Castagnaccio is one of the oldest sweet dishes in the Italian repertoire: chestnut flour whisked with water and a little olive oil, a few needles of rosemary for perfume, then baked until it turns into a sort of cake, a true poor people’s dessert in this most basic version. Chestnut flour is sweet and this makes adding sugar to the batter unnecessary. For greater extravagance, you could add pinenuts, walnuts and sultanas.
In Italy, well until the second world war, chestnuts were regarded as an important, cheap but nutritious food for a large section of the population – if you were poor, meat was an occasional luxury and beans and chestnuts were more likely to be part of your diet.
Truth be told, the castagnaccio you see in most bakeries now can be the stuff of nightmares: stodgy, to say the least,especially those made by the parsimonious – not much oil, just a few sultanas and pinenuts. It’s almost inedible. This mean approach is justified in the name of “tradition”, that much abused concept. However, if made with generosity of spirit, castagnaccio can be delicious. The way to go is to make a castagnaccio ricco, a rich castagnaccio and one not too thick. In my version the batter is made with milk, not just water; then I add walnuts, sultanas, cooked chopped apples or quinces, orange zest, a little cinnamon and vanilla; the top is covered with apple slices and showered with pine nuts. It is a thin castagnaccio, with a crisp edge, oily and caramelised.
Is this betraying the spirit of such a “poor” dish? Food, to survive, has to stay relevant: we cannot pretend we eat in the way our great-great grandparents used to do. I don’t think I’m disrespecting the original framework by introducing ingredients that are foreign to the culture this dish came from: I am just being generous and treat castagnaccio as the wonderful pudding it can be.
a 28 cm non stick frying pan that can go in the oven
For the batter
100 g new season chestnut flour, sifted (check the dates and buy chestnut flour from this year; once opened keep it, sealed, in the freezer and use within one year)
150 ml milk (it is also equally good made with water only – for a more direct chestnut flavour).
150 ml water
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pinch cinnamon
1 TBSP sugar
1 apple, cooked and mashed up (optional)
30 g sultanas, chopped
30 g toasted walnuts, chopped
the grated zest of half an orange
5 TBSP extra virgin olive oil + extra for drizzling
¼ tsp chopped rosemary
for the topping:
1 apple, sliced (peeled or not)
25 g pine nuts
1 tbsp sugar
Whisk the milk and liquid into the chestnut flour, slowly and avoiding lumps. Let it rest for 30 minutes. Add the rest of the batter ingredients.
Pre heat the oven to 180 C.
Pour the batter into the pan.
Top with the sliced apples and the pinenuts. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Drizzle a little oil all over.
Bake for about 45 minutes. Flash under the grill for the last few minutes. Serve warm, with ice cream, ricotta or creme fraiche