Monday, July 16, 2007

Castagnaccio - The original energy bar

A few weeks ago I made Castagnaccio, a classic "cake" from the Tuscany hill/mountain regions. I love the "recipe" for this - it's basically chestnut flour, water, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Castagne are chestnuts in Italian.

Chestnut flour was a real staple in the mountain areas north of Lucca, Garfagnana, and in the hill and mountain regions south of Siena. Boriana, the store in the Ferry building which imports goods from the Montalcino areas in Tuscany, carries both Chestnut flours, Farina di Castagne and Farina di Marroni. They aren't substantially different. I also used to buy it from a deli in San Mateo, Stangelini, which only had it seasonally ... I assumed it was local stuff.

For me castagnaccio was Sunday night dinner in winter. My father would go hunting, south of Siena, and come back every Sunday night with chestnut flour, usually sold in bar/deli places in small towns in the countriside, called "spacci" or "appalti", which would carry some local product along the usual fare one found in these places. He'd come home, throw the flour in a bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and start to pour water in and stir. There is no fixed amount ... you just pour until the consistency of the mix starts to get liquid, but still coats the spoon.

You then pour it out into a dish that you have greased and floured, drizzle with olive oil and add a handful of your favourite nuts. You then bake this until it dries out. This preparation is most likely thousands of years old - it makes an excellent snack, and needs no special procedure to conserve it other than observing basic hygiene rules. There's no eggs, dairy or perishable product in this recipe - so I bake it and keep it in the oven for a few days, until we finish it. It really is the original energy bar - allegedly the romans used it as such. Chestnut flour's pretty rich and heavy, too, so this really does fill you up.

In baking, the choice of dish will affect the texture of the result considerably. The outside, if you cook this for a good while, will form a crust and crinkle up. If like me you consider this the best part of the whole thing, you will want a big dish, so you can spread the mix out thinly. If you pour it out thicker, the inside of the castagnaccio will resemble a polenta like consistency - there is no baking going on here. It's basically just a different dish. There is indeed a tradition of making polenta with chestnut flour (known in some places as "pattona").

I got thinking about this dish again last Saturday because at this time of the year we have sheep's milk ricotta at Cowgirl Creamery - and that is the perfect complement to serve with castagnaccio. It's the other staple of mountain life in Garfagnana. My other experience with chestnut flour was of "necci", which are basically the same mix as castagnaccio, but a little denser, prepared as a crepe, and rolled with a sheep's milk ricotta filling. It's the best dessert without sugar I have ever had ....

Making necci is a pain, since the paste is thicker, and gets basically squeezed and cooked/dried out between two cast iron plates (known as "testi") in a process that is a little too complicated for your average Saturday night dessert. So I stick with castagnaccio for now, and top it with ricotta whipped up with a bit of cream and some confectioner's sugar. Approximate proportions might be half a pound of flour to two cups of water to start with, or 250gms flour to half a liter of water. But keep an eye on the water as you pour.

If you like chestnuts this is a wonderful dessert. You can certainly substitute any ricotta for Bellwether's sheep's milk stuff, or indeed top this with anything you like, but ricotta really is the real deal here. enjoy ....


Anonymous said...

Grazie, buon lavoro! Questa era la roba che dovevo avere..

Vinisha said...

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

Deli Bar