What’s your favourite type of Italian bread?
Ask this question of almost anyone and you’re on pretty safe ground. Italian breads are an established part of our everyday vocabulary (even if not always part of our diet in an increasingly carb-phobic society), pizza being one of the most popular foods in the world and cafes, shops and delis all over the place serving up ciabatta, focaccia, grissini and panini (the singular of which, panino, means none other than ‘little loaf’).
Slightly less familiar, perhaps, is schiacciata, a flattened bread which takes its name from the Italian ‘schiacciare’, to flatten or to crush. In Sicily they stuff their schiacciata with potatoes, spinach, meat or cheese while in Tuscany it’s an altogether more basic affair, not unlike a focaccia. The topping can be as simple as a sprinkling of salt or scattering of tomatoes, although they also make an unusual, and utterly delicious, version with seeded black wine grapes, rosemary and a little scattering of sugar to celebrate the Tuscan grape harvest.
I’ve mentioned before that my parents have a house in Tuscany, and every summer of my childhood would be spent up there in the mountains drinking in the incredible air, basking in the sunshine and enjoying the wonderful local produce. Being something of a bread monster, I used to love the fact that it featured at every meal in Italy, whether grilled as bruschetta, in a basket on the side to mop up sauces or even as the main event in dishes such as panzanella, however I’d always long for a little more variety in the dough itself.
If you’re not familiar with Tuscan bread, it might come as quite a surprise to learn that the dough contains no salt. Reasons for this are not entirely clear, although some sources suggest that it is the result an ancient quibble over hefty salt taxes which the Tuscans didn’t want to pay. Whatever the reason, the result is that the bread served in homes and restaurants around the region is pale-crusted with a short shelf life and no real depth of flavour. Perfect for grilling or eating with salty side dishes, but often disappointingly bland if you attempt to eat it on its own.
For our everyday bread needs, my Mum would buy standard Tuscan loaves to eat, but every so often we’d be allowed schiacciata as a special treat. The flattened, golden bread would be taken from behind the counter in our little local deli, packaged up and passed into our expectant hands, tiny circles of grease spreading slowly across the paper where it met a pocket of oil on the surface of the bread. The schiacciata itself was thin with a slightly chewy crust, the best bit being the layer where soft centre met the salty, ever-so-slightly greasy outer edge. The perfect accompaniment to milky mozzarella and thick-sliced plum tomatoes (if it ever made it from the shop to our house in one piece).
The recipe below is a variation on schiacciata which I found in the Bourke Street Bakery book. If you love baking, and don’t own a copy, I urge you to go out and buy one now. Written by the bakery’s founders, every page is full of their passion with wonderful recipes, photos that are stunning in their simplicity and huge amounts of insight and advice. This recipe uses their basic olive oil dough which is made with a day old ferment and can be adapted into any of the Italian breads mentioned above (panini, grissini, flatbreads, focaccia or pizza).
The flattened dough is topped with sticky caramelized onion, a layer of the thinnest sliced potato possible, curls of salty prosciutto and sprigs of rosemary before being drizzled in oil and baked in a very hot oven. When it emerges the edges are golden brown and the potato soft, marrying beautifully with the melting onion and contrasting with the crispy pieces of prosciutto. A little more extravagant than those simple salt-studded schiaccate of my childhood, but none the worse for it.
This kind of bread could be a meal in itself. Cut into wedges it’s also wonderful with roast chicken and a crisp green salad, best enjoyed outside, in the sunshine, with a glass of something cold. But if you’re looking out the window at howling winds and pouring rain and wondering when that summer’s day will ever come, don’t worry – just the taste of this bread alone is enough to transport you to a sun drenched Tuscan terrace, if only for a moment.
Potato, Prosciutto & Rosemary Schiacciata (adapted from the Bourke Street Bakery book)
Makes enough dough for four loaves so make two (as below) and freeze the rest
For the initial ferment
100g strong white bread flour
2.5g sea salt
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp milk
1g dried yeast
Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix together to combine (about 5 minutes) until the dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to an oiled container and rest overnight in the fridge.
For the olive oil dough
600g strong white bread flour
7g dried yeast
400ml warm water
20ml extra virgin olive oil
20ml full fat milk
15g sea salt
180g ferment (as above)
Put the flour and yeast in a large bowl then add the warm water. Mix until well combined then add the oil, milk and salt. Knead on a floured worksurface for around 10 minutes then leave the dough to rest (5 – 10 minutes). Add the ferment, then knead for a further 5 – 10 minutes or until smooth and silky.
Put the dough in a clean oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave to prove for one and a half hours. Every half hour (so twice in the proving process), you will need to knock back the dough. To do this, turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and press out into a rectangle about 3cm thick. Fold one third of the dough back over itself, then repeat with the remaining third. Turn the dough ninety degrees, repeat the process then return to the oiled bowl. After one and a half hours, your dough is ready for the schiacciata recipe.
For the schiacciata
1kg onions, sliced
2 medium sized potatoes (I used Maris Piper)
400g olive oil dough
10 x slices of prosciutto
Caramelize your onions by sweating very slowly in a little olive oil over a low heat, about one hour. Set aside to cool.
Use a mandolin or very sharp knife to cut your potatoes into long thin slices about 2mm thick. Simmer the potato slices in a saucepan of water for about 5 minutes until almost tender, then plunge into cold water to stop them cooking. Set aside.
Divide your 400g dough into two equal sized pieces. Roll each portion into a rectangle approx. 30cm long x 15cm wide and about 5mm thick. Carefully transfer to a greased, lined baking sheet and set aside to prove for 10 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 220 degrees C. Spread a thin layer of onions over each loaf, leaving a small border around the edge. Arrange your potato slices on top, overlapping slightly then lay on the prosciutto slices. Sprinkle with rosemary and a few crystals of sea salt (remember that the prosciutto is quite salty) then drizzle with olive oil. Set aside to prove for a final ten minutes.
Reduce the oven temperature to 200 degrees C and bake your loaves for 20 – 25 minutes until the edges are golden and the base and prosciutto nice and crisp.