Introduction to Sfincione  

Sfincione Palermitano, Bagheria Style, San Vito   

Sfinciuni 

  

 

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 Sicily.  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 sfincione.

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 in
 Palermo  were called sfinge and the honey was later replaced with cream. 

La sfincia, in our days the popular Saint 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. 

 

In the province  of Palermo, there are 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. 

 

In the 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.


The 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 by the 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, the empanada, 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).