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The Pizza Lab: Sfincione, the No-Knead, No-Roll New Year's Eve Sicilian Pizza
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
My wife and this installment of The Pizza Lab share one thing in common: they are both short and sweet. This, however, is not the case with the subject matter of today's Pizza Lab, which happens to be rather tall and savory.
Any pizza lover and observer of Sicilian New Year's traditions would have guessed by now that I'm talking of sfincione, the true Sicilian pizza made with onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese, and a ton of olive oil. It's pretty delicious any time of year, but especially appropriate for welcoming the new year, when delicious, simple, hand-held, booze-spongey foods are at their apex of popularity. Not only that, but it's pretty dead-simple to make.
What's that? Never heard of it? You always thought Sicilian pizza was just the fat, square spongy stuff you get when you're drunk enough that a regular slice just won't do?
Well, I'm not going to get into the details of Sicilian pizza vs. pizza in Sicily, because our own Scott Wiener already did a great job of it in this article on the subject. It's a fun and fascinating read, but doesn't get to the root of what I'm interested in: how to make the stuff at home.
Sfincione does bear a few resemblances to what passes as a Sicilian slice stateside. For one, it's often made in a square pan and allowed to rise before being topped, resulting in a tall, focaccia-like texture. I found that the easiest way to achieve this result at home was to use a variation of my No Knead, No Roll Sicilian-style Square Pie dough, allowing it to cold ferment for a day or two before letting it rise in an olive oil-slicked pan.
From here, the similarities end. Rather than a sweet, bright, fresh tomato sauce, sfincione is made with a load of onions caramelized in olive oil until sweet, robust, and complex. I've not been to Sicily, but from the research I've done, what I know of Sicilians, and from Scott's mouth, it's natural that anchovies play a large role in the flavor of the pizza as well, lending their characteristic savory, salty brininess. (It seems that none of the New York pizzerias serving versions of sfincione—Ben's or Pizza Cotta Bene, for example—employ anchovies in theirs).
Rather than a thick layer of melted cheese, sfincione is topped with a sparing amount of very sharp grated caciocavallo, a family of hand-stretched Southern Italian cheeses that are hung by a rope and have a characteristic tear-drop shape. The version used on sfincione is made with sheep's milk and has a sharp, salty, tangy finish.
Finally, a layer of bread crumbs tops the whole pie, giving it crunch on both the bottom and the top. As the thing bakes, the bottom crust essentially deep fries in olive oil, giving it a remarkably crunchy texture and awesome flavor. Tall and spongey but never dense or doughy, sfincione should have several distinct textural and flavor elements: the olive oil-saturated crunch of the bottom crust, the moist, tender spongy middle layer, the savory, sweet and acidic sauce with plenty of onion and anchovy, and the light, crumbly crunch of the bread crumbs on top.
Now, I know what delicious is, and the finished pie here was freaking delicious, but having never actually eaten sfincione at the source, I wasn't sure as to its authenticity. Fortunately, I had two good tasters: Scott Wiener, who's spent plenty of time eating around Sicily declared it to be "spot on." Meanwhile, Cereal Eats columnist Leandra Palermo—who has never been to Sicily or eaten their pizza, but, er, shares her name with Sicily's capital and thus must be an expert in everything related to it—declared the olive-oily carb-fest to be "everything that is good and right in this world."
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.