When I first learned of its existence, I assumed the origin of the word pissaladière was the same as the root of piss-en-lit. But I was wrong: dandelion greens, a famous diuretic, actually are named after urine (piss-the bed), but the root of French onion-anchovy pizza is, in fact, the Latin word for fish, pis. Which makes sense, because this pizza originated in the Roman Empire and contains the saltiest, briniest fish on earth.
A pissaladière is a thing of simplicity and beauty both to look at and to eat: a sweet golden mess of onions slow-sautéed with thyme, slathered over a thick simple dough spread in a flat pan or cookie sheet, then draped with tiny salted anchovies in a criss-cross pattern and studded with black olives, more thyme leaves sprinkled over it all. When this Provençal pizza comes out of the oven, it looks impressively Gallic and fancy, like decorative trim on the uniform of a hotel bellhop or the ceiling of a rococo ballroom. The anchovies glisten like ribbons, the olives stand out against the onions like black knobs against gold brocade, the thyme leaves look like tiny silk embroidered fleurs-de-lys. Most importantly, it tastes fantasic: simultaneously salty-savory, sweet, and herbaceous, the crisp crust is nutty with whole wheat.
And it’s deceptively easy to make. Many cooks prefer to use puff pastry, which is a snap to buy. But making your own crust isn’t much harder if you’re patient. When your dough is kneaded and rising, and you’ve sliced all the onions and thrown them into olive oil in a cocotte with a handful of fresh thyme, all you have to do is wait for the dough to double in size and the onions to melt into a glorious golden mass. Once you’ve got your onions where you want them and have spread your dough on the cookie sheet, all you have to do is open a couple of jars of anchovies and a jar of olives, and then the fun of assembly begins. Bake it hot and fast, pull it out, slice it, and voilà, a crowd-pleasing supper. A green salad with a sharp Dijon vinaigrette is all the accompaniment you need.
I made a pissaladière last night for three hungry people, one of whom was my father-in-law, Michael, who happens to be one of the hardest-to-please eaters I’ve ever met. He can be brutally honest and stingy with praise, so when he likes something, which is rare, it’s a triumph. He’d never had pissaladière, and in my experience, he’s generally suspicious of new dishes. He was also raised in Italy, so he’s chauvinistic about pizza. I expected him to turn up his nose at this southern French version of pizza. No tomato sauce? No cheese? Preposterous. But he ate two enormous pieces and pronounced it “fabulous.”
For the dough:
1 cup warm water
1 tsp. yeast
1 T sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 T olive oil
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, more as needed
For the topping:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 anchovies, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
3 lb. onions plus one more onion, thinly sliced
A handful of thyme sprigs
2 small jars whole anchovies, drained and separated
½ cup black olives
fresh thyme leaves
More olive oil as needed
The dough: In a large bowl, dissolve yeast into water with sugar. When it froths, add sea salt, olive oil, and flour. Stir into a ball, then turn out onto a floured board and knead well for five or ten minutes, adding more flour whenever it gets sticky, until you have an elastic, warm ball. Pour a glug of olive oil into a large bowl, roll the dough to coat it, cover bowl with a clean dish towel, and let rise in a warm place for at least an hour and a half.
The topping: In a cocotte or deep covered skillet, add olive oil and heat over medium flame. Add 2 chopped anchovies, 1 minced garlic clove, all of the sliced onions and bunch of thyme, stir well, cover, and let cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Don’t let the onion darken or stick. Turn flame to low and continue to cook (covered, stirring occasionally) for another 25 minutes or even longer, until the onions are soft and fragant and sweet. Turn off flame, pick out the thyme stems (most of the leaves will have fallen off and melted into the onions), and let the onions cool before using.
When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto the floured board and knead it again, briefly. Oil an 11 x 17 cookie sheet or flat pan and spread the dough to fill it. Let it rest for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the cooled onion mixture evenly over the dough. Lay each anchovy flat to make any pattern you like, then decorate with the olives. Sprinkle the thyme.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the crust is browned and the onions are bubbling. Slice and serve with a green salad.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is the second of a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, written exclusively for Frenchly. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon.