Tuscan Easter: Schiacciata di Pasqua
“Variety is the spice of life. Italy has infinite variety and infinite spice.” Professor Mario Pei in 1950 was right on the money when he wrote this in reference to Italy’s strikingly diverse regions and cuisines. Not only are Italian regions so different that language, food, habits, rituals and culture change from border to border, but – in a smaller and no less distinct way – this happens even from town to town within a region.
This is especially so for a holiday as big as Easter in Italy.
The table will almost always feature dishes made with symbolic ingredients, such as eggs and lamb, along with local springtime produce, in dishes that celebrate nature’s renewed abundance. But it’s the way that these ingredients are used that change from place to place.
Traditional desserts are usually egg-rich baked goods – in Naples at Easter time you’ll find the streets of the entire city smelling of the delightful Pastiera, a ricotta cake scented with orange blossom and candied citron that takes 3 days to make. Sicily has their Cassata, a sponge cake layered with ricotta and candied fruit, covered in royal icing.
Tuscans have a simpler palette for sweets – the most traditional Easter treat is the Schiacciata di Pasqua, a fluffy, sweet bread scented with the unmistakeably Tuscan aroma of aniseed. It’s basically Tuscany’s answer to Milan’s panettone. Once you cut open the Schiacciata di Pasqua and pull out a tall, crumbly slice, the room will fill with the unmistakeable smell of festa – it’s that aniseed, the same smell of country town carnivals and fairs where you find festival food vans churning out brigidini, thin, aniseed wafers that were much-loved by Artusi.
With a rigorously long preparation process, the baking of the Easter Schiacciata was a countryside tradition of the 19th century contadini and a careful way of using up (and preserving) the abundance of springtime eggs.
There are accounts that claim the Schiacciata di Pasqua originated in 18th century Fucecchio, a small town in the province of Florence that sits on the banks of the Arno river in the rather strategic position of being equidistant from Florence, Pistoia, Lucca, San Gimignano and Pisa. It also happens to be the town where my husband is from.
My mother-in-law still lives in the house that her grandfather built himself in the centre of the old town. The ground floor of the house is occupied by a bar – one of those essential, little bars that every country town should have. It serves espresso at the counter and a few pastries, but always has a row of seats out the front occupied by men of a certain age who seem to sit there all day and night. The bar was where Nonna Maria, my husband’s great-grandmother, used to sell her famous Schiacciate di Pasqua, baked to perfection in the wood-fired oven of the nearby baker. Although Maria is no longer around, the bakery still is and they apparently still make Easter Schiacciate with her recipe.
It’s a recipe that needs to be done with patience and care, letting the bread rise slowly, and adding the ingredients in two parts, sometimes more. In the old days, the starter and the dough were left to rise in the warm spaces of the kitchen, heated by old fashioned wood-fired heaters. Each family would make their own Schiacciata, traditionally starting the process at night, after dinner, with family members taking turns to check on the careful rising of the dough throughout the night. Once the dough had risen completely, it would be taken in its copper or terracotta pan to the wood-fired oven of the baker on Via delle Valle, together with an egg, for brushing on top to get that dark crust.
You can find Schiacciata di Pasqua in Tuscan towns from Fucecchio to Pisa to Livorno and even down to San Gimignano. Like anything that is typical of an area or a town, this special bread has a different name in different towns. It’s known as a Sportellina in San Gimignano and Stiacciata in Livorno and along the Etruscan coast (a little hint of the local accent), and even ‘pizza’ in other areas from Southern Tuscany into central Italy – the ingredients are essentially the same, with aniseed being the constant in any Tuscan version, but the doses and other little touches differ (see my dear Tuscan friend Giulia’s recipe for Sportellina di San Gimignano – we’ve been comparing notes all week!).
Artusi notes in his recipe for Stiacciata that the sweet bread (like the Schiacciata di Pasqua), takes advantage of the early Spring weather (often humid and warm) to help it rise, while the old fashioned wood fired heaters, still used during chilly nights, gave warmth to the rising dough. His Stiacciata takes twice as long to rise as, according to his instructions. The ingredients are the same except he calls for Marsala instead of Sambuca and orange blossom water (which he brushes onto the surface of the dough before the eggs) instead of the orange.
Florence – take note – the eternal enemy of every other Tuscan town, does not ‘do’ a Schiacciata di Pasqua. In fact, Florence’s ‘schiacciate’ are two quite different baked goods: the Schiacciata Fiorentina, a fluffy sweet bread that you’ll find in the winter during February’s Carnival. It distinguishes itself from the Schiacciata di Pasqua by being a flat, rectangular bread, coated in a thick layer of confectioner’s sugar and usually decorated with the Florentine lily, symbol of the city. The other is the schiacciata dell’uva, my favourite early autumn bakery treat, found in Florentine bakeries in September – it is essentially a plain focaccia dough studded with red grapes and sprinkled in sugar.
What’s interesting (as always, I’m fascinated by Italian food language) is that the names for this Easter treat are quite misleading – a ‘pizza’ or a ‘schiacciata’ usually implies a dough that’s been flattened (like the Florentine schiacciate); Sportellina has the –ina ending that implies something small, but in reality the Schiacciata di Pasqua is far from being either small or flattened. It’s the exact opposite – tall, large and fluffly. Perhaps it’s just that Tuscan sense of humour.
Schiacciata di Pasqua from Fucecchio
Ideally, this should be made on Good Friday, so it’s ready for the table on Easter Sunday, but to be honest, it’s even better when it’s a day or two old and it can be revived when it’s even older than that with a little dunking in some vin santo, Tuscan dessert wine.
- 500 grams of ‘0’ flour, plus 50 grams for the starter
- 170 grams of sugar
- 85 grams of butter
- 20 ml of olive oil
- 4 eggs (2 whole, 2 yolks and 2 whites for brushing the top of the dough)
- 28 grams of fresh yeast (or 9 grams of dry yeast)
- 15 grams of aniseed
- A dash of vin santo
- A dash or more of Sambuca or Strega (these liqueurs have strong fennel or liquorice-like flavours, which add to the aniseed aroma. If you don’t have it, use Marsala as Artusi does)
- Pinch of salt
- A teaspoon of honey
- Juice and rind of ½ an orange
- Rind of a lemon
The starter – 20 minutes
Activate your starter by combining the yeast with about 60 ml of lukewarm water and 50 grams of flour. Let it bubble and rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 20 minutes or so.
In the meantime, soak the aniseed in the orange juice together with the citrus rinds and honey. Preheat the oven to warm it up to help the dough rise in the next step. Turn it off before it gets too hot – ideally it should be at least 30-40°C.
The 1st rising – 90 minutes
When the starter looks doubled in size, add to it half of the Schiacciata ingredients. In other words: 250 grams of flour, 85 grams of sugar, 43 grams of butter, 1 whole egg, 1 egg yolk (save the white for later), 8 grams of olive oil, pinch of salt and half of the aniseed mixture. Combine well to get an elastic, slightly sticky dough.
Place the dough in a large bowl, covered, inside the warm oven (which should be turned off). Let the dough rise until it is soft and wobbly – it should tremble like a pudding when lightly shaken. This usually takes about 90 minutes but this can vary greatly depending on how warm your kitchen is – it can help to re-light the oven to warm it up more during the 90 minutes.
The 2nd rising – 3 hours
When the dough is appropriately wobbly, it’s time to add the rest of the ingredients. Combine everything very well and then place the dough in its baking pan – this should be a greased (traditionally with lard, but you can use olive oil) round, deep baking tin (around 20-26 cm in diameter). Let the dough rise, covered and even swaddled in tea towels, in a warmed (but turned off) oven as before for further 3 hours or, better, overnight.
The dough should rise about 3 times its original volume and be perfectly rounded.
Baking – 50 minutes
Brush the top of the dough with the egg whites leftover from earlier and bake in moderate oven (150-160°C) for about 50 minutes until cooked and dark brown on top. (it won’t rise much further). A small saucepan filled with water and placed in the bottom of the oven will help keep the oven humid and create a nice crust.
Allow it to cool slightly in the pan before attempting to remove it. Let it cool completely and serve it cut into slices. It’s eaten simply on its own as is, served with a small glass of vin santo and perhaps a couple of chocolate Easter eggs. I must say that although it’s not traditional, Nocciolata (an organic, chocolate-hazlenut cream far superior to nutella) goes down very well too.
The bread will keep well, covered in plastic wrap for a week.