The first time I tried the Italian chickpea pancake known as farinata, I was completely stumped as to why anyone would want to eat such a thing. It was dense and dry and totally unpalatable. The second and third times I tried it, one of them again in the United States and the other in Italy from a vendor at a market in Turin, it was just as bad. After three terrible experiences, I concluded that farinata was a total waste of time, and decided to never go out of my way to eat it again.
Then one day about nine years ago I was working with my friend Piero at his family's vineyard in Strevi, a small village in the province of Alessandria in Piedmont, Italy, when he suggested we drive to a town called Acqui Terme, which he swore had one of the best versions of farinata around. Given my prior experiences, I wasn't expecting much, but it sounded like a fun excursion anyway, so off we went.
I'm so glad I did, because that day was the turning point in my understanding of farinata.
As soon as we walked up to the counter of a little farinata shop and I saw a wood fire burning in a big oven and the heavy, wide copper pans used to bake the pancakes, I knew this was going to be different.
The farinata we ate there wasn't dry at all. Instead it was soft and custardy in the center, with a lightly crisp and brown exterior. Rosemary leaves infused the whole thing with their woodsy pine flavor. I've been in love with farinata—at least, the good kind—ever since.
That farinata in Acqui Terme is one delicious leaf on a branching tree of Mediterranean chickpea pancakes, with roots in Liguria (which Alessandria borders) and branches extending as far as Nice, France, where it's known as socca. From what I've read in my Italian cookbooks, it dates back to Roman times, if not before, when chickpea flour was a more affordable alternative to wheat flour.
One thing that's great about chickpea flour is that it lacks gluten, so there's no risk of the pancake becoming dense and elastic from mixing—there's absolutely nothing you need to add to your farinata batter, aside from chickpea flour, water, and salt, to produce a wonderfully custardy texture. And because the chickpeas come loaded with plenty of their own flavor, which I'd describe as similar to green peas but without any sweetness, you don't have to do much to get delicious results. A little freshly ground black pepper and maybe some rosemary leaves and you're all set.
To make it, start with finely ground chickpea flour.
Add water bit by bit while whisking to avoid lumps.
Once you have a nice, smooth, lump-free batter, you can add the rest of the water.
The key to custardy farinata is to use the right ratio of water to chickpea flour: 3 to 1 by weight, respectively. You'll end up with a batter that looks very thin and watery: That's okay, it's what you want.
Then you let it stand for about 4 hours or so, enough time for the flour to completely hydrate. A foam will form on the surface, so scrape that off with a spoon and discard it.
When you're ready to cook the farinata, the first step is to crank the oven all the way up and let it preheat. Like cooking pizza, you need to get as close as you can to wood-burning oven temperatures (technically, you'll get nowhere close to those high temps, but we do what we can, right?).
If you have a pizza stone or Baking Steel, you'll want to use it here. I set the oven rack on the second highest position, and put my Baking Steel on it—it's going to help push heat up into the bottom of the farinata so that it crisps from below, as it would on the hot hearth floor of a pizza oven.
With the oven fully preheated, take a well seasoned cast iron skillet and put a generous amount of olive oil in it, enough to fill the skillet with an even layer about two millimeters thick. Then give the batter a good stir and pour it into the skillet; you want it about 1 centimeter deep, though there's some flexibility on the thickness of the pancake. The oil should mix with it, swirling on top and around the edge.
Then add plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and, if you want, fresh rosemary leaves.
Now switch your oven to broil, and as soon as the broiler has kicked on, slide the skillet onto your pizza stone or Baking Steel and let it go until the farinata has set and is browned on top. You can crack the oven door open with a utensil to prevent the broiler from cycling off.
When it comes out, the farinata should no longer jiggle, though it's okay if it's still a tiny bit soft in the center, since it will set more as it cools slightly.
It's best eaten while still warm, so once it's cooled enough and has set fully, cut it into sections and dig in. Done this way, there shouldn't be anything dry about it.