To really understand the cuisine of a city as rich and full of history as Florence takes time and dedication. Living there helps, as does knowing the language, immersing yourself in its history and being married to a local. Being a very good cook doesn’t hurt either. I am talking about my friend Emiko Davies, who has recently published a cook book about her adopted city called “Florentine, the true cuisine of Florence“. It is one of those books that you want to read, from cover to cover, without putting down (unless it is to make one of the dishes in it). It is not just a collection of recipes, but of stories, snippets of history, anecdotes and beautiful photos of Florence. Even though I have had the book for a couple of months, I did not want to read it until now, as I was writing my own cook book on Italian Street Food (which is now with the editor) and was way too busy to start looking at a book that I knew would be both immersive and inspirational.
One recipe that is in the book and I adore is schiacciata all’uva. This type of schiacciata is a bread with fruit, a squashed bread if you like (schiacciare means to crush or squash) that is typical of Florence in autumn, when grapes are in season. It is a simple dish that requires no specialised equipment, is hand-made, rustic and beautiful, especially if made with purple wine grapes, so that the purple juice spills into the dough. Wine grapes however are hard to find and the season is sadly very short. So taking this idea, I transferred it to one of my favourite autumn fruits, quinces, or in Italian, mele cotogne.
Rather conveniently I had received three huge quinces from the Prahran Market that I was trying to not bake or stew, as this is what I always do with them. Schiacciata seemed like an option and it turned out to be better than I expected. The recipe is quite simple: dough (flour, water, instant yeast) is mixed by hand (literally with your hands), allowed to rise for an hour and then stretched out and squashed with your finger tips so that it is dimpled all over. Traditionally the dough is made without salt – but this makes it a bit bland for my taste (if you have ever eaten pane sciocco – saltless bread – in Florence, you will know what I mean). I prefer to either scatter salt flakes on the cooked schiacciata or add it to the dough before baking. Quinces are then layered on the dough, showered with sugar, spices and olive oil, then baked. The texture of the cooked quinces in the finished schiacciata is a perfectly good substitute for the grapes, with a refreshing tartness that for those with a sweet tooth, is further improved by a dollop of honey.
Quince schiacciata makes an excellent morning tea to be shared among friends, or an afternoon snack. It is not a traditional Florentine schaicciata, but a very good one and one that I will be making all through autumn during quince season. This recipe makes one small quince bread enough for four people to share. Feel free to double the recipe.
schiacciata alle mele cotogne (sweet quince bread)
250g plain flour
4 g instant dried yeast
200 ml tepid water
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp salt
1 medium sized quince
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
40g raw caster sugar
30ml extra virgin olive oil
honey for drizzling (to taste)
To make the dough, place the flour and yeast in a bowl and whisk briefly. Using your hands, incorporate the water, about 20ml at a time (you do not need to be precise), mixing well with your hands after each addition until it is incorporated. The dough will become very sticky when you have added all the water. Add the teaspoon of EVOO and the salt last of all, again mixing it in with your hands. Use a silicone scraper to clean the sides of the bowl (and your hands) and cover the bowl of dough with cling film. Place in a warm draught-free spot for at least an hour or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 190C.
Start preparing the quince when the dough is just about ready to use. Quarter, core then peel, and cut the fruit into thin slices. Place the slices in a bowl and toss in the vanilla bean paste, mixing it through as much as possible. Set aside.
Divide the dough in two (one slightly larger than the other) and collect the larger portion with well-oiled hands and stretch it onto a well oiled tray (on a sheet of baking paper on the tray if you like), and stretch it out as much as possible to a square using your fingers. Mine measured approximately 22 cm by 22 cm. Arrange half the sliced quince onto the dough, leaving a narrow border free of fruit, then scatter on half the cinnamon, half the sugar and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the EVOO. Pick up the remaining dough and stretch it out between your hands as much as you can by holding one edge and allowing the other to fall and then turning it a quarter turn quickly and repeating. Lay the stretched dough over the fruit and stretch it further using your finger tips until it nears the edge of the first layer of dough. Fold the bottom layer slightly over the upper layer so that the quince slices inside the schiacciata are sealed. Layer on the last of the quinces, scatter on the rest of the cinnamon, the sugar and the remaining of EVOO.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the dough is golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and eat warm or cold, drizzled with honey just before serving.
Schiacciata is best eaten on the same day as it is made.