Castagnaccio: Chestnut flour lends earthy sweetness to this rustic dish

Like most Americans, when I think of chestnuts, I imagine them roasting on an open fire, and then suddenly Nat King Cole’s velvet voice is swimming through my ears and it feels like Christmas. But chestnuts, and the fine, mildly sweet flour they produce when dried and ground, have been a staple in Tuscan cuisine for centuries. Plentiful, inexpensive and nutritious, the low-fat, high-carb nuts figured prominently in peasant fare like castagnaccio, a very traditional, simple cake that’s still found in countless Tuscan homes and bakeries during the fall and winter seasons.

Castagnaccio and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. The dish is often said to be an acquired taste. And believe you me, it is. But I finally acquired a taste for it after about the fourth time I made it, which was when I finally made it right.

When I made it the first time, I was dissatisfied with the results. There was no way this dense, flat disc, its top cracked like an old sidewalk, could be right, no way. So I tried to change it, make it something it wasn’t. I added baking powder, eggs, more sugar, vanilla, but it didn’t suit. After all, castagnaccio is not supposed to be like the sweet, fluffy, frosted confections Americans think of as cake. So I raised my white flag and gave that one simple yet very complex ingredient, chestnut flour, the respect it deserved. That, and I finally baked it for the proper amount of time. Less is almost always more.

In doing so, I discovered that this Tuscan dish is far more than just nut flour and water. I saw it in a new light and loved it: rough around the edges, yes, but provincial, rustic, its humble appearance fitting of its humble origins. Not quite sweet and not quite savory, it’s confident in its simplicity: warm and nutty from the pine nuts, spicy and earthy from the rosemary, and subtly sweet from the flour and raisins. Topped with a spoonful of ricotta and a generous drizzle of honey, it’s a lovely dessert.

Chestnut flour, usually only available from late fall to spring, can be difficult to find. It is available at Global Foods in Kirkwood and J. Viviano & Sons on The Hill; just call ahead to make sure they have it in stock. It can also be ordered online, and some natural food stores may be willing to order it for you specially.

Originally a resourceful product of necessity, castagnaccio is now a strong tradition.
And at a time when excess can too easily become the focus, it’s nice to relish in the beauty of simplicity.