Dave and I were fortunate enough to visit the most beautiful place in the world recently: the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. The island is 2/3 national park (whaaa!), has beaches varying from pristine white sand with aquamarine water to grassy turtle habitat to all smooth, gray rock, it’s dotted with Dutch and Danish sugar mill ruins, and it’s crisscrossed with challenging and well-maintained hiking trails. The fact that the majority of the island is a park keeps the riff raff out (airports, huge all-inclusive resorts, restaurant chains, shopping malls) and that’s helped the wildlife, flora, coral, and sea life stay healthy and breathtaking. It’s pretty much the real-life Neverland. I know this because the people of St. John each have a glinting glimmer of Lost Boy in their eyes.
We fell in love the moment we arrived and swam, hiked, and ran over as much of the island as we could during our stay. We snorkeled daily, swimming with hawksbill turtles, myriad tropical fish by the school full, barracuda, rays, and even a large eagle ray. Rarely have I come back from a vacation in better shape than I left, but that was definitely the case coming home from St. John. And while the scrubby Missouri hills of home can’t compare to the vertical, emerald green volcanic mountains of STJ, I am determined to forge a hiking habit this summer, ticks be damned. Each day after hiking and swimming, we’d head to better-than-they-have-to-be food and drink spots like the Fatty Crab (order the Recession Special), Sam & Jack’s, Vie’s Snack Shack for conch fritters, Skinny Legs for burgers, live music, and shots with locals, and Asolare (go straight to the bar to meet Kim, master mixologist). I’m telling you, if you’re an outdoorsy nature lover who also enjoys outstanding and creative food, people, and drink, St. John may very well be the island for you. It certainly stole our hearts.
Outside of physical exertion and rum-swilling good times, a highlight of our trip was an incredibly romantic dinner Dave booked with Ted’s Supper Club, a well-known private chef service on the island. We were agog watching Ted cook. A-freaking-GOG. The skilled and professional Chef Ted whipped up an unforgettable meal of salad, dumplings, scallops, fish, veggies, lava cake, and a deep-dish focaccia bread with pesto and tomatoes cooked in cast iron that held us over for days. The focaccia really made an impression on us and I vowed to make it when we got home. That was in January; we have refined our humble approximation over three tries since. I present to you: Lauren and Dave’s deep-dish St. Louis focaccia by way of Chef Ted of St. John. Hearty. Delicious. Bring a hunk on a hike.
- 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 tbsp (3 packets) instant yeast
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 Italian seasoning
- 2 cups warm water
- 2 tbsp pesto
- 2 tbsp chopped sun-dried tomatoes
- 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
- Parmesan cheese, optional (recipe is vegan without)
Note: I let this bread rise three times, so go into this knowing that it’s is a time-consuming recipe, even with the speed-rise method I recommend. Mostly hands-off time, but still. In a large mixing bowl, blend the flour, salt, Italian seasoning, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and yeast. Add 1 cup of warm water and stir until combined. Add the remaining cup water, 1 tablespoon pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes. Stir the rest of this in well until the mixture resembles a shaggy ball. This takes a bit of manhandling and you could take care of this step in a Kitchenaid with the hook attachment if you’d like.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter or prep board and knead for about five minutes, until the dough is smooth and uniform. You may want to have your hunky husband take care of this step as you watch him admiringly from the other side of the kitchen, what with his being all rustic and manly and kneading the dough and all. Shape the dough into a ball. You’ll be very happy with how pretty it looks at this point. I’m happy for you, too. Ted would keep a small chunk of dough from his most recent focaccia as a starter, which we have begun to do as well. This helps the dough develop a yeasty, sourdough flavor, so tear off a hunk and refrigerate for your next batch if you plan to do the same. In a large, clean, glass mixing bowl, add 1 tbsp of the olive oil and place your dough in the bowl, turning to cover with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and set aside.
Now, for the rising process: I use a rapid-rise method for this bread, and it works wonderfully. Place a measuring cup (I use the same glass measuring cup I measured the water with) and microwave for about a minute thirty, until hot. Leave the cup in the microwave, and place your covered dough bowl in next to it. Close the microwave and let the dough rise until doubled, about 20-30 minutes. Keep an eye on this- take a picture on your phone for reference if you want to compare size. After the dough has risen, punch it down with the backs of your hands until the built-up gas has been released, then fold over itself, coating with the oil in the bowl, and cover again with the plastic wrap (I had to reach out to an expert baker friend from high school on this step via Facebook; I ❤ social networking). Let the dough rise a second time, punch down a second time, and let the dough rise a third and final time. Whew. This will take an hour to an hour and a half total. You will be handsomely rewarded for your patience, I promise.
Now! Preheat your oven to 425. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a cast iron pan, coating the bottom and sides. Remove the dough bowl from the microwave, punching down the dough a final time. Spread the dough out evenly in the pan with your fingers. Don’t you feel homey and capable? You should. Poke a few holes in the top of the dough, spread the top with the remaining 1 tablespoon pesto, and sprinkle with Parmesan, if you’d like.
Bake for 25 minutes on the middle rack of your oven, turning once. THIS STUFF IS DELICIOUS. We cut it into squares because we eat too much at a time otherwise but slices work, too. Top with a mix of hearty vegetables, or serve with marinara, meat sauce, or soup. Or just eat it plain and dream of the islands as you enjoy your lovely creation by the fistful. Così buono!