Today is the last day of 2010. In Rome, it's a gray day, and leaving the house is not the least bit tempting, so I'm glad to be staying home, baking and getting ready for a feast for two tonight. For our last meal of the year, we will eat lentils (because it's tradition in Italy), slow cooked with herbs and wild mushrooms, and lamb chops, prepared simply with garlic, olive oil and rosemary, and we'll make a toast to making it another time around the sun.
Naturally on New Year's Eve there's some form of quiet reflection on experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, of the last 365 days, as well as a bit of excitement, sometimes fear or anticipation of what's to come in 2011. While we are far away from friends and family, I like to think that these treats that I cook are being shared somehow, wishing I was close enough to pop over and share one over a cup of tea and a chat, to watch ballet performances, see new pairs of glasses, and hold the hand of my dearest friend who is having a rough time. For consolation, in the absence of these things, I bake.
Castagnaccio, as it's known in Tuscany, is a cake made of chestnut flour, and was once known as poor man's food. This winter, I became interested in chestnuts, I roasted some and made a soup and delighted with the result, started paying attention to other things made with chestnuts. I drizzled chestnut honey over a salad, and used crema di marroni, (a type of chestnut cream) and marrons glacés to make a Mont Blanc dessert for Christmas dinner. When the chestnut flour caught my eye at my organic store, I was curious to taste it. I did some research and found this interesting cake. It's vegan, with no eggs or milk, naturally sweet from the chestnuts, fragrant with notes of rosemary, orange zest, and hearty; the type of snack you would want after a hike, cozying up by the fire with a glass of vin santo, or simply refueling after a morning chasing someone like this around.
Makes 1 large or 12 small cakes
Although this is usually baked in a large, round pan, I decided to make 12 individual cakes, baby cake-style so I could début a birthday gift from P. last week- silicone baking molds (3 different shapes!) This dense cake has the consistency of a thick pudding. To make it gluten free, you could easily omit the small amount of flour I added without a problem. It's a guilt free dessert, more of a snack, really. You can read about how healthy chestnuts are here, and then enjoy these treats.
14 ounces chestnut flour (this is about 3 1/2 cups)
2 ounces all purpose flour (optional)
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons sugar
grated zest of one orange
2 cups of water
5 tablespoons raisins (soaked and squeezed)
3 tablespoons pine nuts
10 walnuts, chopped
one sprig of fresh rosemary
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl (it's quite a moist flour) and add if using, the all purpose flour, a pinch of salt and sugar. Add the orange zest. Using a wooden spoon to stir, pour the water in a thin stream while mixing and trying to avoid big lumps from forming. Stir in the raisins (squeeze out the moisture first from the soaking liquid, and reserve about 2 tablespoons for the top of the cake), half the pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary leaves, again reserving some leaves for the top of the cake. You will want to grease a pan, unless you have silicone molds and pour the cake batter in. Decorate the top with the reserved raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Drizzle the top with olive oil. Bake 1 hour for a large cake or about 25 minutes for small cakes, until the top is cracked. Cool slightly in the pan before un-molding.
Buon Anno a tutti. Happy New Year, everyone.