At this time of the year there's no avoiding it – you can't go past a pastry shop in Florence without noticing the windows are filled with 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 in to the nearest pasticceria for a slice of schiacciata and a coffee. Traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream or pastry cream, they're instantly recognisable for the giglio, the stylised lily and symbol of the city of Florence, masked and dusted over the top in contrasting powdered cocoa.
Schiacciata means 'squashed' or 'flattened' and usually refers to Florence's savoury salt and olive oil drenched focaccia or flat bread. 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 1 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 (today, though not the same, often olive oil or butter replaces this), eggs and a long rising time using fresh yeast, it would have been a simple, but hearty and caloric 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 too sweet cake. The characteristic flavour, marked by orange zest, and incredibly soft, spongy texture, make it a favourite 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.
Although it requires a lot of rising time, it's a simple preparation and easy to do at home, even if these days, Florentines, will usually buy this out at their favourite pastry shop.
You could leave it simple with just a dusting of powdered sugar. But note that 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 favourite person. Or, do what I do (to make it fair): I put the layer of cocoa on the bottom to cover the entire cake. Then I mask out the lily shape with a paper cut out that I cut myself and I cover the whole cake in a very generous dusting of powdered sugar. It means everyone gets a bite with cocoa on it, even if the easier and more traditional way would be simply to dust with only powdered sugar, then, with a empty lily cut out (this time rather than use a lily shape, use the empty stencil of the lily) carefully dust a cocoa lily onto the cake. —Emiko
2 1/2 cups
(300 grams) plain flour
(20 grams) fresh yeast dissolved in some warm water
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) lard (or, less traditional, butter)
In a bowl, combine the flour and fresh yeast (along with the water) until you have a dough. Cover with a tea towel and place in a warm, dry spot to rise for about one hour or until it has doubled in size.
Beat in the lard, sugar, eggs, orange zest, vanilla and salt until well combined. Place the dough in a buttered rectangular tin. It should be about 2cm or 2/3 inch in height. Cover with a tea towel and let the schiacciata rise for 2 more hours.
Bake at 350 ºF (180ºC) for 30 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn onto a wire rack to cool and when cooled completely, dust liberally with powdered sugar.
If you like, cut out a mask of the Florentine lily and dust with cocoa powder. If desired, cut through the middle of the cake and fill with some slightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream, pastry cream or diplomat cream (half pastry cream, half whipped cream) before dusting with powdered sugar.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.