Many years ago, I received the first Herbfarm Cookbook as a gift from my friend Keita. We were in our early 20s, novice cooks, and had dreams of dinner parties artfully executed, (friends swooning and complimenting, of course), swirling through our heads. We cracked open the book and read it almost cover to cover. This would be our bible, then, and we would teach ourselves these recipes that were sure to impress our friends, family and even ourselves.
Dough for Herbed Focaccia
Over the next year or so, we made most recipes from the book. The first meal we attempted was chicken breasts in tarragon cream, and delicata squash with rosemary, sage and cider glaze. As our guests’ stomachs rumbled and protested, we quickly realized we would need to get more efficient with our prep time and organization in order to pull off food like this. But organize we did, and soon we were making bite-size gougeres with gruyere and thyme, halibut baked with leeks, apple and lovage, and chanterelle and corn chowder with basil.
I adored this cookbook for many reasons. The recipes were so perfectly detailed that even new cooks like us could follow them precisely and the dishes would turn out. We instituted a cardinal rule which was this: We must follow the directions explicitly, even if we were sure this couldn’t/wouldn’t turn out right (and sure enough, Jerry’s instructions were always right).
We also started growing many of our own herbs, and to this day my garden swells with rosemary, lavender, verbena, sage, thyme, basil, mint, chervil, marjoram, tarragon and more. I think it is difficult to be a great cook if you don’t grow fresh herbs of your own, and it is certainly more expensive to buy them from the store. Plus the bees adore fresh herbs, and who doesn’t want more bees in their garden?
Focaccia dough with fresh herbs
This book also introduced me to many things I had never seen nor heard of before, such as the ricer that makes mashed potatoes perfectly creamy every time (guests never fail to ask me what my secret is. Sometimes I tell, sometimes I don’t!). I had never encountered lemon verbena (now my fave herb), nor sorrel, lovage, chervil or many of the other herbs used in this book. I learned combinations of herbs and of herbs and food that are divinely inspired (roasted corn with fresh marjoram comes to mind), and the truth is that now I never cook anything without fresh herbs: simple scrambled eggs get a sprinkling of tarragon or chives, cherry pie benefits from fresh lavender, and all fresh pasta needs is lemon, thyme and a flurry of Pecorino Romano. Herbs elevate food, it is as simple and as lovely as that.
I can’t imagine being the cook I am today or loving food the way I do if I hadn’t started with the Herbfarm Cookbook. It gave me the confidence to know that I could make delicious, inspiring food and to not be afraid of recipes that seem challenging. In fact, the first bread I ever baked was from this book. The directions were so clear and simple that it seemed I couldn’t fail, and I didn’t. This bread bakes up big and beautiful, and is a real show-stopper if brought straight to the table to serve guests there. It makes great sandwich bread the next day, and is wonderful when turned into croutons for homemade soup. If you have never made bread before, this is the place to start.
Herbed focaccia fresh out of the oven
From The Herbfarm Cookbook
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package active dry yeast (2.5 tsp)
2 tbs chopped fresh rosemary
2 tbs chopped fresh sage
1 tbs chopped fresh thyme, winter savory or oregano
1.5 tsp salt
4.5 cups unbleached bread flour (spoon and level; 20 ounces), plus additional flour as needed
3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
Dough and first rise. Pour the water into bowl (of electric mixer if using). Sprinkle the yeast over the water and let sit for several minutes to dissolve. Stir the herbs together in a small bowl. Add half the herb mixture to the yeasted water. Cover the remaining herbs and refrigerate. Stir the salt and flour into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. Knead for 8 minutes with the dough hook or paddle at medium speed, or knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface until it is elastic and satiny, 8-10 minutes. The dough should be very soft and will stick to the bottom of the electric mixer bowl as it is kneaded, but if it is too sticky to pull away from the sides of the bowl after 5 minutes of kneading, add another 1/4 cup of flour. If you are kneading by hand, add only as much flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and then a clean towel, and let it rise until doubled in bilk, 1.5-2 hours.
Second rise. In another large mixing bowl, stir the olive oil and reserved herbs together and spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the bowl. Punch down the dough and scoop it into the second bowl on top of the herb mixture. Let the dough rise again until doubled, about 40 minutes.
Forming a loaf. Place a baking stone on the center rack of your oven and preheat the oven to 400. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a large cookie sheet. This will serve as the peel that you will use to transfer the bread to the baking stone. Without punching down the dough, turn the dough out onto the paper, letting it fall out with the herbs on top. Use your fingertips to poke the dough while at the same time gently pulling it into an oval about 12 inches long. The dough will deflate somewhat, but keep as much rise in it as you can. Use a paper towel to blot any oil that runs down the sides. Let the dough rise again for 10-15 minutes to restore its puffiness.
Baking. With a pair of scissors, trim the excess parchment paper extending beyond the edges of the dough so that the paper doesn’t burn in the oven. Set the edge of your peel on the edge of the oven rack in front of the baking stone. Carefully grab one edge of parchment and slide it with the loaf onto the stone. Bake the bread until golden brown on top and well browned on the bottom, about 25 minutes. It will puff a little more in the oven. Remove the loaf from the oven with a large spatula and let it cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Slice it into rectangles with a serrated bread knife and serve warm.