Introduction to Sfincione
Palermitano, Bagheria Style, San Vito
The sfincione is simple food. Originally, it was
bread dough with olive oil, salt and sometimes cheese. It goes back in time to before the Greeks controlled
The sfincione was plain bread that
working people would take to work for lunch. Layered with fresh cheese and honey, it would be offered to the gods
or consumed on special occasions.
It is believed that the
sfincione, being soft almost like a
sponge, derives its name from the Greek and Latin word spongia, meaning “sponge,” which then transformed into spuncione and to what is presently
Another theory is that the
word sfincione derives from the
Greek sphinx, sphingos, in Latin sphingis, converted into vulgar Latin as
sfincio, and which in English
translates to “strangler.”
In fact, this baked dough,
having very few condiments, would often make people choke when it was consumed.
This problem was resolved
when more oil was added to the sfincione and also onions, salted anchovies and herbs, to give to it a
fine fragrance and taste. Besides the additional ingredients, the technique to make sfincione was improved and this pane condito, stuffed bread, was transformed into
a pleasant, soft food to eat every day or for that important, special event. The sfincio was not “the strangler” any more,
and when the Arabs controlled Sicily,
they called it isfang, meaning
“soft,” later transformed to sfangione and sfincione.
The isfang, or i
sfingi, were introduced by the Arabs and were soft fritters covered with honey. These fritters made
were called sfinge and the honey was later
replaced with cream.
La sfincia, in our days the
Joseph pastry, is made of a fried
soft outer layer with a ricotta cream filling.
In Palermo, the expression
moddu comu na’ sfingia, which translates to “soft like a
sfincia,” is used in the proverbial
language to mean “gentle, compassionate and also without character; not strong, soft” in reference to the
softness of this pastry.
three popular types of sfincione: Palermo Style, Bagheria style and Sfincione Saint Vito.
Because of the few and simple ingredients
used, the Bagheria Style is considered the sfincione most similar to the original recipe. In
fact it is dressed with olive oil, anchovies, primosale, a fresh cheese and breadcrumbs mixed with
grated pecorino, chopped scallions and oregano.
convent of Saint Vito, the nuns made a sfincione using two round sheets of bread
dough stuffed with onions, olives, potatoes and grated cheese. In time, it was enriched with sautéed sausages
without the casing.
The Palermo-style sfincione, the kind I am more familiar
with having eaten it since my childhood and having made it many times for the holidays, is sold by the
buffettari, street vendors, or in bakeries.
The basic ingredients of the
original sfincione were sautéed onions, Caciocavallo cheese, anchovies, oregano and breadcrumbs. Tomato
was added when, in the late XVI century, it was introduced from America.
At the present time, due to abundance,
competition and changes in taste, sfincione are overloaded with sauces, oil, cheese,
anchovies, herbs, spices and breadcrumbs. They are garnished with sliced artichoke hearts, mushrooms, peppers and
other ingredients to give them aromas and features that, even if they enhance the flavor, alienate the
sfincione from their original and modest beginning.
sfincione is flat, soft bread with few condiments, balanced to produce a light and tasty
nosh that smells of fresh bread, onions, tomato, anchovies, cheese and toasted breadcrumbs.
This sfincione is a pleasure to eat, does not bloat you, it is easy to digest
and is even low in cholesterol!
In making any of the three types of sfincione, a simple rule must be followed: the sfincione has to be constructed in layers,
that is, all the ingredients used must be placed to cover the entire surface of the dough, so that the taste of all
the elements can blend and uniformly give off its delicate scent and fine taste.
Melius abundare quam deficere
(Better too much than not enough). This Latin proverb applies in many instances but never to a sfincione. Sfincione can never be overstuffed; it commands frugality, the sparing use of
ingredients and, above all, your attention when baking it. The result will be a delicious delicacy, traditionally
enjoyed every day by Sicilians and surely on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Some food historians claim that sfincione was introduced to Sicily
Moors. The sfincione actually
goes back centuries long before the Greeks or Romans controlled Sicily.
When used as the staple
food for soldiers and sailors, it had to be possible to keep for many days. Therefore, oil was added to preserve it
and make it more palatable for a longer period of time. Over time, the additions of onions, cheese and finally
tomato produced what is today’s sfincione.
The Iraqi simbusak that the
Saracens were eating in the Iberian Peninsula or in Sicily was a very different product consisting of fried
chickpea dough on the outside and stuffed with meat or cheese.
In the Iberian Peninsula,
like the sfincione, was there
before the Moors, and the similarity between an empanada and a simbusak is enormous in taste due to
the diversity of the basic ingredients, cooking and preparation procedures. Perhaps a distant cousin of
the simbusak is the pane e panelle, bread and chickpea
fritters, where the bread is the casing and the fried chickpea fritters became the stuffing.
The empanada, under other
names was prepared and consumed in many European countries, and the Moors mastered the making and introduced the
empanada to the Philippines
and other Islamic countries
while the Spanish and Portuguese immigrants brought it to the Americas.
Another theory is that the Syrian Sephardic Jews, who, after the Diaspora were numerous in Sicily, introduced to
the island the sambusak, a baked
flaky sesame seed pastry, in the shape of a half-moon, filled with meat or cheese and traditionally eaten on the
Sabbaths and Hanukah.
The Jewish sambusak influenced the production of some
desserts and snacks made nowadays. It consists of a pastry similar to a turnover, stuffed with various creams,
marmalades, cheeses, meat or fish.
The word empanada means “inside the bread,” and in
Sicily, stuffed breads are also called impanata’, scacciata (crushed) or coddirune (stuck together).