Crisps & Custard
Are two of my favourite foods.
There is something a little bit magical about what happens when a food that is slightly sweet and vegetal, like a potato, fries in oil to become crisp and fatty and salty, and one of the most delicious things that exist. Salted crisps are, for me, one of the world’s most perfect foodstuffs, and something I never grow tired of eating.
Custard is a close second. Its colour, flavour and texture are unavoidably joy-inducing; sweetly silky, elusively eggy, cheerily yellow, blobbily bright and with a subtle sheen and gentle curves it is truly an everyday edible miracle.
This post, however, is about neither of these things. This post is a long-winded and roundabout way of introducing something which has been on my cookery periphery for a while, but has only just made it onto the page; Farinata. Farinata is a wonderful food which manages to combine two of my favourite textural and flavoursome concepts; crispy and custardy.
Farinata is a pancake made of chickpea flour, olive oil, water and salt which is most often found in Liguria, though variations of it exist all over the world. The concept of mixing a puree of legumes with water and baking the dough in a wood-fired oven is one which dates back to antiquity, and many countries/regions have their own version based around this simple theme. The legend behind the creation of Farinata is a good one, like so many of the origin-myths behind classic dishes, and it goes like this…
After the Genoese defeated Pisa in the battle of Meloria in 1284 the ships were sailing home when they found themselves caught in a storm. Barrels of oil, sacks of chickpea flour and sea water all got mixed up in the hold and in attempt to recover all supplies, this liquid mixture was collected and fed to the sailors. Some plates of the mixture were left out in the sun to dry (some myths claim through protest, others claim it was a deliberate ploy to render the dish more edible). The resulting pancake was deemed to be good enough to be worth repeating, and on their return home the Genoese honed the recipe and cooked it in a wood-fired oven, naming it “the gold of Pisa” to mock the defeated.
I first tried Farinata when we made it at the Italian restaurant I was working at in London, and then I went in search of it again when I moved to Sardinia. There is a town on the island of San Pietro off the south of Sardinia, Carloforte, which was colonised by Genoese and where it is still possible to find some Genoese specialities, such as Focaccia and Farinata. When we went last year for a day, catching the ferry from Cagliari to Carloforte, we tried to track it down but to no avail, as traditionally Farinata is cooked in a woodfired oven, after the pizzas have been baked, and – it being lunchtime - the ovens were not lit as pizza does not tend to be eaten for lunch. In the North of Sardinia too, there is a version made known as Fainè, which is often served with sausage and anchovies and other toppings, much like a pizza, though again, I have yet to taste it. I hope to do so soon (topped with anchovies.)
Yesterday was pancake day or Mardi Gras, and instead of sweet pancakes for breakfast I decided on a savoury Farinata for lunch. Like so many classic Italian dishes, it is both incredibly simple and utterly satisfying, as well as economic, requiring as it does just 4 simple ingredients; olive oil, salt, chickpea flour and water. It is also the perfect foil, something you can eat almost like a bread, alongside salads (to mop up juices) or cheeses or cured meats. The way it is cooked and eaten reminds me of two of my other favourite foods – worlds apart – but with definite resonances, Injera and Yorkshire pudding. Injera is an Ethiopian/Eritrean sour pancake made from Teff flour which is used as a means of eating, rolled up and squished in the hand to enable scooping of other substances, or served as a sort of edible platter onto which are piled other things (curries, salads etc). Like Farinata it is pancake-like and a great foil for eating/scooping wet and flavoursome things.
However, one of the most beguiling properties of Farinata is that it is crisp, cooked (almost fried) in olive oil to create the most delicious fatty crust. The batter is creamy, and even after cooking it remains so, but as you pour it into hot fat and it bakes the most amazing crust forms, and in this way it reminds me of Yorkshire Pudding. The trick to a good Yorkshire, I was always told, was to let the batter sit for a while (as is also the case with Farinata) and to pour said batter into smoking hot fat, to assure a good rise and swell and to create an extra crispy coat. My mum always made her Yorkshire in a loaf tin, in beef dripping rather than olive oil, and it was always just a little too thick, which was what made it so good. The interior was deliciously custardy, matte-cream and stodgy in the most seductive way, and the exterior was crisp and burnished and fatty and delicious. Farinata captures both of these delightful properties, but the flavour is more sweet and vegetal, thanks to the chickpeas, and beautifully highlighted by the peppery, green-grassy flavour of a good olive oil. For something so simple, it truly is spectacular, but it does need to be eaten hot to really appreciate both its crisp and custardy qualities.
I have never made a successful Farinata before this one, but the trick seems to be to let the raw mix sit a while, to get the oil smoking hot before pouring in the batter, and to get your oven as hot as it will go (failing cooking it in a wood-fired one). Serve with a good juicy tomato salad, or some cured meat, or cheese, or just on its own with a drizzle of good olive oil.
I cooked mine in a 30cm pancake pan, but if you have a wide, round frying pan that would also be good, just make sure it is oven-proof.
Make your batter a few hours before you want to eat (you can also make it the night before and leave it to rest in the fridge).
200g chickpea flour
1 tsp salt plus extra to serve
1 tbsp olive oil plus extra to serve
3 tbsp oil for cooking
Make the batter by pouring the water gently into a bowl with the flour and whisking continuously until smooth. Set aside to rest covered with a tea towel.
When you want to cook your Farinata, heat the oven to as high as it will go, about 250.
Pour the 3 tbsp of olive oil into the base of your frying pan and place it in the oven to heat up.
Whisk the 1 tbsp olive oil and the tsp of salt into the batter and stir well.
Once the oil in the pan is smoking open the oven and carefully pour in the batter. Close the oven and cook for around 30-35 minutes, until the top is burnished.
Serve immediately, sprinkled with extra sea salt and drizzled with your best olive oil.