Being a country girl, in my eyes Florence is a city, it is great and wonderful. The view from Piazzale Michelangelo takes my breath away in any season and at any time of the day. Every time I walk around the city centre I can not help but take a picture – real or mental it’s the same – of the Duomo, from every perspective. I love that moment when I look up to the top, and then higher again, because otherwise you can’t embrace everything with your admired eyes. I look forward to this moment, I hold my breath for a second, and then I let it go with a sigh, the same every time as if it were the first one.
Yet, despite this sense of grandeur that comes over me every time, what I really love about Florence are the tiny back alleys that you may discover only with friends who live there, the private and mysterious look of a garden you see beyond a wall (I may be a bit too influenced by Notting Hill, oopsy Daisy), the small stores and workshops that seem to belong to another time.
In one of these workshops I went to learn how to make schiacciata alla fiorentina, a typical sweet flatbread made during Carnival time. You perfectly know that Carnival is not my favourite time of the year, I see it as the last obstacle between me and the warm weather of spring, though every year I find a reason to save it, its sweets! Last year I tried to fall in love again with Carnival with a feast of typical sweet treats from Siena and Valdelsa, cenci and frittelle.
This year, thanks to the theme we have chosen for this month’s Italian Table Talk, Carnival of course, I decided to give another chance to this holiday and take advantage of a new crush I have for Florence to discover one of its most typical desserts, schiacciata alla fiorentina, also known as stiacciata unta, greased flat bread. Emiko will present a typical sweet of the Florentine carnival, berlingozzo. Valeria, a pure Venetian girl and therefore the best source to learn about the carnival traditions, has made favette (castagnole) and will tell us about her personal experience and the excitement of Carnival seen through her eyes as a child. Jasmine will instead present the Jewish Purim and an evocative sweet treat, chiacchiere alla giudia.
But back to our schiacciata. I took my bus on a winter day so shiny and sunny that seemed almost spring and I went to Florence to visit Andrea Bianchini, a famous chocolatier and pastry chef, to learn how to make a good schiacciata. As I have said many times, it is impossible to talk about a generic Tuscan cuisine, since my region is extremely fragmented when it comes to typical food. Just like with lampredotto, schiacciata alla fiorentina does not cross the boundaries of the city to get to me in Valdelsa, and not only I had not made it before last week, I had never even tasted it. The things you do just for the science sake…
Despite its name that reminds of the savoury flatbread so typical of all our bakeries, schiacciata alla fiorentina is a sweet cake, fragrant with orange and vanilla. During Carnival time it appears in every bakery, pastry shop and bar in Florence. There is even a real competition aiming to nominate the best Florentine schiacciata, though the best one is almost universally attributed to Giorgio. Dusted with icing sugar with the Florence lily on the surface, now it is increasingly served filled with whipped cream, chocolate or custard.
At the beginning the schiacciata was just bread dough enriched with lard. Just remember, Carnival always falls in the period when the pig is traditionally slaughtered, so lard was there, ready to be used. Then it was made even more special by adding sugar, vanilla and oranges, so recognizable in the cake where you use both the grated peel and the juice. Carnival was in fact the last chance to indulge in the pleasures of food and life before Lent – semel in anno licet insanire used to say the Latins, it was a time in which everyone was allowed to break religious and social conventions.
Andrea Bianchini also told me that often the oranges in the traditional Florentine pastries used to be actually bergamots, very common in the area in the past times: as evidence, those round citrus fruit you can see in Della Robbia’s enamelled majolicas are actually bergamots. Another important element of the schiacciata alla fiorentina is its shape, traditionally rectangular. Apparently we owe the success of this cake to the nuns of Santa Verdiana in Florence, who used to serve food to the detainees in rectangular baking trays.
In the past, without going too far back in time, grandmothers would make the schiacciata with leftover bread dough and bake it in the wood oven. I guess oranges, that give to this cake its typical and well recognizable taste, were considered just what is now Bourbon vanilla for us, precious and rare. At a time when a tangerine or an orange were a Christmas gift seen as treasures to be savoured by excited children, just imagine how special and decadent the oranges would make this cake.
This schiacciata, made according to Andrea Bianchini’s recipe, is a good compromise between the traditional one made with fresh brewer’s yeast, lard and a double rising and the modern home version, often made with olive oil or butter and baking powder.
- 100 g of strong flour (such as Manitoba flour)
- 15 g of fresh brewer's yeast
- 45 g of lukewarm water
- 250 g of strong flour (such as Manitoba flour)
- 150 g of sugar
- Juice and finely grated peel of 1 organic orange
- Seeds of ½ vanilla bean
- A pinch of Tuscan spices (very similar to the French pain d'epice)
- 45 g egg yolks (about 3 egg yolks)
- 110 g of eggs (about 2 eggs)
- 8 g of salt
- 75 g of butter, soft
- 75 g of extra virgin olive oil
- Dissolve the fresh yeast in lukewarm water, pour it over the flour and knead to form a smooth dough. Let rise in a warm place for at least an hour and a half. I've put in the oven with the light on.
- When the first dough has risen, knead again adding flour, sugar, vanilla seeds, a pinch of Tuscan spices, grated peel and juice of an orange. I used my stand mixer with the dough hook attachment at medium speed.
- Add the beaten egg yolks and eggs and mix until completely absorbed.
- Emulsify soft butter and olive oil with a blender or a whisk, then pour it in two times into the dough. Mix at medium speed for at least ten minutes until smooth.
- Grease with butter a rectangular baking tin - I used a 24 cm square tin, the traditional one is 30 x 20 cm - and scrape the batter into the pan. Use a spatula to smooth the surface.
- Let rise in a warm place until tripled in volume. I've put it back into the oven with the light on for about 3 hours.
- Preheat oven to 170°C, fan assisted (take care to remove the cake previously) for 25 - 30 minutes until hazel brown on surface. Take out of oven, remove from the tin let it cool completely on a wire rack. Serve generously dusted with icing sugar.
Not to lose a single post by the Italian Table talk girls, these are our Social Accounts:
- Emiko, her blog is Emikodavies.com, @emikodavies on Twitter, and her Pinterest
- Valeria, her blog is Life Love Food, @valerianecchio on Twitter, her FB Page and her Pinterest
- Jasmine, her blog is Labna.it, @labna on Twitter, her FB page and her Pinterest
- Juls, my twitter @Julskitchen, FB page and Pinterest
The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?). Tell us which are the typical sweets treat of your Carnival and how you live this crazy moment of the year!