Within the confusingly meandering (yet hopefully charming) confines of my mind, there is a place where Sophia Loren, Alsace and the North-Hessian infatuation with smetana meet.
And whatever you might be thinking right now, it is entirely safe for work.
See, one of the deeply formative movie experiences of my childhood involves an early scene of 'Houseboat', that incredibly saccharine movie with Cary Grant and, you guessed it, Sophia Loren.
Sophia's character, Cincia Zaccardi, had just run away from her gilded-cage life as a rich man's daughter without a penny on her name, and drifts along some kind of fair, aimless and very hungry. She spots a little boy struggling hard to eat his slice of pizza, and, being the expert on Italian food that she is, decides to help him.
"See, Roberrrto," she said, her 'r's rolling with an Italian accent so strong it makes me giggle even today, "'dis is how you eat rrreal Italian pizza!"
Needless to say, her demonstration of 'fold first, then bite' consumed the better part of the young man's dinner.
For several reasons, this scene stuck with me, and there are two lessons I have learned:
1) When eating (thin-crusted) pizza, fold first, then bite, ignore the cutlery.
2) When a stunningly beautiful lady chats you up on a fair, offering to teach you something, she's after your food only. (As I said, I was really pretty young when I saw that movie.)
The first of these lessons came to my mind during my office's annual outing a few weeks ago. The lovely place we were having lunch at offered 'Flammkuchen', an Alsatian specialty very closely related to pizza. But as this is 2009, they added a local twist, using the regionally beloved smetana instead of the traditional crème fraîche.
And, boy, it was great!
Smetana is significantly richer than crème fraîche, and a little sourer as well. But with only onions, bacon and some flatleaf parsley as topping, that made all the difference. The smetana didn't curdle like crème fraîche would have done, and it added that kind of moreish creaminess that usually you can only get by using cheese.
Actually, in retrospective, this was the first time ever I ate any kind of 'pizza' without cheese that tasted great.
Eating these very flat 'pizzas' can be a little tricky, and using knife and fork on something with the rough proportions of a tea towel very swiftly bordered on comical. So me and those of my colleagues who had ordered the Flammkuchen as well abandoned all pretense of good manners and followed Sophia's (or rather Cinzia's) advice - cut roughly, then fold, then bite.
As you can imagine, we had a great time.
Of course, I had to try and replicate the recipe at home, and when the last time I refreshed our stock of chiabattini, I set aside some of the dough for dinner. It turned out just as great as I had hoped, despite me over-cooking the bacon just a tad and only having curly parsley which was a little too harsh for my taste.
Smetana might be difficult to come by west of Germany, but if you get some, you've got to try this at home. Even if it sounds hard to believe, there IS tasty pizza without cheese in this universe.
Flammkuchen, Hessian style
(generously serves four)
half a batch chiabatta dough
half a bundle flatleaf parsley
salt & pepper
Prepare the dough as described, but set aside after the last fold.
Well in advance, heat up the oven as high as it goes.
Mine tops out at about 250°C, which is just barely enough. Simply make sure the oven is thoroughly heated up, not merely the air inside that'll go off as soon as you open the door.
Peel the onions and cut into fine rings. Bring a large pot of water to a roiling boil and blanch the onions for just about 30 seconds. Douse with cold water and drain thoroughly, then cover and set aside.
As the Flammkuchen will be done in a very hot oven, the onions will hardly have time to cook. Blanching them takes out just enough of that 'grassy' feeling, leaving them tender and sweet yet still with a little bite.
Cut the bacon into small strips or matches (lardons). Fry in a non-stick pan at low temperature until barely even golden, then cover and set aside.
As above, the bacon should be pre-cooked before going into the oven. But I fried it in a heavy, cast-iron pan and completely forgot that the bacon would be further browned by the residual heat of the pan alone. In consequence, the bacon bits on the Flammkuchen on the picture above were a little bit on the dark side.
Pour the smetana into a bowl and add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix until smooth.
If you decide to use more bacon than I mentioned above, you won't need this additional salt.
Sort the (biggest) stalks out of the parsly and roughly chop the leaves.
When you're about to sit down for dinner, take out the dough and deflate. Quarter the dough and form firm balls as you would for rolls. Then take the first portion, flatten and roll out until it is only a few milimeters thick.
Basically, roll out the dough as thinly as you can handle comfortably.
Take a quarter of the smetana and spread (as) evenly (as possible) across the dough, leaving a border of about a centimeter uncovered.
Evenly distribute a quarter of the blanched onions on top of the smetana. Sprinkle with a quarter of the lardons.
Put into the oven and bake until the rim of the dough looks almost burned. Ideally, this will take exactly as long as it will take you to roll out and top the next Flammkuchen. My oven took a little longer, but still only a few minutes, really.
Sprinkle with some parsley and serve immediately.
Goes best with a fresh, dry white wine or a similarly crisp, cold beer.
Lots of it.
Keeps surprisingly well in the fridge and reheats nicely, but really is best fresh out of the oven.