There are many beautiful names one can call the Italian countryside. But there is one name in particular that is quite apt for blistering late summer days – one that you would never imagine, and that is ‘unwelcoming’.
Me and Enrico set out for Arezzo, where we were supposed to stay in a quaint, beautiful country house. No sooner we set our foot out of the car, that we were hoarded by a storm of horseflies and other insects of every sort. And I mean, we literally had a cloud of insects chasing us down. We decided to go because the heatwave looked like it was subsiding, but he weather was blistering hot. Not being used to be away from the sea, I did not consider the absolute lack of the smallest rifle of wind. We looked at each other in the eyes and decided to get our stuff in the car and flee.
We were incredibly sorry, but the business owner was still so kind that he even gifted us a bottle of last year’s rosé – one of his last bottles.
We will be back in that absolutely beautiful place towards the end of October, Just in time for picking Olives. In the meantime, if you need a vacation spot, I do not think I have seen a country house more beautiful than this so far, and their wine production is spectacular.
On our way back, we decided to stop by the town of Anghiari, famous for a battle that took place there and was depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was one of the prettiest Italian towns I have ever seen. Perked up on a hill, it was a maze of cobbled stone roads and medieval buildings, where signs of the everyday life of people showed itself here and there: hanging clothes to dry, people sitting at the bar in the main square, chairs arranged along the tiny streets, and gardens full of carefully tended flowers. A nice, quaint café sat in a brick building overlooking a lush garden below, which was right at the edge of the town walls where you could enjoy the sight of a large stretch of the stunning Tuscan countryside.
Most of the few shops in town were closed, save for a couple ceramic laboratories. Everything in the air evoked a feeling of olden times, ancient smells of clay and damp brick walls, and archways and stone stairs lead the way into what seemed like a the setting of a fairytale. It felt like we fell into a storybook.
We only walked around and enjoyed the relaxed feeling of that place and, a couple hours after, we drove back.
The many dry sunflowers still on the fields made me think of recipes with sunflower seeds. I realized that only very recently these seeds have started to appear on the shelves of Italian stores, and they are definitely not used in any widely known recipe. As of recent times, many bakeries and markets have started selling beautiful loaves of fresh bread made with ancient grain flours, like farro or rye, which are also enriched with linseeds, pumpkin seeds or, more commonly, sunflower seeds. At first, I thought of making bread, but then I remembered this sunflower pizza that was trending on Italian Facebook cooking pages, and decided to go for that instead. It is so incredibly pretty! And tasty, of course – well, it’s pizza!
I am a firm believer that you can even make something that can be called healthy pizza, as long as you choose your flours very wisely, and don’t make it every day, for sure. Use a mix of rye, spelt, and other whole flours and choose veggie-based stuffings. I went with a spinach and onion stuffing – where my mom insisted of adding some Provola cheese, but you could also stuff it with mozzarella and tomato like any other pizza. This could actually be made with brisée dough or a thick layering of phyllo to make things even quicker – variations are yours to try! Of course, we topped it with sunflower seeds.
As we sat at the table eating this stuffed sunflower pizza, we told my parents stories about our disastrous arrival in Tuscany, and the oh-so-pretty turnaround of events.
‘Will you go back?’ asked mom.
You can be sure we will.
This recipe is perfect for a gathering, for potlucks or for the holidays. I like putting this kind of thing on the table when I know it’s gonna be more than 6 people. Plus, it’s fun to just tear and share the petals!
Mine is a tad overcooked. But oh, please don’t mind it. I used an oven I never used before… let’s just say that my pizza got a suntan!
- 2 plus ¼ cup (300g) whole wheat or spelt flour
- 2 tbsps olive oil
- 1 heaping tsp active dry yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- About 1 cup of warm water
- Enough water to knead the dough
- 1 lb frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed and roughly chopped
- 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
- 3 tbsps olive oil
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 tsp salt, divided
- A fat pinch of pepper
- scamorza cheese, to taste (skip if keeping this vegan)
- Combine the flour and olive oil in a bowl. Dissolve the yeast in half the warm water, and add to the bowl. Mix it in before adding the salt, and enough water to make the dough come together. You might need more than a cup. If kneading by hand, knead vigorously for about 10 minutes. You can also do it in a stand mixer if you have one. Once smooth and supple, cover the bowl with clingfilm and let it raise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled.
- In the meantime, make the stuffing: add 2 tbsps of the oil to apan and slowly stir-fry the onions qith half a teaspoon salt for at least 30 minutes, until golden. You might need to add a splash of water to keep the onions for sticking.
- In another pan, heat the remaining tbsp of oil and lightly stir-fry the garlic clove until aromatic. Add the spinach and sauté, stirring, until the excess water has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Discard the garlic.
- When ready, preheat the oven to 420 F˚.
- Divide the dough in two equal pieces and roll it out in a circle. Arrange the first circle on a baking tray, brush it with a little oil, and add the stuffing in a circle in the middle and in a ring around it, leaving some space around the edge, as shown in the photo. Cover with the other dough circle, and, using a bowl, define the center circle. Pinch the edges close.
- Cut the petals, starting from the middle, and cutting the middle of each section you create. You should end up with 14 or 15 petals. Rotate each petal by 45˚ so that the stuffing shows upwards. Brush the top with oil, and sprinkle some sunflower seeds.
- Bake for about 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 390 F˚ and cook for 15 more minutes, or until golden.
- This recipe is also great made with brisée or phyllo dough - in this case, the time for the oven will be different. Make sure you oil the phyllo paste well with a mixture of oil and water, and bake until just golden and crispy.