Italy is full of pizza-like flatbreads: focacce, schiacciate, pizza pianca and so on. Sfinciuini is the Sicilian member of this extended family. Or actually members: all around Sicily sfinciuni takes many local disguises. It can be made with or without cheese, with tomato sauce or 'Strattu, the fantastic sun-dried Sicilian tomato concentrate, with or without bread crumbs... the list could go on forever. In its probably original version, from the nuns of the San Vito monastery, it is even filled with sausage meat. I decided to have a go at it after reading the recipe published in Slow Food's book Ricette di Osterie e Genti di Sicilia. The result was fine but not what I expected and after some research I found out that quite a few important details had been left out, as , in my experience, too often the case is with Slow Food's recipe books. Therefore, the recipe you'll find at the end is a "to try next time" suggestion to myself more than a tried and tested method. Trying out a recipe and finding out details have been (most probably) deliberately left out really makes me mad: if you don't want to share a recipe just keep it for yourself but don't waste my time. Why play these dirty little tricks on the home cooks? Let me just quote what the great MFK Fisher wrote in With Bold Knife and Fork on chefs who behave this way:
Which is in this case extremely fitting, since the recipe comes form Palermo's Antica Focacceria S. Francesco famous, among other things, for its fried goods.
The name of this dish, sfinciuni, probably comes, as many Sicilian terms do, from the Arab. The original Arab isfang, meaning fried sweet, became the Sicilian sfingia which took up the meaning of something soft and spongy. That's exactly the way the dough for this "pizza" should be. Maybe I was a bit hard with the recipe I used: it did produce a very nice soft and spongy dough base which I wouldn't modify a bit. The trick is to use a long rise using only a little sourdough starter as rising agent.
For the dough:
600 g (21 oz) all purpose flour
400 g (14 oz) semolina flour
100 g (3.5 oz) sourdough starter
50 g (1.8 oz) olive oil
50 g (1.8 oz) lard, melted and cooled to a lukewarm temperature
2-3 tsp salt (taste the dough)
a generous grinding of pepper (white is better for aesthetic reasons)
enough water to get a soft, slightly sticky dough
Mix flours, salt and pepper together. stir in the fat and starter and start to add water till you get a soft and tacky dough. Knead till the dough is stretchy and smooth. Place in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise till about doubled. In my case it took about 10 hours, it probably will take less if you let the dough rise somewhere a bit warmer than my living room.
Once the dough is ready it should be spread, gently (you don't want to deflate it too much) on an oven tray (jelly roll pan or similar will do), left to rise for between 1 or 2 hours and topped. The dough should be about 3 cm high (1 1/8 in). The dough can also be made into thick rounds and baked as a pizza. When it came to the topping my recipe was very vague calling for tomato concentrate, 1 red onion, 30 g anchovies, some bread crumbs (not listed in the ingredient but described in the recipe and please: how much??), and eventually some cheese (here too, no amount). I just spread the tomato concentrate on the dough and spread the rest of the ingredients on top. As I found out later, the order of the ingredients is quite important to create a proper sfinciuni. So here's how I'll do it next time:
Spread the surface of the dough with 200 g (7 oz) tomato concentrate ('strattu would be even better, but I don't think it's easy to find outside Sicily), eventually slightly diluted with one or two Tbsp water to make it a bit thinner. Top this with 1 red onion, very thinly sliced, cooked if you want till soft; oregano, if you like it; salt (little, see below) and pepper. On top of the onion distribute 30 g salted anchovies (desalted and chopped into tiny pieces) on top: anchovies in oil are fine but not the same. After the anchovies some grated cheese can be added, according to taste. Commonly used cheeses are caciocavallo, aged provolone or young Sicilian pecorino (primosale). The cheese should add some flavour but not be the main taste so it should be used sparingly. On top of all this comes the bread crumbs layer. One could use commercial crumbs but what's traditionally used in Sicily (especially Palermo) is the crumb of bread that's a few days old that's been rubbed between the palms of the hands till it turns into irregular crumbs. Fresh, self made bread crumbs made using only the crumb of the bread are a good substitute. It's important not to use the crust too since the top layer should be white. To get the final bread crumb layer sprinkle your self made crumbs till you cover the surface of the sfinciuni. Bake at 220C (450 F) between 20 and 30 minutes. Once done brush, carefully, with olive oil.
My sfinciuni did not look as it should and had way too little bread crumbs. The taste was very pleasant all the same. the combination of the ingredients creates a quite spicy topping which goes great with the thick mellow dough. I can't wait for the next, proper one.