In a recent Italian language conversation meeting, talk turned to castagnaccio. Daniele, our born-and-bred Tuscan from Siena, recalled snacking on this cake. He remembered it in detail. It was made from ground chestnuts and olive oil embellished with raisins, rosemary, and pine nuts.
To my American ears, such an austere combination of ingredients didn’t sound much like any cake I knew. But since I had never sampled a castagnaccio, I decided to bake one.
I ordered chestnut flour on nuts.com and while waiting for it to arrive, I started researching recipes.
Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Cucina Povera seemed like a good starting point since this “cake” was clearly food of the poor. She shared a recipe but the head note gave me pause. “This dense cake is an acquired taste, and it has taken me almost twenty years to acquire it. But its musky chewiness is much loved by Tuscans.”
Patrizia Chen in Rosemary and Bitter Oranges was more encouraging. “Semisweet, tender, and distinctively nutty, castagnaccio is in itself worth a trip to Tuscany in fall or winter.” She also refers to the preparation as a pancake which seems a more accurate descriptor than cake.
The great Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di mangier Bene (The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well), writes about a chestnut-flour migliaccio commonly known as castagnaccio cautioning readers that chestnuts provoke flatulence.
I pored through ten books looking for a likely recipe. Most of the formulas called for water but Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who’s a stickler for authenticity, called for milk in her recipe in Flavors of Tuscany which she credited as a “compilation of ideas” of the ladies in her village in Tuscany. I knew milk would add more flavor and richness than water.
She also placed the castagnaccio in context. “Tuscans call the chestnut tree l’albero del pane, the bread tree, because chestnuts, more reliable than wheat, will produce flour even in years of dearth when the wheat crop fails.”
I baked the castagnaccio for Daniele to sample. He prounced it buono. Much to my surprise, I liked it, too. Tastiest eaten warm, it was chewy and moist with almost a meaty quality and a hint of smoke from the pine nuts. Topping it with ricotta, as Jenkins suggested, was delightful. I enjoyed that combination for breakfast.
- 2½ cups chestnut flour
- 2 or 3 tablespoons sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ⅓ cup golden raisins, plumped in ¼ cup warm vin santo, white wine, or water
- 1 cup milk
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing pan and drizzling the cakes
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- 1½ tablespoons fresh rosemary
- ⅓ cup pine nuts (pignoli) or ½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
- Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl and stir in the sugar and salt. Drain the raisins, reserving the vin santo or wine if used. Set aside about 1 tablespoon of raisins to go on top and stir the remainder into the flour.
- Mix the vin santo or wine, if used, with enough water to make 1 cup, and combine with the milk and oil. Using a wire whisk, stir the liquid into the flour mixture to make a batter with the density of heavy cream. Add the orange zest. Set the batter aside to rest for 30 minutes, during which time it will thicken somewhat.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Grease the bottoms and sides of 2 round or square pans (8-inch diameter) with oil and divide the batter between the pans, pouring it in a very thin layer—about ¾ inch deep. Sprinkle the tops liberally with rosemary leaves, the reserved raisins, and either the pignoli or the walnuts. Drizzle about 1 tablespoon of oil over the top of each castagnaccio and bake in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the tops are crisp and lightly crackled. (The inside will still be moist.) Serve hot or at room temperature, in the pan in which it baked, with a little dollop of very fresh ricotta cheese over each slice if you wish.
- If there are leftovers, they can be reheated by adding a little dry white wine to the spaces in the pan, covering the pan lightly with a piece of foil, and setting in a 300°F oven until the wine has been absorbed and the castagnaccio is hot.