Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners.
There are so many ways to enjoy chestnuts. A wonderful winter treat, chestnuts are delicious fresh, served either pan- or oven-roasted, or as an out-of-hand snack. They can also be dried, and when reconstituted, have a wonderful toothsome quality. The Italians in the northern region of Piedmont slow cook dried chestnuts in the oven in a mix of honey and wine. They then serve these smoky sweet delights with slices of lardo or salami.
Popular in northern Italy's Piedmont region is a mound of chocolate-chestnut puree topped with spiked whipped cream -- a melt-in-your-mouth delight. It's called Monte Bianco, White Mountain, because the dessert looks like the snow-capped Alps. Many Italians elaborate on the theme and scatter candied violets and crushed candied chestnuts on the "mountain"to look like flowers and rocks.
Chestnut flour, made of ground dried chestnuts, makes wonderfully flavorful breads and desserts.
Leave it to the Italians to create a dessert that is not only gluten-free, but also sugar-free. Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Like so many traditional Italian recipes, it makes use of locally grown ingredients -- chestnuts, olive oil, rosemary and nuts. Savory-sweet, with aromatic hints of rosemary, this cake is made with olive oil, not butter, so it's ideal for vegans.
This cake is mentioned in a 1553 book by Ortensio Landi that notes it was created in Lucca, a province of Tuscany, so I asked my favorite chef from Lucca, Aurelio Barattini, for his recipe.
Tuscany's Chestnut Cake (Castagnaccio)
Courtesy: Chef Aurelio Barattini of Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, Italy
Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Note: The cake stays moist for several days, and is terrific served with a glass of Vin Santo or muscato dessert wine.
1/3 cup raisins
5 1/2 ounces chestnut flour, about 2/3 cup
Pinch of salt
1 cup cold water
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
1/3 cup walnuts and/or pine nuts
1. Preheat the oven to 390 F.
2. Put the raisins into a small bowl and moisten them with a few tablespoons of boiling water to plump them. Drain and reserve.
3. Sift the chestnut flour and salt into a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of cold water and beat until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of rosemary leaves.
4. Grease a baking pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour the batter onto the pan. The batter should be less than a 1/2-inch high. Scatter the top with the walnuts and/or pine nuts, if using, remaining rosemary, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.
Courtesy: "Dolci: Italy's Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound fresh chestnuts*
2 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon brandy or rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
3 to 4 vanilla meringue cookies, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 candied chestnuts, marron glace, chopped, optional
Candied violets, optional
1. Pierce the skin of each chestnut with a knife. Boil them in a large pot with lots of water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool only slightly. It's much easier to peel them while they're warm.
2. Combine the milk, 1/2 cup of sugar and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan and heat over a low flame to release the fennel's flavor, about 5 minutes. Strain and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the chestnuts and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Put the warm chestnut mixture into a food processor along with the chocolate, 1/4 cup of the brandy and vanilla extract. Pulse to blend and then process until very smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 2 days.
4. To assemble: Put a tall glass upside down into the center of a serving plate. Press the chestnut mixture through a potato ricer into a mountain-shaped cone around the glass. Remove the glass.
5. In a large bowl using an electric mixer whip the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until peaks form. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of brandy.
6. Fill the hollow left by the glass with whipped cream and top the chestnut "mountain" with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with the meringues and candied chestnuts, if using. If you like, arrange a few candied violets around the base. Serve immediately.
* Note: You can also make this dessert with ready-roasted chestnuts, available in glass jars in most supermarkets.
© Thomson Reuters 2015