This month it was my turn to pick the bread for the Bread Baking Babes. The group is celebrating 14 years of baking bread together. That’s quite a milestone when you realise that works out to over 190 types of bread so far! It also means that it’s a task trying to find something different to bake here. After some searching I settled on a savoury bread from Sicily called Sfincione Bagharese or Sfincione Bianco di Bagheria (also Spinchiuni Bianco). While a lot of people will call Sfinchione a Sicilian pizza, it is less pizza and more focaccia style but thicker.
There are different versions of Sfincione across Sicily and three are most popular in and around Palermo. Each locality boasts their version is the best. Sfincione Palermitano, a popular street food in Palermo is rectangular in shape. A tomato based sauce and Caciocavallo cheese are used as topping. Sfincione di San Vito has minced meat and spicy salami filling stuffed into the dough. Sfincione Bagharese, made in Bagheria, is round or oval and “bianco” or white with no tomato sauce at all. The topping includes sliced Tuma or Primo Sale and/or Ricotta cheese, Caciocavallo cheese and bread crumbs.
The name Sfincione loosely translates as “thick sponge” describing the texture of the bread. The bread has a spongy crust which is typically about an inch thick. Sfiicione is believed to have been first made in the 16th century by the cloistered nuns of St. Vito monastery. Originally, it was a Christmas time specialty made in December-January. It was also made for feasts of patron saints and special occasions.
Bagheria or Baarìa is a seaside town on the outskirts of Palermo. It was a holiday resort for Palermo nobility and is well known for its many eighteenth century villas including the infamous Villa Palagonia or Ville Dei Mostri. In 1650, Prince Giuseppe Branciforte di Butera retired to his mansion in Bagheria, with his entire court. His cooks, formerly employed by the Sicilian aristocracy, supposedly adapted the nuns’ recipe to use locally available ingredients. Thus Sfincione Bagharese was born!
Sfincione Bagharese is made with a soft dough that is stretched out like for focaccia. It is typically topped with anchovies, Tumo or Primo Sale cheese and Ricotta cheese. This is further topped with cooked onions. A final layer of breadcrumbs mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper, grated Caciocavallo cheese and oregano is added. Scallions or spring onions greens are also mixed in if in season. This all bakes up into a delicious Sfincione Bagharese. It can be served as an appetizer, as an all-day snack or even a pizza style meal.
Tuma is a fresh white unsalted sheep’s or cow’s milk cheese while Primo Sale is the same that has been salted and matured for about a month. Caciocavallo cheese is an aged stretched cheese made from sheep’s or cow’s milk. The name translates to “cheese on horseback” from how the gourd-shaped cheese is tied with rope and hung over a wooden board to drain and age.
Sfincione is not very difficult to make and starts with a polish or pre-ferment. There are recipes that involve a slow overnight ferment in the refrigerator. The idea is to achieve a light texture and thickness of about an inch. I have seen versions of the bread shaped and baked free form or in something similar to a pizza pan with a raised side or free form.
My recipe below is a vegetarian version of Sfincione Bagharese. It makes two 9-inch Sfincione. I also used whatever cheese I could find at short notice. The first layer or bottom most is the dough. My next layer was cooked onions and a sprinkling of chopped scallions/ spring onions. Cheese made up the next layer. I used a home-made version of crumbled Ricotta and slices of Mozarella instead of Tuma or Primo Sale on this. My final layer was breadcrumbs mixed with olive oil, salt, red chilli flakes (instead of pepper), chopped scallions, oregano and grated Mozarella + mild Cheddar cheese.
Tuma, Primo Sale and Caciocavallo are regional cheeses not very commonly available outside Sicily. Other cheeses may be used as close substitutes. Primo Sale or unsalted diced Mozarella can be substituted for Tuma cheese. Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Provolone, Mozarella or Pecorino may be used in place of grated Caciocavallo cheese.
There is no good substitute for Ricotta. If you cannot find it, try making a home-made version. I used a mixture of 1 1/2 litres of milk (not full fat) and 200ml of 25% fat cream (it’s what I get here). The cream makes a creamier Ricotta which is good here, in stuffed pasta and for desserts.
Bring the milk-cream mixture almost a boil and add lemon juice (lime in my case). Stir and you can see it curdling. Turn off the heat and keep stirring on and off for about 10 minutes. Pour into a cheesecloth lined strainer. Let it strain for a couple of hours. More and it will become too dry for this bread. You can make this the day before and refrigerate it.
Note/ Important :
– This dough uses a mix of all-purpose flour and semolina flour. You can use all all-purpose flour or any choice of your own. I understand that sourdough is not a preferred dough for Sfincione.
– The onions are cooked in olive oil till translucent. Sometimes, a little water is added if the onions dry out making it almost like sauce. I’ve not come across them ever being browned or caramelized, traditionally.
– The breadcrumbs are best made at home from fresh or day old bread, never stale bread. You can remove the crust, but I just tore the bread into pieces and ran them in my food processor. The amount of bread you need will depend on how big and thick the slices are.
– I saw hugely varying amounts for the amount of cheese used in the different recipes. So what is in the recipe below is a guideline. Please use your personal taste and preferences while deciding on the amount of cheese to use.
-Remember that some of the cheeses are salted and adjust for salt in the recipe accordingly. I added a little salt while cooking the onions, but kept my Ricotta salt-free.
For the Poolish :
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tsp dry active yeast
- 1/2 tsp sugar
For the Dough :
- All the Poolish from above
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups semolina flour
- 1 to 1 1/4 cup water (as required
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
For the Onion Layer :
- 4 to 5 medium sized onions
- 2 to 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
For the Cheese Layer :
- 2 cups mildly salted or unsalted Ricotta
- Sliced Mozarella
For the Breadcrumbs Layer :
- 6 to 7 slices bread about 2 cups breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated Mozzarella cheese
- 1/2 cup grated mild Cheddar
- 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 1/2 tsp red chilli flakes
- Salt to taste
Make the Poolish :
- Mix together in a medium sized bowl the flour, dry yeast, sugar, and water until a sticky dough is obtained. Add more water if necessary to achieve this. Cover loosely with a plastic film and leave to rise for about 2 hours. The polish should be somewhat bubbly and have doubled in size.
- Make the dough by hand or use a kneading machine. Mix together the flours, water (more or less as required), oil and the poolish. The dough will be sticky. Add the salt and knead till it is soft, very pliable and smooth. Shape it into a round and place it in a bowl greased with olive oil. Cover the bowl loosely and leave it to rise till double in volume. Mine took about 2 hours.
Cook the onions.
- While the dough is rising, get the toppings ready. Heat the oil in a pan and add the sliced onions. Sprinkle a little salt and cook the onions on low to medium heat until they turn translucent and soft. Do not brown or caramelise them. If they turn too dry, sprinkle a little water while cooking them. Take the pan off heat and let them cool to room temperature.
Prepare the breadcrumb mixture.
- Run the bread slices (with or without crusts) in a food processor to make the crumbs. Put the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Mix together with the oil, salt, red chilli flakes (or crushed pepper) chopped scallions/ spring onions, oregano and grated cheese. The texture should be of loose but moist crumbs.I used a 50:50 mix of grated Mozarella and mild Cheddar here.
- Once the dough has risen, gently knead to deflate it. Divide it into two equal portions. Press out each portion into a roughly 9-inch circle (or oval) using your fingers. If the dough feels sticky, oil your fingers lightly. Place in the oiled trays. I used a pie dish. Let the dough rise again, for about an hour till almost double in thickness and quite puffy.
- Top with the cooked onions. Next comes the Ricotta and Tuma/ Primo Sale cheeses. I used Ricotta and Mozarella. Make sure to cover the surface of the dough evenly. Finish layering by spreading the breadcrumb mixture on the top.
- Bake the Sfincione at 250C (480F) on the nbottom shelf of the oven for about 10 to 12 minutes. The underneath of the bread should become golden and crisp. Then move the pan to the middle shelf of the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or so, until it is crisp and golden brown on the top as well. Remove from the oven and let it cool.
- Cut and serve. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.
The Bread Baking Babes are –