Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Castagnaccio

To end my very short series of "the Italian recipes that I really had to write down sooner or later" I'm offering something to finish the meal. This chestnut cake is based on a truly venerable recipe dating back as far as the 16th century but many variations have been turning up recently in glossy cookbooks. Unfortunately, the authors frequently disagree on just how the castagnaccio should look and taste. So when I got hold of some chestnut flour (it was French not Italian, but that's life) I just had to try playing around with it for myself and I've decided that this relatively dense version works best for me.

This is a remarkably easy dish to put together. In fact, the most difficult thing seems to be choosing which flavourings and additions you might fancy. I'd suggest that raisins are essential. I soaked mine in sloe gin, which isn't remotely Italian but works really well. Another alcohol, Earl Grey tea or even water will do the job if you prefer. Pine nuts are important too, but you could add other chopped nuts such as walnuts or hazelnuts as well. Orange zest is good but in this case I used an olive oil flavoured with orange instead. A little rosemary is often sprinkled over the top of the cake, but I know that Gennaro Contaldo adds some dark chocolate to his castagnaccio and a little of that grated on top is an interesting alternative. (Actually, I used chocolate on some parts of the cake in the picture and rosemary on others). Finally, you may want to vary the amount of sugar given here, partly because you may prefer a sweeter cake (or even a less sweet, earthier taste) but also because chestnut flours seem to vary quite a lot in sweetness.

Before I get on to the recipe, though, I must in all honesty admit that in my opinion you really have to be a fan of chestnuts to eat a lot of it. It has a very distinctive flavour. After eating a number of castagnaccio variations in a short period, I don't think I could look at another chestnut for some time. But if you are a chestnut fan, this will definitely satisfy all your chestnut cravings.
Castagnaccio
Most people make this in a round cake tin (or a pizza pan) but I used a 32 x 18 cm brownie tray, which makes it easy to divide up into small dessert portions. I find this is quite filling and so it should serve 12 or 14 people.

45 g raisins
Sloe gin (or whatever takes your fancy) for soaking the raisins
340 g chestnut flour (as fresh as possible – chestnut flours don't keep very well)
60 g golden caster sugar (or more if you prefer a sweeter cake; see the text above)
750 ml water at room temperature
50 ml extra-virgin olive oil (or a mixture of orange and plain olive oil)
40 g pine nuts
A few fresh rosemary leaves and/or a little coarsely grated dark chocolate
Zest of ½ orange (optional if you use orange olive oil)

Soak the raisins in sloe gin or your chosen liquid for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Prepare the baking tray by greasing it thoroughly with butter or olive oil.

Mix together the chestnut flour and sugar in a large bowl.  Combine the water and olive oil in a jug. Gradually pour the water and oil onto the flour and sugar mixture while stirring. As the mixture begins to thin, switch to a whisk and whisk enthusiastically while continuing to add the liquid. You need to make sure there are no lumps. The mixture might seem to be too liquid for sensible cake making, but think of it as a batter rather than a standard cake mix. Stir in the orange zest, if you're using it. Pour into the baking tray. Don't worry if the tray seems a little shallow since this won't rise like a more conventional cake.

Drain the raisins. Scatter the pine nuts and raisins over the mixture in a reasonably even but random way. Finally, sprinkle the rosemary or chocolate over the top. Bake the castagnaccio for 45 minutes but cover it with foil after 15 or 20 minutes if it's browning quickly. It's difficult to know when the castagnaccio is cooked to perfection – the conventional cake test with a knife point or tester can be misleading. It needs to feel springy rather than sloppy to the touch and should look cracked on the top.

The finished cake can be served slightly warm or at room temperature with a little ricotta or fromage frais but it also works well with a harder cheese – ideally one with a sharp rather than an earthy flavour. It may not be traditional but I think it's also very good alongside a little ice cream. A small glass of dessert wine wouldn't be out of place either. Castagnaccio will keep well for a few days in an airtight container.
Castagnaccio

7 comments:

  1. Phil, I don't know if I like the flavor of chestnuts or not, as I've never had chestnuts or anything with chestnut flour. Now I'm hoping I can get my hands on some chestnut flour soon and try this recipe. I'd probably soak the raisins in brandy or sherry. Or tea. I always have those things on hand.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do like chestnuts but I mostly use the purée in cakes and desserts (and it's almost always delicious) although chestnut flour is well worth trying as well. Historically it's often referred to as flour for the poor but it's usually expensive and relatively rare in this country. It's often mixed with other flours in recipes which makes the flavour less intense. I'd normally add it to bread or pasta but this cake is uncompromising chestnut if that's what you'd like to try.

      Delete
  2. Like Jean, I'm not sure about whether I like chestnut flavour or not! Like roast chestnuts. Have a tin of chestnut purée in the cupboard. What do you suggest I do with it please?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In my carefree, indulgent youth I'd use chestnut purée to make variations on the carefree, indulgent Mont Blanc dessert. Nowadays I'm a little more concerned about all that cream and richness and I'd use the purée with fromage frais or yoghurt in desserts (nice with meringue) or I'd bake quite simple cakes with it. I've got a couple of recipes on this blog or there are cake recipes with chocolate and chestnut purée elsewhere on the web that work well. Just a quick word of warning: chestnut purée can be sweetened or unsweetened, flavoured or unflavoured and thick or thin and it can make a big difference to how well a recipe works. In Britain it tends to be unsweetened and quite thick and that's the way I personally prefer to use it.

      Delete
  3. Thanks Phil. Love Mont Blanc dessert! Like the idea of meringue or with yoghurt. It is unsweetened.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm not too sure about chestnusts and find they leave me with a strange, cloying almost furry mouth feeling after eating them. I have used chestnut purée in a cake with success but never chestnut flour. I might however be brave and try this recipe, it sounds intriguing.
    (I wonder if half chestnut flour and half ground almonds would work.)
    (Or even the French fecule (potato flour).)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have come across recipes for castagnaccio that mix other flours in with the chestnut flour, although I don't think any of them claim to be truly authentic Italian recipes. The main aim seems to be to produce a lighter and less strongly flavoured cake, although it does mean that the cake is no longer gluten free. I use a fair bit of potato flour in baking but I've not tried it in this recipe. You could be on to something there.

      Delete

Sorry but I've had to switch word verification on due to a vast amount of very depressing spam.