Gabriella Becchina, a Sicilian friend of mine, was talking recently on her Facebook page (La Grande Oliva) about the differences between traditional pizza and Sicilian sfincione, pizza being the universally familiar flat disk of bread dough topped with tomato sauce, blobs of mozzarella and other ingredients — shredded basil, sausages, seafood and so on, right up to pineapple chunks, Spam and/or Nutella. (Trivia: In Napoli, rightly claimed as pizza’s birthplace, purist pizzaiuoli don’t use buffalo-milk mozzarella, dripping with whey, but rather the cow’s milk version, properly known as fior di latte. It works better, they say, in the intensely high heat of a Neapolitan pizza oven.)
Pizza, of course, exists all over Italy — in fact, I think you’d be hard put not to find a pizza parlor in any city in the world, large or small. Oh, possibly not in isolated outposts, but it’s a unique Italian dish of near global adoption.
Brioche-like crust, distinctly Sicilian
Sfincione, on the other hand, is distinctively Sicilian. And it’s quite different from pizza. First, there’s the dough, a kind of brioche enriched with fat and eggs that rises and puffs unlike flat pizza dough. Then there’s the topping — again, a schmear of tomato sauce, but in the case of sfincione, you can be generous, adding pieces of tomato to it as well, possibly some chili peppers too, along with loads of cheese, thinly sliced onions and anchovies, and as a final fillip, a good scattering of bread crumbs mixed with crushed oregano that crisps and browns in the hot oven and gives a little extra crunch.
Best of all, it’s easy and quick (apart from letting the dough rise), nice to throw together for a healthy snack or, with a simple salad, for a light supper. In “The Essential Mediterranean,” I published a recipe for sfincione from the late great Sicilian cook Anna Tasca Lanza, of the Regaleali wine family. At her estate in the heart of Sicily, Anna used quantities of Swiss and soft goat’s milk cheeses on its toppings and butter in the dough. None of that richness is available to most Sicilians — olive oil is their staple. The following recipe is more like one you would find in a Sicilian home kitchen, adapted and simplified from Anna’s sfincione.
When I made this recently, I used Community Grains flour, a deliciously fragrant whole-grain flour made from California hard red winter wheat. Bob Klein of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland is the patron saint of this excellent flour. (You can substitute another all-purpose flour if you prefer.)
For the tomato sauce, it’s obvious that the best is always what you make yourself at home from your own ripe tomatoes, but an easy tomato sauce can be created simply by puréeing a can of whole plum tomatoes, cooking them down and then draining them to rid them of excess liquid — too much will make the dough soggy. Be sure to have 3 cups of thick sauce in the end to spread on the sfincione.
Serves 12 to 18
For the dough
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, preferably whole grain
1 teaspoon sea salt dissolved in 1 cup warm water
For the topping:
- Make the dough a couple of hours ahead to give it plenty of time to rise. You can do this in a food processor using the plastic dough tool, in an electric mixer using the dough hook or you can do it by hand, which is more fun. In any case, mix all the dough ingredients together in the order given. If the dough seems too dry, add a little more warm water; if too wet, add a little more flour. Knead the dough on a board or in the processor until it is supple and elastic, then shape into a ball, cover and set aside to rest and expand for an hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare all the ingredients for the topping. Gently sauté the onion slices in about ½ cup of oil until they are very soft, melting into the oil, but not brown. Set aside while you chop the anchovies coarsely. Then using a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice the pecorino very very thin. Chop the mozzarella into cubes. Make the tomato sauce, reducing it over medium heat and draining well to be sure it is very thick. If you wish, add chopped fresh chilis or a spoonful of dried crumbled red chili pepper to the tomato sauce — as much or as little as you wish.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F.
- Lightly oil a 12-by-17-inch sheet pan, one with a raised edge is best.
- Punch down the risen dough, knead it briefly, then spread it all over the baking sheet, stretching it to reach all corners. It should be about ½ inch thick when you’re finished, but it need not be evenly spread over every part.
- Scatter the anchovy pieces over the dough, then cover with the sliced cheese and distribute the mozzarella cubes over that. Mix the onions into the tomato sauce, along with the drained crushed tomatoes and spread that all over the top. If you wish, add the chopped olives and/or capers at this point, distributing them all over the surface of the sfincione. Press lightly with the palms of your hands to ease all the ingredients into the dough. Now scatter the oregano, grated cheese, and bread crumbs all over the top and dribble about 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over it all just before you transfer to the preheated oven.
- Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden around the edges and the top is bubbling. Remove from the oven, cut into squares, and serve immediately, but this is good also at room temperature.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Sicilian sficionado. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins