Why a Focaccia Garden Is the Baking Project You Need Right Now
Instagram is currently abloom. Home bakers are bejeweling their focaccia dough with vegetables and herbs to create edible bread scenes, appropriately dubbed "focaccia gardens." Teri Culletto (@vineyardbaker) is the Martha's Vineyard-based baker thought to have started the trend when she posted her focaccia garden creation on Instagram last February, but it really started to really take off at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, as the quarantined masses found comfort in baking.
"I am still overwhelmed by how the trend grew to be as big as it is, and people are so creative!" says Culletto, who bakes bread daily and sells her goods through a CSA model when she's not working in the radiology department of her local hospital. "If you look for the hashtags #focacciaart or #focacciagarden, there are now thousands (inspired by) the original intention, which was just to provide a fun project for other enthusiastic bakers."
Culletto's first creation came about when she was teaching a cooking class at her local learning center at the start of last year. Wanting to create a memorable experience for the students after teaching the basics of focaccia, she provided vegetables, herbs, seeds and spices and directed them to use the dough as a canvas. The project was a hit with her students, and soon after sharing her first focaccia garden post, she began getting requests for instructions and tips.
"Realizing it was inspiring others, I set up a website where people could download the recipes and techniques and give it a try," says Culletto. "Making any kind of bread can be relaxing and helpful for stressful times in our lives. Play some nice music and create something that truly comes to life in your hands."
This spring, as shelter-in-place orders swept the country, home bakers (both green and seasoned) cultivated their own sourdough starters and swapped recipes on social media. Focaccia gardens also started brightening feeds, lifting spirits and giving bakers a use for pantry and produce odds and ends.
"My kitchen garden was the inspiration for this focaccia," says Kentucky-based home baker and teacher Lauren May (@mustloveherbs). "My hope was to showcase what was in bloom and flourishing at the time of baking."
May, whose colorful account regularly highlights her own homegrown bounty as well as foraged Appalachian blossoms and botanicals, begins by infusing her focaccia dough with herbs. She then uses a spectrum of vegetables (pea shoots, kale, chard, radishes, broccoli, chives, carrots and mushrooms) for her edible garden and adds colorful accents with nasturtium and pansy petals. Another recent creation uses exclusively herbs and edible flowers like squash blossoms, calendula and cornflowers.
"I have been finding much comfort in baking during the past months," says May. "I try my best to stay busy and productive. There is something so therapeutic about the process of bread baking."
"It's a way to escape into nature while staying at home," says Albanian food photographer and blogger Elisabeta Skarra (@elisabetaskarra). She discovered focaccia gardens on Pinterest while living in Genoa and has been crafting Ligurian landscapes using delicate purple onion rings for flowers and chive clippings for grass.
Veneto-based wine consultant Eleonora Zilli (@lucele_foodandwine) learned about focaccia gardens in a magazine and began to recreate works of art by Picasso, Klimt, Gauguin and others. She, like many, welcomed the creative outlet while Italy was in lockdown.
Home baker Bhavani Munshi (@thepunnyvegetarian) decided to take a different approach with her focaccia art by creating edible activism.
"When the Black Lives Matter movement reentered the spotlight this past May following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I knew I wanted to publicly express my solidarity with those fighting for equality," explains Munshi. "My preferred medium of art is food, so I decided to use focaccia to make a statement and stand against racism."
Munshi's feed is a collection of editorial-grade food photos depicting the vegan and vegetarian recipes she develops. Her account is not normally baking-focused, but quarantine renewed her appreciation for slow cooking, more complicated techniques and longer proofing and bake times. Her most recent focaccia creations use veggies and herbs to make statements like Black Lives Matter, Rise in Power and I Have A Dream.
"I reflected a lot before making and sharing my more political focaccia art," says Munshi, who knew she might receive backlash from people with different views, as well as those who might feel that food art was a trivial response to a serious problem. "I asked BIPOC friends for their opinions, I read a lot about what solidarity and allyship look like and then I made the decision to share it."
She says the response has been extraordinarily positive.
"They've been shared dozens of times and strangers have sent me messages to thank me for them," says Munshi. "Overall, people have responded very positively to my way of standing in solidarity with what I believe in."
Whether you're seeking a mode of relaxation or a medium for expression, creating your own focaccia garden is easy with these tips from the Vineyard Baker. The first step? Find a delicious focaccia recipe. (Psst—We happen to have a delicious recipe for Easy Garden Focaccia. It's a no-knead recipe, so it's super easy and family-friendly.)
How to Make a Focaccia Garden
1. Make sure your kitchen is at room temperature or warmer.
Never let dough dry out or be placed in a cold drafty area. This causes problems with the final results.
2. If possible, weigh ingredients rather than measure.
This will ensure the recipe turns out right every time. Salt is an excellent example of why we should measure. Table salt or sea salt is much heavier with less volume than kosher salt or French salt.
3. Have a finger bowl of water near your work area.
When working with dough, it is easier if your fingers are just a little moist.
4. Dip fresh herbs in lemon water before using them to decorate.
This helps to keep them green when exposed to the hot oven.
5. Don't worry if your breads are not perfect.
No one's breads truly are. You become a master at the act of manipulating ingredients, temperatures and time by practice, and as you get more familiar with behaviors and textures of bread dough and different flours, you create great bread.