The Musette: Castagnaccio, Tuscan chestnut cake

The riders end the first week of the Giro in Florence. It’s therefore only fitting that I give you a recipe for a local delicacy which could easily fit into their musettes. Castagnaccio is a traditional, fast and simple Tuscan cake also known as baldino or pattona. According to legend, the use of rosemary in the Florentine version is intended to act as a sort of love elixir so that whoever eats the cake falls in love with the girl who cooked it!

This is a naturally gluten-free recipe with very few ingredients, so the quality of those ingredients really matters, particularly the flour. The recipe is adapted from Pellegrino Artusi‘s The Art of Eating Well, the first commercially successful Italian cookbook for middle-class households. It’s definitely an acquired taste, not too sweet. Despite being an autumn and winter speciality, it’s eaten all year round, warm or cold, and should be enjoyed not with coffee but with a glass of Aleatico dell’Elba wine.

You don't need much to make a delious treat!

You don’t need much to make a delicious treat!

Ingredients (serves 10)

  • 400g (5 cups) chestnut flour
  • 500 ml (2 cups) water
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 150g (1⅔ cups) raisins
  • 50g (⅓ cup) pine nuts (pinoli)
  • 50g (¼ cup + 1 tbsp) caster sugar (optional)
  • 1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves (optional)
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated orange zest (optional)

Method

1. No need to pre-heat the oven. The cake should be placed in a cold oven at 170ºC /150ºC fan/gas mark 3 (300ºF/325ºF fan).

2. Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with warm water to soften for 20 minutes, drain and then dry.

3. Sift the chestnut flour into a large mixing bowl and, if using, add the sugar, orange zest and the salt. Mix the ingredients together and then slowly start adding the water. You want to be able to pour the batter into the baking tin, but it shouldn’t be too liquid. You may not need all of the water, or you may need more, it all depends on your flour. I find it easiest to mix the batter with a hand whisk to eliminate any lumps. Then add 2 tbsp olive oil, half the raisins and mix again.

4. Lightly oil a 26cm (1o-inch) round pie dish with shallow sides with 1 tbsp olive oil and pour in the batter. Level the surface. It should be no more than 2cm (o.8 inches) thick. Sprinkle the cakes with the rest of the raisins, the pine nuts and, if you’re using them, the rosemary leaves – don’t stir, the rosemary pines should be visible. Drizzle with 1 tbsp olive oil and bake for 30-40 minutes.

6. The cake is ready when little hairline cracks start to appear on the surface and it’s firm to the touch.

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan. It should have a texture not dissimilar to fudge and be easy to slice – I use a pizza wheel to get nice smooth edges. Wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) it will last 4-5 days in the fridge, but it will dry out a bit.

8. Please note my version pictured below excludes the rosemary and orange rind, as neither are to my taste!

Tuscan treat

Tuscan treat

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cake in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than it should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. As there’s no yeast, or eggs, the cake won’t rise at all. You can use different nuts and dried fruits, I have seen recipes which also use walnuts, but I think pine nuts and raisins work well because they don’t overpower the chestnut flour’s sweet aroma.

4. A word of caution before you start. Good chestnut flour has a natural sweetness when you taste it raw which is why you really don’t need to add sugar to the Castagnaccio. Taste your flour before using it. If you find it’s sour, this may be because (a) the flour is of poor quality or (b) the flour is too old and has gone stale. Chestnut flour doesn’t keep well – I keep mine, which is from Corsica, in the freezer. If that is the case, you should add some sugar to the mix to reduce the bitterness of the final product, but the end result may be sub-par. Chestnut flour, although widely available in health food stores and Amazon, is expensive so, to start with, you could make a smaller version of the cake, it is easily scalable.

5. You can eat the cake on its own, warm or cold, and it’s delicious with some fresh ricotta cheese on top. I sometimes serve tiny slices as part of my selection of after dinner home-made petits fours.

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