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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: An orange and vanilla scented carnival favorite from the city of Florence.
At this time of the year, there's no avoiding it -- you can't go past a pastry shop in Florence without noticing windows filled with the large, flat, powdered sugar-dusted cakes known as schiacciata alla fiorentina. The scent of orange peel and vanilla wafts through the cold, late winter air, inevitably leading you right into the nearest pasticceria for a slice of schiacciata and a coffee. Traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with sweet, freshly whipped cream or pastry cream, they're instantly recognizable for the giglio, the stylized lily and the symbol of the city of Florence, dusted over the top in contrasting powdered cocoa.
Schiacciata means "squashed" or "flattened," and usually refers to Florence's savory salt- and olive oil-drenched focaccia or flatbread. But in this occasion, like their schiacciata all'uva (grape bread), the word not only refers to something flat (it should never be taller than one inch), but also to something sweet and strictly seasonal.
This yeasted cake has long been a tradition of Carnival season and is a centuries-old recipe of peasant origins. With its typical ingredients including lard (though today olive oil or butter replaces this), eggs, and a long rising time, it would have been a simple and hearty country cake. It's directly related, in fact, to the unappealingly but aptly named, schiaccata unta (“greasy schiacciata”), which at one time included ciccioli: pieces of deep fried pork fat.
Today's Schiacciata alla Fiorentina is a delicately scented, fluffy, not overly sweet cake. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange zest, makes it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack -- or even breakfast (well, why not?). It also goes down quite nicely with a glass of vin santo or dessert wine after dinner.
Although it requires a long rising time, it's easy to do make at home -- even if these days, Florentines will buy this at their favorite pastry shop.
You could leave it simple with just a dusting of powdered sugar, but the hint of bittersweet cocoa goes so well with the subtle orange scent of this cake; you'll want to offer the slice that has the lily on it to your favorite person. Dust the cake completely with a thick layer of powdered sugar, then, with a paper cut out of the lily, carefully dust a cocoa lily onto the cake.
2 1/2 cups (300 grams) plain flour
3/4 ounce (20 grams) fresh yeast, dissolved in some warm water
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) lard (or butter)
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar for dusting
Powdered bittersweet cocoa (optional)
Photos by Emiko Davies