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Dec 14, 2017
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Castagnaccio: Chestnut flour lends earthy sweetness to this rustic dish
By Tory Bahn | Photo by Laura Miller
Posted On: 12/13/2010   


Like most Americans, when I think of chestnuts, I imagine them roasting on an open fire, and then suddenly Nat King Coleís 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 thatís 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 wasnít. I added baking powder, eggs, more sugar, vanilla, but it didnít 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, itís 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, itís 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, itís nice to relish in the beauty of simplicity.


Castagnaccio
Makes 8

INGREDIENTS

2Ĺ cups chestnut flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup raisins, soaked in ľ cup warm water
1 cup milk
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
Zest of 3 lemons or 1 orange (about 2 Tbsp.)
1/3 cup pine nuts
1Ĺ Tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves
Ricotta and honey for serving

PREPARATION

∑ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
∑ Sift the chestnut flour into a large bowl. Add the sugar and salt and stir.
∑ Remove the raisins from the soaking water, reserving the water. Stir the raisins into the flour.
∑ Combine the milk, 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the raisin water in a separate bowl.
∑ Whisk the liquid into the flour. The batter should be the consistency of whipping cream or slightly thinner.
∑ Add the lemon or orange zest and half of the pine nuts and stir to incorporate.
∑ Grease a round, 9-inch baking pan with the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
∑ Pour the batter into the greased pan. Oil will spill over onto the cake batter. Drizzle a bit more olive oil over the top of the cake. Sprinkle the top with the remaining pine nuts and the rosemary leaves.
∑ Bake for 45 minutes. The top of the cake will begin to crack.
∑ Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of ricotta and a drizzle of honey.

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