Castagnaccio: Chestnut Flour Cake

chestnuts 1 12.7.13I was home a few weeks ago during the afternoon, and had the Cooking Channel on as background while I did some paperwork at my desk. I hardly ever have TV on as background. Either I’m watching it, or it’s off. It’s distracting to me otherwise, and I can’t fully focus on the task at hand.

But, maybe because it was just me in the house that day (my husband works from home, so the rhythm of two people going about their business is often enough going on), and maybe because I don’t often have the luxury of just having cooking shows on in the middle of the day, I turned the TV on.

I half-listened to a few episodes that day, but the one that took me from my desk and put me in front of the TV was one that was all on chestnuts.

It was an episode of David Rocco’s Dolce Vita. The show features Italian-Canadian Rocco cooking and eating in Italy.

I was mesmerized by all the things he made with chestnuts. It was chestnut harvest time, and, like anything when it comes into season, while you have it, you find all kinds of ways to use it.

I don’t think I knew how taken I am with chestnuts until I found myself sitting there, enthralled.

Roasted chestnuts were part of every Christmas Eve growing up, whether the family gathering was at our house, my grandparents’, or my aunt and uncle’s. The chestnuts, so inevitably and informally placed in the middle of the table on a well-worn cookie sheet, hot and ready to peel, echoed the generations before, pulling roasted chestnuts from ovens, or fireplaces, or outside fires.

Peeling away the shell, where the X had been slit into it with a knife so that they roasted and didn’t burst. The soft, sweet texture inside. All of us around the table. Peeling. Eating.

And they were hot. But best hot, because the outer shell and inner papery layer were easier to pull away. Some came out whole and beautiful. Some in pieces, with the papery part more challenging to peel off. Some were burned. You ate around that.

Until I began to see chestnuts in recent years, already peeled, either jarred, canned, or frozen, I hadn’t really thought about anything other than roasting. I came across a recipe for chestnut soup, and tried that one year. Very good.

I became conscious of chestnut flour at my local natural foods store, but intentionally didn’t buy it, waiting until I had something specific to use it for.

And David Rocco’s chestnut episode brought it to me: castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake.

I was intrigued, printed out the recipe, and downloaded all the others from the show as well, knowing that castagnaccio would be my dessert for book group the following week, and that chestnuts would be my next food trilogy here.

This cake is simple to make, and a cake in the sense of something formed into a shape rather than something that rises. The list of ingredients: chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts, rosemary, orange zest.

Castagnaccio

Adapted from two David Rocco versions (slight variation in proportions), one from the Cooking Channel’s website, one from his cookbook, Made in Italy, in which he refers to it as Tuscan Chestnut Pizza, a possibly more accurate physical description.

  • 14 ounces chestnut flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • Leaves from a sprig or 2 of fresh rosemary
  • Zest of 1 orange

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl combine the flour, sugar, salt, and water. You can add one- to two-thirds of the orange zest to the batter, or save it all to sprinkle on top. Whisk the batter until silky smooth in consistency, pancake-batter-like.

Add the olive oil to a round pizza pan. (I have a paella pan, whose base is 12″, which turned out to be a perfect size.) Heat the oiled pan in the oven for 5 minutes. The oil and pan should be so hot that when you add the batter, it sizzles.

Smooth the batter evenly over the pan. Sprinkle the raisins, pine nuts, rosemary, and orange zest (all or whatever didn’t get stirred into the batter) on top.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. It should be golden on top, and pull away from the pan.

I brought this to my book group, with a container of vanilla gelato.

chestnuts 3 12.7.13This was a first for all of us, so we took that first bite and really considered it.

Dense, nutty. Raisins added a juicy sweetness. Richness from the pine nuts. Brightness from the orange zest. Woodsy rosemary. Not a cake in the traditional sense, but once we got used to that chestnut base, I think we all enjoyed the combination…and the gelato was a nice touch!

My husband and I ate the leftover castagnaccio that week. Sometimes with the gelato, but mostly on its own. I came to like this more and more with each piece.

It is of the season: nuts, dried fruit, citrus, hearty herb.

I want to make it again.

I’m thinking for Christmas Day.

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