It started in exam term in my first year when everyone’s eyes were bloodshot and their eyelids quivering with panic and fear. The cool, white-lit aisles of M&S became a solace – I didn’t even need to buy anything. Drawn inexorably to my oasis, my first trip one day led me to a jar of red pepper pesto. I plunged a spoon into the glistening depths as soon as I made it back to my room, and in the grip of revision lunacy, it made sense to finish the jar - straight, without any interfering bread or cracker-like vehicle, and as fast as possible. It was savoury and creamy, but when the jar was empty and I stopped to analyse what I had just consumed, it was clear to me that the pesto was way too oily. I began to experiment with my own version, and I concluded that adding oil is entirely unnecessary. I think my version tastes fresh, summery, and light, with a hint of smokiness from the char grilled peppers. You can, of course, grill your own, but there are ready-made grilled peppers in jars that are remarkably good. It is incredibly easy to make: just one step, especially if you’re not going to the trouble of grilling your own peppers. It’s also versatile, and can be swirled into soups, couscous, quinoa, salads and pasta, and can be used as a mezze dip.
The Mediterranean focaccia sandwich is the perfect platform for the red pepper pesto – it expands and rounds out the flavours of the filling ingredients, adding depth to the sandwich.
Of course, freshly baked, homemade bread is a superior breed to most shop-bought equivalents, and really isn’t difficult to make. It’s not even time-consuming as it gets on with its own activities while you get on with yours. A little bit of punching down (of the dough) now and then is really not that onerous, and the smell of baking bread is well-documented.
You can fill it with whatever Mediterranean, or indeed other, ingredients you wish.
I loaded mine with roasted tomatoes, olives, mozzarella and torn basil, and of course the red pepper pesto. This is not just a sandwich…this is a meal.
Red pepper pesto
10g garlic (4 cloves) peeled and crushed
40g pine nuts
40g basil (leaves & stalks)
40g parmesan, grated
3 roasted red peppers from a jar (200g)
2 tbsp sun dried tomato paste
1 tsp lemon juice
¼ tsp salt
In a blender, whizz all the pesto ingredients together until combined but there is still some texture.
Focaccia (Adapted from Gail’s Artisan Bakery Cookbook)
500g strong white bread flour
330ml room temperature water
50ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp salt
1 tsp caster sugar
10g fresh yeast or 5g dried active yeast
45g clear honey
Extra oil and flour for greasing and dusting tin
150ml olive oil
8 garlic cloves, crushed
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
½ tsp salt
1 tin 5cm x 24cm x 34cm, lined with baking parchment
1. If using fresh yeast, cream it together with caster sugar in a bowl. It should turn creamy. If using dry yeast, add it in with rest of ingredients.
2. Sift flour into bowl of stand mixer fixed with dough hook attachment. Add rest of ingredients including the yeast.
3. Knead on slow speed for approximately 8 minutes, until dough is smooth, soft and springy.
4. Swirl the dough in an oiled bowl until coated. Cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place.
5. In the meantime, make the topping by mixing the oil with the salt and garlic, and allow it to steep.
6. After 45 minutes of rising, knock the dough down and cover it again with cling film.
7. Leave for another 45 minutes. Knock down, and leave for another 45 minutes. Knock down again.
8. Leave it to rise for a further 45 minutes, then stretch the dough to fit the tin and make dimples in the dough with your forefinger. Paint the dough with the garlic-infused oil, and sprinkle with rosemary needles.
9. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Leave the dough to rise for 20 minutes.
10. Bake for ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 180°C and bake for a further 10-15 minutes until golden and the bread is soft and springy. Remove the bread from the tin to check that the base of the bread is crisp and golden. If it isn’t, bake for a further five minutes or so.
11. Once the bread is baked, paint it again with the remainder of the garlic-infused olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
12. Place on wire rack to cool, or serve immediately.