Focaccia gardens bloom in kitchens from Massachusetts to Madras, as part of a viral new trend
Bakers around the world are bringing the outdoors in. And it’s no surprise that this trend began catching fire on Instagram — during the lockdown. Bread gardens, as they are called, are crafted atop golden focaccia loaves, which serve as the popular canvas of choice. Delicate stalks of rosemary and closer home, curry leaves, offer pops of green for shrubbery. While cherry tomatoes and crescent onion rings are reimagined as petals.
Where do Van Dough?
What started out as veggie palettes for a bit of play early on in February and March, has evolved into more complex themes like recreating Vincent Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers. This has since led to the cheeky coining of the term ‘Van Dough’. Teri Culletto (VineyardBaker, 22.6K followers) from Massachusetts, who is thought to have started the trend with her first focaccia post in February 2019, tells us she has drawn inspiration from wildflowers on the highway divide to visits at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.
My favourite combinations are sweet peppers and green onions , basil leaves and grape tomatoes. Kalamata olives , garlic and rosemary have a dynamic flavouring which is savoury, salty and earthy —Teri Culletto, Massachusetts
But most of the time is spent, she says, on thinking about what you would like to create. “I carefully plan it out on a piece of paper,” she tells us. Teri even provides a little graphic sketch with a recipe on her website for those who want to follow along. We are most curious about how to keep the colours on the vegetables, and prevent them from charring in the oven. Teri has a handy tip. “I soak my vegetables in a bowl of ice water.” She explains that the cold water helps the vegetables and herbs remain plump and fresh. Make it a point to pat them dry though, before placing on the dough. “Also, tucking the herbs into the dough so they are snug will ensure they stay put as well as green,” adds Teri, who has been baking for over 40 years.
• Dough has a tendency to shrink back as you stretch it out. If this occurs, just let the dough rest for a few minutes, and it will relax the gluten and be easy to shape.
• Never let dough dry out or be placed in a cold drafty area. This causes problems with the final results.
• When working with dough, it is easier if your fingers are just a little moist. Having a finger bowl to dip your fingers in, near your work area, is helpful.
• 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.
Of course, you might want to get comfortable with the basics, before you aim for an Instaworthy aesthetic. Fauzia Adeel Butt, the CEO of a high profile event company in Doha that has worked with the likes of Manish Malhotra and Virat Kohli — baked her first loaf of bread because she was stuck at home when COVID-19 hit. “My three sons are my critics,” she offers with a laugh, “and I take their feedback very seriously.” She discovered the bread garden trend on the Facebook page I Cook I Click (7K members), and is now on a roll, creating edible art on the daily.
Bread-y or not?
Chennai-based Sandesh Reddy of Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory has been on a sourdough baking spree through the lockdown. But this baker recommends a focus on mastering process and timing, before you aspire for aesthetic. “ I think a lot of people are enamoured by the beautiful loaves they see on Instagram and want to get there in a hurry.” When it comes to bread, he shares, “I would strongly recommend starting with the basics, which is a 65 to 70 per cent hydration dough using plain white flour, water and salt and then work your way up to higher hydration and different flours as you get comfortable.”
That cheese, oh jeez!
While for others, like Bonnie Thomas in Chennai, the idea of a garden focaccia was not about trying something new or pursuing a novel aesthetic, but simply a means to socialise — while in isolation. “I did a bake-along with three of my friends, and honestly, my first attempt didn’t turn out the way I envisioned it.” A poor choice of cheese, resulted in a not-so-pretty garden. But she shares, “Nevertheless, it tasted delicious and was a hit with my family!”
As we all continue to cope with personal stressors and triggers amidst uncertainty — comfort comes in many forms. This includes Netflix binges, nostalgic aromas from childhood and for many (as is evident from the steady roll out of banana bread on social media) baking as therapy. But it is a delightful change to see fresh canvases like focaccia emerging as a means of expression — as we all go through these crazy times together. “The potential for creativity with dough is much like the challenge presented by an artist’s blank canvas,” says artisanal bread maker from Bengaluru, known simply as The Sour Baker.
He elaborates, “With the culinary arts, the possibilities run on multiple levels and can engage multiple senses.” And with bread, this could mean the perfect swirl on a babka or crocheting a quilt with a braided focaccia. Here is raising a ‘toast’ to kneading more bread for comfort. And creating beauty from unlikely canvases as we tread a fresh garden path.