Not being able to travel, making food from elsewhere is one way of capturing a place without a plane journey. The other day I met a Roman in Cagliari, a passionate baker and eater, and a well of knowledge regarding all things Roman. He described to me this Pizza Bianca, something I was ignorant of, a sort of thin, chewy bread a bit like a pizza, a bit like a focaccia, but not exactly like either of them.
Bought by the wedge, and eaten as is or stuffed with whatever you deem fit, it makes for one of the finest sandwiches, or just something to chew on as you loiter with or without intent. Not being in Rome, I thought I would bring a slice to Sardinia.
Which got me thinking about sandwiches in general. There are sandwiches and sandwiches in this life, and all too often I find myself eating the former. One of the things about Italian food experienced first-hand in Italy is how difficult it is to find a bad sandwich. I’m sure they must exist, but I never seem to meet them. Even the bad sandwiches here are good. There is a breed called Tramezzini, which are made with crustless white bread and most often filled with tomatoes, mayonnaise and tuna, and cut into perfect triangles. They are served on a napkin at the bar or at children’s parties or celebrations. They’re perfect – soft, so soft the dampened bread sticks to the roof of your mouth when you bite into them, pink liquid (the juice of tomato muddled with the mayo) seeps out, and the quantity of tuna is always so mean as to be barely perceptible, just the faintest hint of salt on a distant horizon. I can eat 20 quite happily.
These are probably the closest you will ever get to a ‘bad’ sandwich in Italy and they’re glorious. Otherwise, almost everywhere will knock you up a little white paper packet of perfection in a few minutes. The bread always fresh, white and simple; the ham salty and with ample fat to lubricate the chewing process. No butter, rarely a little olive oil. Sliced mozzarella, a little tomato; rocket, parmesan and bresaola. How is it so hard for us to replicate this in England? How can Upper Crust legitimately still exist? How can we charge people £7 for a stale baguette filled with rock-hard, lip-numbingly-cold slabs of sad and sour brie?
I suppose it’s that old chestnut of the primary ingredients being key, as boring and hackneyed as it is to say so. A good panino, or bread roll/bap, probably baked nearby that day, some ham sliced relatively recently from a real leg of prosciutto made from a real pig. It all seems so easy once you have such ingredients at your disposal.
If you can’t find the suitably excellent sandwich you crave nearby, and failing being able to pop over to Rome for a panino, I suggest you have a go at making your own bread, to take your sandwich experience that step closer to perfection. The Pizza Bianca is the perfect sandwich bread, it’s got the same oily, salty crust as a focaccia, bit it’s sturdier, chewier, and more pizza like in its form. It’s the best of both worlds.
I added semolina flour to my dough, in homage to Sardinian breads which almost always contain semola. If you can't find semola, make the recipe with 500g 0 (strong bread/manitoba) flour.
You will need to begin the evening before you want to bake your pizza. There is no sourdough here, no faffing with a biga or anything, just a little amount of fresh yeast and a long rise. Begin at 6/7 pm, ready for lunch the following day.
Makes 1 Square-Shaped Pizza Bianca (enough to make 4 enormous sandwiches, or 6 modestly-sized ones)
200g semola fine (sometimes called semolata or semolina flour)
300g 0 flour (manitoba or strong bread flour)
5g fresh yeast
350g water at room temperature
Olive oil, for shaping
Mix the dough, either in a mixer (a mixer will mean less mess) or by hand, and knead until smooth and elastic (it is a fairly wet, so some slapping and folding on the surface will need the help of a dough scraper).
Place the dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl and cover with an oiled plastic bag.
Over the next few hours, before you go to bed, give the dough a few turns and folds when you remember to - wetting your hands and pulling the edges of the dough outwards and then tucking them over each other (see this method on Youtube if you are unsure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTo_Ho5C6sk&ab_channel=InfermentoVivo - featuring suitably jolly music)
Now, just before you go to bed (assuming this is around 11pm) place the dough in the fridge, covered with its oily plastic bag. Leave to rise overnight.
The following morning, first thing (say at 7am) remove the dough from the fridge and leave somewhere warm, allowing it to come slowly to room temperature. Fold it a few more times over the course of the morning. At midday, oil a surface and your hands with olive oil, and line a square baking tray with baking parchment.
Remove the dough from its bowl, and stretch it out into a flat oblong. Press it into the tray and drizzle with some more oil, stretching it out and flattening it with your hands.
Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200 (or hotter, if you can, the maximum your oven will go - in which case keep a careful eye). Place the pizza and its tray in the oven and bake until golden and risen, about 12-20 minutes depending on how hot your oven is.
Cut, whilst still warm, and stuff with anything you like, though mortadella is a classic. Other good ideas are:
- figs & prosciutto
- figs & speck & gorgonzola
- rocket, grana and bresaola
- just ham - any ham, but lots of it.
- I could go on forever but I have things that need to be cooked/eaten