20 minutes before cutting.
- Mamma always made the bread plain, to please the greatest number of palates. But you can experiment with adding a tablespoon or so of chopped fresh herbs to the dough or thinly sliced onions the top.
- Ovens vary, so you may need to adjust the temperature accordingly. Rise time will also vary.
- For a crunchier, more pizza-style crust, use the hottest oven temperature you can, but decrease the olive oil so you don’t have a flare-up. You can also bake fugassa free-form on a super-stone.
- For a “breadier” sandwich texture, increase the rise time, decrease the oven temperature to as low as 350°F, and increase the baking time.
- Try spraying a little more fruity olive oil on the top when the bread comes out of the oven. This makes it much more fragrant and tasty!
- Leftovers? Cut the bread into small cubes, toss in olive oil and basil pesto, then bake to make great croutons. Or use the cubes for panzanella (bread salad).
Stephanie Prima teaches people ways to enjoy a healthy, happy lifestyle, and is the owner of Move Into Mindfulness in Friday Harbor. Contact her at 360-317-1448 or Stephanie@ MoveIntoMindfulness.com.