DonQui is pleased that he has just about mastered the art of making a good pizza base but what about the toppings? DonQui’s current favourites are tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, basil, olives, capers and anchovies.
While he will vary these from time to time, the key is the tomato sauce.
This is how he makes it:
Ingredients for 2 individual pizzas
1 400 g tin of San Marzano tomatoes
a pinch of salt
1 crushed garlic clove (optional)
a bunch of herbs — basil or oregano (optional)
San Marzano tomatoes are a unique southern Italian variety grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius near Naples. They are meatier than most other varieties with less seeds and less acidity. They, therefore, make perfect pasta and pizza sauces. Even though tinned, the taste is so sweet and fresh that DonQui prefers not to pre-cook it before putting it on his pizza.
DonQui orders his from Amazon and although more expensive than normal plum tomatoes they are not a hugely extravagant purchase.
The variety is protected in the EU by the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). This protection does not extend to some non-EU countries. In the USA many of the canned tomatoes sold as ‘San Marzano’ (often at very high prices) are nothing like the real thing.
If using garlic (he does not always add it), DonQui likes to gently fry it in olive oil until it becomes fragrant but before it colours. This takes down the pungent rawness that can be a bit overpowering in a sauce.
Drain the tomatoes and put them in a food processor/blender along with the salt and any herbs. If using basil you can use stalks as well as leaves. Add the garlic along with the oil it was cooked in.
Whizz it all up until it is blended. It does not have to be completely smooth.
If you do not have, or do not want to use, a food processor you can crush the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle.
Tip the mixture into a strainer to drain a little more. If the sauce is too watery then it may make a thin dough crust a bit soggy. You could thicken it up with a bit of concentrated tomato purée (tomato paste) but this will alter the taste as the highly processed concentrate can take away from the fresh taste of the San Marzano tomatoes.
Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza base with the back of a wooden spoon.
Add your favourite toppings and put in the pre-heated oven at maximum temperature (250º+), ideally on a pizza stone (which radiates the heat). Then bake for 6 minutes or until the cheese is nicely melted and bubbling but before it burns.
Can there be any food be any food more completely perfect than pizza? DonQui Oaty thinks not. Therefore he has decided to learn how to make it himself from scratch.
DonQui’s first step is a pizza-making course at the Two Magpies bakery in Southwold, Suffolk. Well known for miles around for its incomparable breads and pastries the Two Magpies has extended its sourdough know-how into pizza making. DonQui is keen to learn more.
The evening course begins with a discussion about flour, sourdough and pizza. DonQui learns the importance of ‘hard flour’ with a high gluten content. This is essential to achieve the elasticity needed for a good pizza base. Using sourdough rather than yeast is a slower and better leavening process that alleviates the problems some people have with gluten. Then it is into the bakery to learn how to make and work the dough.
He works the dough feeling how, with kneading, it turns from a sticky ‘shaggy dough’ into a smooth, elastic mass. After leaving it for 20 minutes the elasticity increases and he kneads it some more. He learns that resting is important because immediately after kneading some of the elasticity is lost. Like muscles strained after a run, it needs rest to strengthen.
When the dough can be gently pulled apart without breaking it is ready to be formed. DonQui learns that the way to do this is too gradually stretch it out — not by rolling it with a rolling pin.
The first step is to take a 250g ball of dough, gently flatten it out on a board (lightly floured to prevent sticking) and press around the edges to create the cornicione or edge.
Then slowly stretch the base out as thinly as possible, careful not to break it. Holding it up over two fists to let the edges fall down while gently turning is a good way of doing this, if feeling confident one could toss it up into the air and spin it around like a professional pizzaiolo. DonQui has yet to master this skill.
With the benefit of adult supervision and a blistering hot professional baker’s oven (350º+), DonQui’s first pizza is a great success.
His first attempts to try this at home are OK but not brilliant. The base ends up a bit ‘doughy’ rather than light and crisp.
Even with the addition of a pizza stone, his home oven with maximum temperature of 250º does not quite do the job.
With further experimentation he finds ways to overcome this. Blind baking the base for 3 minutes before putting on the toppings is his first break-through. This gives a crispy crust at the lower temperature of his home oven. Adding a small amount of dried yeast as well as sourdough levain aids rising and makes the base lighter.
Perfection, however, is only achieved when he tries using strong Italian 00 (super-fine) semolina flour. This flour — made especially for pasta and pizza — utterly transforms the dough. It is almost immediately elastic and the resultant base is as good as he has ever tasted anywhere.
Here, below, is DonQui’s recipe based on the Two Magpie’s original instructions with his own modifications.
It makes two small individual pizzas or a single large one.
250g strong white bread flour
½ teaspoon dried yeast
95g sourdough levain (starter)
5g salt (a good teaspoonful)
10g olive oil
Combine the flour, yeast, water and levain by hand into a shaggy dough.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until a smooth non-sticky dough has formed.
Add salt and continue kneading until all granular traces have gone. Slowly add the oil and work it in until fully incorporated and the dough is smooth and strong.
Leave the dough to rise for 2 hours in a lightly oiled, covered container at warm room temperature (22-27ºC).
Cut the dough in half (makes approximately two 250g portions). Shape each into a tight ball and either use immediately or wrap in cling film and refrigerate for a maximum of 48 hours. The dough balls can also be frozen.
To use, bring the dough back up to room temperature (if refrigerated), work it a few times to check elasticity by gently stretching and folding. It should be possible to do so without the dough immediately breaking apart.
Let rest for 20 minutes then stretch into shape on a lightly floured surface. The final stretch is best done on parchment paper so that the base does not end up sticking to the board.
Blind bake at maximum temperature in a pre-heated oven (250º C at least) for 2-3 minutes on the parchment paper. Using a pizza stone will give a crispy base but be sure to put the stone in a cold oven or it will crack.
Remove from the parchment paper. Put on toppings when cooled.
Bake at maximum temperature for 6 minutes directly on the pizza stone. This will give a crispier finish than if it was left on the paper.
Pizza dough is best made with Italian Tipo ‘00’ durum wheat flour. It is finer ground than normal and has a high gluten content. It will give the dough an incredibly smooth, firm, texture.
If using white bread flour, make sure it is a strong one that’s high in gluten. It is the high gluten which gives the essential firm elasticity. Look for Canadian flour which has a higher gluten content than most European ones. Normal all-purpose flour will simply not do the job.
Some millers in the UK are now producing pizza flour which combines Italian style fine grind with local high gluten wheat.
It has been a while since DonQui Oaty returned from Sicily. Back in his home paddock he has continued to experiment with some of the foods he discovered while he was away, doing his best to recreate them in his own kitchen.
One of the most interesting and unusual dishes he came across in Sicily was pasta con le sarde or pasta with sardines. Probably dating back to the Arab conquest of the 8th century, it is unlike any pasta dish DonQui has ever tasted. Saffron, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and wild fennel bring the tastes of North Africa and the Middle East to merge with Sicilian cooking.
What follows is DonQui’s version of the ancient recipe. He is rather pleased that it turned out as good as what he had sampled in Sicily.
Ingredients for 2 people
1 small onion, finely chopped;
2-3 anchovy filets, cut into pieces
2-3 sardines (ideally fresh), filleted and cut into pieces
a bunch of fresh wild fennel tops (or a tablespoon of dry wild fennel)
a good pinch of saffron strands lightly pulverised with a pestle and soaked in a little boiling water
a glass of dry white wine
a handful of currants or sultanas soaked in water for 20-30 minutes (currants are traditional)
a handful of toasted pine nuts
a level tablespoon of ground almonds
a teaspoon of tomato purée (tomato paste) dissolved in a little water (optional and not traditional)
water to dilute
salt and pepper to taste
a handful of toasted breadcrumbs
150g dried bucatini, linguine or spaghetti
Wild fennel (finocchio selvatico) is not easy to come by outside Sicily and it is quite different from cultivated fennel. DonQui uses some dried finocchio selvatico he brought back from his travels.He understands that a reasonable substitute can be made from dill along with ground fennel seeds.
Fresh sardines are best. They are not in season at the moment so DonQui uses tinned sardines preserved in oil as a reasonable substitute.
Pour boiling water over the saffron and the sultanas or currants and let them sit for 15-30 minutes. This allows the dried fruit to re-hydrate. It also brings out the saffron flavour and colour from the strands.
Gently toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan on medium heat until they turn golden.
Fry the onions in oil until they soften and begin to colour.
Add the sardine and anchovy pieces and continue to gently fry. The fish will break up and begin to dissolve (approximately 3-5 minutes on a low-medium heat)
Turn up the heat and add the wine, letting it boil off until reduced by about half.
Then add the fennel and the saffron (with its soaking water). Cover and simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
Strain the sultanas/currents from their soaking water and add them to the sauce along with the ground almonds, diluted tomato purée, and half the pine kernels. The almonds and tomato purée will thicken and bind the sauce. Add a bit of water to dilute as needed.
Bring the sauce back up to a gentle boil and simmer for about 5-10 minutes uncovered to allow the flavours to come together. Stir frequently to avoid scorching, adding more water if needed to dilute. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper according to taste.
Meanwhile prepare the pasta in salted boiling water until done (about 12 minutes) then strain. If you have a good supply of wild fennel add some to the pasta water.
Tip the strained pasta into the pan with the sauce and mix it together well. Add a dash of the pasta cooking water to dilute and keep everything moist.
Turn into a serving dish, sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs and remaining toasted pine nuts. Then serve.
In some parts of Sicily the final dish with the breadcrumb topping is put into a hot oven for a few minutes to crisp up. DonQui has not tried it this way yet so cannot say if it is an improvement or not.
The result is an astounding combination of flavours which DonQui highly recommends.
Duchess was quite taken a-back on first tasting but the more her tastebuds became accustomed to the flavours the more she liked it. She thought capers might be an interesting addition and although they are not a traditional ingredient, she may well be right.
A little extra virgin olive oil served on the side makes an excellent addition. A little drizzle seems to bind the flavours beautifully. Do not be tempted to add any cheese — it would clash horribly with the taste.
A crisp southern Italian white wine makes an excellent accompaniment. DonQui chooses the Gambino Winery’s Tifeo bianco, made from Carricante and Catarrato grapes grown on the slopes of Mt Etna. It is a perfect match.
Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).
The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives.
DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.
The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.
Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.
Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.
At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta.
DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.
He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer
The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.
Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.
Since Roman times Sicily has been the bread-basket of Italy. The industrial revolution passed by the island without stopping. The result today is an agricultural landscape of small family farms abundant with vines, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges and grain. These together with cheese from livestock and fish from the sea have produced a delectable and healthy cuisine that harks back to the days of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs.
In order to more fully appreciate Sicilian cuisine, DonQui Oaty is spending a bit of time exploring its sources. He starts with wine.
The sweet fortified wines from Marsala on the west of the island were made famous in northern Europe by the English in the 18th century.
At the Alagana winery DonQui has the opportunity to see the grapes being delivered from the surrounding vineyards to make this most well known of Sicilian wines.
DonQui had thought that Marsala was Marsala — strong, sweet wine. He learns that there are actually many types of Marsala wines. Although the sweet ones are the most well known there are also dry and semi-dry versions, tasting a little bit like dry sherry. Marsala ranges in colour from oro (gold) to ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The latter is made from red grapes while the others are from white. The amber wine gains its darker colour from simmering the grape must until it reduces and caramelises.
DonQui is rather impressed by the Cotto which is the highly concentrated non-alcoholic grape must (musto). It can be used as an alternative sweetener in dressings, sauces and deserts. The locals recommend pouring it over chunks of rustic bread for a simple sweet treat.
The west of Sicily is best for its white wines. DonQui particularly likes the dry yet fruity Grillo made from a grape unique to Sicily and particularly well suited to the climate and conditions of the Marsala region.
He is also rather fond of the sweet Zibibbo. This is an ancient grape variety related to Muscat. The name is derived from the Arabic word for grape. It is as good a desert wine as DonQui has ever sampled. It is said that this is the wine favoured by Cleopatra and it is sometimes called Muscat of Alexandria.
The volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in the east of Sicily are particularly good for red wines. In the past these were produced in bulk and exported to mix with northern Italian and French vintages. Over the past 40 years there has been a move away from quantity in favour of quality—something DonQui utterly approves of.
At Gambino Vini, on the northeastern slopes of Mt Etna, DonQui has the opportunity to sample several excellent wines along with some rather tasty titbits.
He particualrly likes the Tifeo, named after Typhon, the monster of ancient Greek mythology whom, according to legend, is the source of Mt Etna’s volcanic eruptions. This full-boddied wine has earthy, mineral tastes derived from the volcanic soil in which it is grown. The 2016 is just ready to drink but would benefit from a bit more time in the bottle. It would keep well for up to up to another 8 years according to the vintner.
Even better (and quite a bit pricier) is the elegant Petto Dragone made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, originally brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks.
Later at a caffe DonQui samples a local brandy (Brandy Siciliano). It is quite rough and not at all up to the standards of a basic Cognac or Armagnac. The Sicilians still have a bit of work to do in this department.
After a few tastings DonQui is anything but an expert on Sicilian wine. He has, however, had his taste buds awakened by delicious new flavours from ancient and nearly forgotten grape varieties. He vows to learn more.
DonQui has the opportunity to try his hand at Sicilian cooking under the watchful eyes of the chefs from Duca di Castelmonte, near Trapani.
Duca di Castlemonte is an old farm estate now converted into an excellent country restaurant and guest house.
DonQui Oaty’s first lesson is in making a traditional Sicilian spiral pasta (busiate).
This is done by rolling out a thin finger of dough then gently rolling it around a wooden stick to produce an elegant spiral. The stick is first dipped in flour to stop the dough from sticking to it.
DonQui takes his time with the first one, learning that it is best to make them quite thin and not too long.
Once he gets the hang of it he is able to produce them with confidence but it is a time consuming process which would be best done with several willing helpers. DonQui is fortunate that the dough (hard flour and water — no eggs) is pre-made for him.
The sauce is a Trapanese tomato pesto. The ingredients (for two) are:
2 pealed garlic cloves
approximately 2 tablespoons of blanched, lightly roasted almonds.
a small bunch of fresh basil (torn up)
a pinch of salt and pepper
a generous glug of olive oil
pulp of 4 red, ripe tomatoes; peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
To peel and seed the tomatoes: score the skin in quarters, cover with boiling water for about 5 minutes then let cool. The skins will peel off easily. To de-seed, squeeze the tomato over a bowl and the seeds and excess liquid will come out leaving just the pulp.
Prepare the pesto by first mashing up the dry ingredients and garlic, with a mortar and pestle, until it forms a sort of paste. Add the torn basil and pound together a bit more until well blended.
Add the tomato pulp and olive oil then mash it all together until well mixed. Set to one side.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water (You don’t necessarily need to use home-made pasta). Drain and tip out into a bowl and mix in the pesto.
Serve with a good sprinkling of chopped roasted almonds on top then enjoy.
It is one of the most divine pasta dishes DonQui has had the opportunity to taste. In his view it does not benefit from the addition of cheese.
Having decided to eat his way around Sicily, DonQui begins his gastronomic tour in Palermo.
The coffee from the machine in the hotel breakfast room is not that great so he takes a tip from a local and starts his day with a super-charged shot of espresso from the bar over the road.
Then he makes his way over to Capo market which is reminiscent of an Arab souk. This is hardly surprising given that it sprung up during the Arab occupation of Sicily 1200 years ago.
The tastefully arranged displays of vegetables are amazing and DonQui learns a couple of interesting facts.
These super long zucchini (courgettes) are a local speciality. They are grown over trellises which allow the zucchini to hang down and gain their long length.
In Palermo, broccoli is called “sparacelli” and cauliflower is called “broccoli”.
Palermo is famous for its street food.
After a bit of a wander around the market, DonQui stops off atArianna’s “Friggitoria Gastronomia” to sample some.
Cazzili are a sort of potato fritter flavoured with mint and parsley. Although not a great potato eater, DonQui rather likes them although one is plenty for him.
Next up are arancine — deep fried balls of saffron-flavoured rice with a filling of meat and vegetables. These can be found all over Italy but these ones use the original recipe which pre-dates the introduction of tomatoes to Europe. They are utterly delicious and DonQui much prefers the saffron rice to the tomato infused version often served elsewhere.
DonQui is informed by his local guide that a good arancina needs to be crisp and crunchy on the outside. This can only be achieved if freshly fried. If left in a display case for any length of time the steam will cause it to go soggy.
Panella — a fritter of chickpea flour is OK but a bit boring. It needs a good squeeze of lemon to give it some cut-though but even then it is rather bland, stodgy and a bit greasy. DonQui can imagine that it would be the sort of thing he might enjoy later in the evening after a few too many beers.
After a bit of a trot around the old city to work off one or two calories, DonQui summons up the courage to taste that most infamous of Palermo street food — the pani ca meusa, or spleen sandwich.
The inhabitants of Palermo love their spleen sandwiches and 72 year old Pippo has been preparing them since he was 6. His are reputed to be the best in the city.
Thinly sliced pieces of offal are slowly simmered in a cauldron. The only spicing is salt. You can have them “single” with just a squeeze of lemon, or “married” with a sprinkling of cheese as well. DonQui goes for the former as his guide advises that it is best to remain single at first and only contemplate marriage later.
DonQui finds it absolutely delicious. The meat is very tender and quite mild-tasting. The lemon juice provides a bit of a zing which balances the flavours perfectly. Maybe next time he will try ithe ‘married’ version with cheese.
A short trot away from Pippo’s spleen sandwich stall is a tiny taverna which has been operated by the same family since the 19th century.It is a bit of a dive but DonQui rather likes this as the place has plenty of atmosphere.
Here he samples the local sangue or “blood wine”. This is a rough, sweet, fortified wine — a little bit like port without any refinement. It is rather good and DonQui is glad he tried it, even if it does not quite match the taste of a good port or marsala.
To accompany his sangue he nibbles on some cheese and a piece of sfincione — thick soft bread with a topping of tomato, onion and anchovies. Although often described as Sicilian pizza, DonQui thinks it is perhaps more like a soft bruschetta. It is OK but not outstanding.
Having grazed his way around the old city, DonQui stops off at a gelateria for a coffee and bacio ice cream. A more traditional way to have an ice cream in Palermo would have been a broscia which is a brioche cut in half with an ice cream in the middle. Since he has eaten so much already DonQui decides to stick with a cone as do most of the locals eating there.
His stroll around the city provides DonQui with more than enough food to last him the day. In the evening he settles down at the very pleasant Caffe Spinnato on via Belvadore for a beer or two.
As these come with copious snacks he has no need to seek out a restaurant for dinner.
Note:DonQui likes to portray himself as an intrepid, independent explorer. He has a bit of that in him but the truth is that he would never have discovered the delights of Palermo street food on his own. His guide was the knowledgable and cheerful Marco on Exodus’ Sicily Food Adventure tour.