When made at home, this sweet is the best welcome you can give. It’s a gesture of affection for the people you love, the people it’s a pleasure to spend time with, eating and unwinding within your own four walls. These desserts are almost always the work of tender, gnarled and expert hands, the product of simple ingredients that jostle for space in the kitchen cupboards – sugar, yeast, chocolate, honey, jam – the stuff that all of us, as children, were wont to plunder, stretching out our hands while balancing on a precarious wooden stool.
The preparation of schiacciata fiorentina is a photograph of cracked outlines and colors slightly yellowed by time, which stamp themselves on the heart of anyone who has ever been lucky enough to assist in the magical moment. The wooden pastry board, scarred from years of service, supporting a volcano of flour with an egg in its crater; the floury rolling pin, the lipped milk jug, full to the brim; the wooden ladle; the icing sugar, the whisk, the buttered cake tin, the hot oven. It takes me back to my childhood, when our spoons would scramble for the last bittersweet bit of dough in the bowl, with the bulk of it having migrated to the mold to cook and fill the home and the household with its sweetness.
All guests, no matter who they were, would always receive the heartiest welcome at my grandparents’ house: the family round on Sunday, visiting friends, they would all get a ciambellone. It had a delicious topping of glazed sugar, studded with the toasted pine nuts that I had gathered from the pinewood near the house. My hands would get smothered with sap and resin, all for the cause of helping grandma make the sweet stuff! A bit of vin santo would accompany everything. They’d taste it the first time, savor it the second, and it sometimes took a third glass before the lucky guest fully gave in to the warm fragrant embrace of honey, sugar and pine nuts that infused the house.
In February, the carnival season gave me an excuse to badger grandma for a couple of the traditional fried sweets: cenci (a sweet, thin, fried pastry covered with sugar) and frittelle di riso (rice fritters). I was a glutton for them, but no more so than my friends who came to the house for the very same reason. I was constantly on the lookout for them, the cenci especially. “This time I’ll make schiacciata alla fiorentina for you,” Grandma would say. “It’s better for you.” Schiacciata alla fiorentina! Schiacciata alla fiorentina, another great winter home-baked sweet. “OK,” I would say, feigning disappointment. “As long as it’s filled with whipped cream, like how they do it in Florence.”
Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a traditional carnival cake and, more precisely, of the “berlingaccio”, a Tuscan festival that falls alongside the so-called “Fat Thursday”, the Thursday before Carnival kicks off. The Berlingaccio essentially gives you license to throw yourself headlong into the pleasures of the table.
The recipe for Schiacciata alla fiorentina is very simple. You can find it at the bakery, but it’s also made at home. Egg, milk, sugar, flour, and a bit of yeast and orange – zest or juice – go into the dough. A bit of fresh lard is also fundamental: the pigs that provide it are often butchered in February itself.
Once baked, the schiacciata is dusted with powdered sugar. Very often (and always in my house!) it’s also filled with whipped cream.