When autumn comes to Tuscany, you will be able to enjoy Castagnaccio, a torta rustica made with chestnut flour and olive oil that has ancient origins. In the 1500s it was well known in Tuscany as cucina povera, a dish prepared by poor, peasant farmers and shepherds. Chestnuts were plentiful in the hills of the Apennines and easy to harvest, not only for its nutritious flesh but also for chestnut flour. Chestnuts (castagne) are rich in protein, calcium and vitamin A.
This torta can also be called baldino, ghirighio, toppone or pattona, depending on where you are in Italy. Local variations may include other ingredients, such as rosemary, orange peel and fennel seeds. There is even one romantic legend that says when its perfumed with rosemary, Castagnaccio is a powerful love potion--making and serving it the object of your affections will make them fall in love with you, and ask for your hand in marriage. Perhaps this is more than just a dish served during Natale, but also appropriate for Valentine's Day!
In its earliest conception, it was an easy way to make a portable food (like an energy bar) that stored well for long periods, helping sustain poor contadini during long, harsh winters. According to Ortensio Landi (1553) in his “Commentario delle più notabili et mostruose cose d’Italia e di altri luoghi“ ("Commentary on the most notable and monstrous things of Italy and of other places"), he traced its origins to a man called Pilade from Lucca.
By the nineteenth century however, the addition of pignoli and dried fruits morphed this spiced cake into a dessert deserving of the Christmas season and its popularity spread to Liguria, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna and even on the nearby French island of Corsica. Today you will find castagnaccio just about everywhere in Italy during Natale festivities. Keeping with Tuscan tastes, typically, no sugar is added because of the inherent sweetness in the chestnuts themselves and the addition of dried fruit and raisins. Castagnaccio is often served with ricotta, honey or sweet wines such as Vin Santo.
8 ounces chestnut flour
3 tablespoons golden raisins (sultana).
3 tablespoons pine nuts (pignoli)
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts (better: use chopped, roasted chestnuts)
zest of one orange
2 - 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for dough
1/4 teaspoon sea salt.
2 tablespoons sugar (leave this out if you want a more historic recipe)
2 cups cold water (less or more, depending on humidity)
1 - 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary (or use the leaves of 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for oiling the pan and drizzling on top of the finished torta.
Optional: You can soak the raisins in rum, Amaretto or orange liquor instead of water for a more adult version.
Pre-heat oven to 350F.
Soak the raisins for 15 minutes, then squeeze out the excess water. Set aside.
Sift the chestnut flour into the bowl of a stand mixer, add the salt (and sugar, if you are using any), then mixing on low speed, gradually add water until you have a smooth textured batter. The batter should form ribbons when it falls from a spoon.
As it continues mixing at low speed, add the olive oil, the raisins, pignoli, orange zest and chopped walnuts/chestnuts to the batter.
You may use either a 9" round pan or a small flat, rimmed baking sheet (as you would brownies) to bake your castagnaccio. In either case, the pans should be well oiled with EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil).
Pour and flatten the dough mixture into you pan and flatten with a spatula. (This is a rich torta, so you don't want it too thick.)
Sprinkle with rosemary leaves, then drizzle with EVO.
Bake in the oven on the center rack for 30 minutes or until a nice, medium-dark brown color. You'll know it's getting done when the top starts to show overall cracks.
Set aside on a cooling rack before serving.
Serve with a glass of Vin Santo, and a dollop of fresh ricotta on the side, and drizzle both with a Tuscan honey of your choice.
When you bite into a Tuscan cookie like Cavallucci Sienese, you'll be tasting traces of a medieval or Renaissance past... layered spices, honey, nuts, figs and canditi (mixed dried fruits), but not the typical dried fruit used in modern Italian holiday breads, but luscious candied fruit. Keep in mind, these are not pretty biscotti, they are both rustic and a bit boring looking on the outside, but soft, sweet, fragrant and flavorful inside, where it counts.
A Bite of History You can find these historic cookies in shops all over Tuscany, but especially in it's hometown of Siena. When you bite into one you will be transported back to fifteenth century Siena...
The name can be attributed to the fact that they used be embossed with either an image of a horse (cavallo means horse) or a horse's hoof--in fact, many today are shaped like a horses hoof. Some claim the cookies can be traced back to the reign of Jonah the Magnificent (1449–1492), when they were called biriquocoli. Others say that cavallucci were served to travelers and couriers on horseback (think "Renaissance Pony Express") as a source of nourishment for long trips (something like a Medieval power bar). Some Sienese claim that these dolci were the snacks for servants who worked in horse stables of rich Italian aristocrats in the various contradi (neighborhood districts), of obvious fame for the annual Palio horse race each year.
During the Christmas holiday season, they are served with wines such as Vin Santo, Marsala, Passito di Pantelleria, Asti Spumante or Moscato--dunking is perfectly acceptable and some would say, required.
1 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Italian style, spreadable Millefiore honey
1/2 cup chopped, dried figs
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
2 - 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon crushed anise seeds
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 - 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (for softer cookies, mix 1-1/2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup Italian 00 flour)
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat the your oven to 350 F.
Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper.
To make a simple syrup, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan and add the brown and granulated sugar, stirring until dissolved. Keep stirring for another two minutes.
Remove the syrup from the heat and quickly stir in all the remaining ingredients except the flour.
Mix the baking soda into the flour.
Next, slowly add the flour into the other ingredients and mix in the flour to avoid clumping, then let the dough cool, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes. After cooling, place the dough into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place into your refrigerator for a minimum of two hours to chill.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and cut four equal pieces.
In turn, roll each piece into an 15-18" rope, cutting 2-3" pieces with a knife. Shape each into hoof shapes, then make a thumb print in each piece. Alternately, you can press the tip of an angled teaspoon into each cookie to make an impression looking like a horse's hoof print.
Place the cookies 3/4" inch apart on the sheet pans and bake for 20 minutes or until their bottoms are lightly browned.
Set the pan aside to cool, then after they are cool enough to handle, place them on a cooling rack for further cooling (they will soften as they cool).
Dust with powdered sugar.
Serve with a sweet Italian wine, Amaretto or Sambuca.
Ancient Sardinians had a saying: Chie hat pane, mai no morit (who has bread, will never die). This is true for most of the world. Pane Carasau is one of the ancient breads they were talking about. You can imagine the ancients making this bread because of its long storage capabilities and portability.
It is a a very thin flat bread--some might call a cracker--that was traditionally made for shepherds by the housewives to carry with them for long months on high pastures with their flocks. They can be eaten with sausage and cheese, or dipped in milk to re-hydrate for colazione and drizzled with honey or jam. Pane Frattau is a soup made with shards of Pane Carasau, meat, eggs, cheese and tomato. Modern Sardinian chefs are also using pane carasau in their recipes, for instance, carasau lasagna.
The tedious method by which is is made creates a thin, crispy bread that will last literally for months, even if it happens to crack into shards along their travels. There are some who refer to this flatbread as carte della musica (music sheets) because of its thinness.
The dough itself is fairly simple: durum wheat, yeast, water and salt. It's rolled into extremely thin rounds and baked in a wood oven until the bread puffs up like a balloon, then quickly (with dexterity, not to get steam-burned) cut into two halves, making it even thinner. They are then toasted again in the oven and dried completely. Nowadays, in Italy you might even come across packaged Pane Carasau in supermarkets.
1 1/2 Cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Cups Semolina Flour (Durham)
1 teaspoon, Active Dry Yeast
1 1/2 Cups Warm Water (Approximate, depending on humidity)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
The best results are achieved in a wood pizza oven, but you can use a baking steel (this holds heat better than a baking stone). Place the steel on the bottom rack (with all others removed) in an oven, the preheat to its maximum temperature (typically 550 F). If you want to use a baking stone, the cook time will be slightly shorter. You might also benefit by having a thin, metal pizza peel to remove your pane carasau from the oven. Directions
Place the baking steel into your oven and preheat to maximum temperature.
In a 2 cup measuring cup or small bowl, dissolve the yeast, sugar and all the water, then proof for about 15 minutes.
In a stand mixer, at first combine the all-purpose flour with salt.
Mixing on low speed, add the yeast mixture to the flour.
Mixing at a low speed, add 1/4 cup at a time of the bread flour until the dough climbs the dough hook, then knead briefly into a smooth ball on a lightly floured surface.
Place into an oiled bowl and cover with a damp, cotton kitchen towel until doubled.
Knead the dough for a second time on a lightly flowered surface for 2-3 minutes, them place back into the bowl for one more hour.
Place the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface and cut into four equal pieces.
Roll each into a long cylinder about 2'3" thick, then cutting each into small segments, each one about the side of a small dinner roll.
With cupped hands, roll each segment into a ball shape.
Using a straight rolling pin, roll out each round as thin as possible, about the size of a dinner plate.
Since each one is baked separately, it's best to get help from other members of your family: One person is responsible for rolling out the flat rounds; The baker will be responsible for placing them into the oven onto the steel (or stone), keeping a watch on them as they bake, turning them over when puffed up, and removing them; A third person is needed to cut them in half with a very sharp paring knife and stack them before toasting in the oven a second time (which can be done after all have been cut and stacked.)
The time it takes to bake your pane carasau depends on your oven. Obviously, in a 900 degree+ wood pizza oven, they will cook in less than a minute. In a 550 F oven with a baking steel, this might take 2-3 minutes. Using a baking stone, it might take a bit longer. This is the type of baking you need to keep a constant eye on, flipping over the ballooning breads briefly before removing them for cutting. I recommend studying how this is done in the video below.
Remove, brush lightly with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh chopped rosemary and salt and return to the oven for a few minutes.
Let sit until cool enough to handle, then break into large pieces.
Calling all Milanese! Attenzione a tutti i Milanesi!
The new Starbucks is opening today on Piazza Curdusio in Milano! The location is in the old post office...
Please... visit the store, order one of their "coffees" and perhaps shoot a video of your visit and post it here on GVI...
Tell us what you think about the "Starbucks Experience". Take photos of their menu and prices--and their giant sized offerings. Are the high prices (and high sugar & fat content) really worth a few couches and free WiFi?
GVI wants to know, and will include your impressions in an upcoming article.
Let's really take a look to see if Italians really want Starbucks in the land of Moka pots and espresso.
My all-time favorite tomato is Eva Purple Ball--a pink-purplish, 2-3" round globe heirloom tomato that I've been growing for almost 20 years. ("Sweet like sugar", as my Dad always said about his home grown tomatoes). Eva is impeccably disease resistant, with a smooth, flawless skin and produces well. Next in line is Giant Belgium--a large, pink beefsteak tomato. Like Eva, it has a rich, sweet flavor, but large enough for one slice to cover a small dessert plate (great for caprese).
But last year I found a fat, orange striped tomato in a local farmers' market that I fell in love with. I saved seeds from one of the biggest ones and planted two plants this season. Well, I'm in love again!
This tomato is a large, plum style that grows about 3-5-1/5" long, with a pointy end (often with a very pointy nipple). Some grew so fat that I could not wrap my hand around them. It's very fleshy with low acidity--perfect for making sauce. But it's very sweet! I've gotten into slicing ovals on the bias for my panini and American style hoagie sandwiches. I've made sauces twice for pasta, and even used them sliced as a pizza topping (like I'm doing again tonight).
The only problem is, the chipmunks in my garden love them almost as much as I do.But even with those few losses, I'd estimate that the two plants produced about 20 pounds of these so far, and there's still a few on the plants coming ripe.
I did several Google image searches until I verified the type--Striped Roma. I've already saved seeds for next season... You can find some seeds HERE.
We've all grown up with it... That red white and green, Italian flag colored delight sold as little cookie squares in just about every Italian (and non-Italian) across the United States and Canada. Called a Rainbow Cookie, often called Tricolore because of its resemblance to the Italian flag, and sometimes called Seven Layer Cookies (3 cake, 2 chocolate and 2 jam). Although some say they don't exist in Italy, they do appear in Italian pasticcerie, usually around Christmastime--their red and green colors accenting the holiday cheer. They are also referred to as Venetians, a nod toward the fact they are more pastry than cookie.
They look like a throwback to the psychedelic, tie-dyed days of the 1960s. Topped (and bottomed) with a layer of chocolate, each colored layer flavored with almond paste, with thin coats of apricot or raspberry jam in between, who can resist buying a string-tied, neat little white box of these little dolci? For a couple of decades now, even supermarkets, delis and big box stores like BJs and Costco are offering factory-baked versions of them... it's become one of the more popular, year-round cookies in America, but it's especially popular at Christmas because of the holiday colors.
I recently spoke to Robert Zerilli of Veniero's Pastry shop on the lower east side of Manhattan, an historic Italian bakery famous for many types of pastries. Robert is the great, great nephew of their founder, Antonio Veniero who started the bakery by making biscotti in a former pool hall in 1894.
Commenting on the history of the rainbow cookie, "As for the history of the rainbow cookie I believe it’s representative of the Italian Flag and the United Kingdom of Italy as a country instead of independent Provinces. My father would give me a rainbow cookie when I visited as a child in the mid 60’s and all of our family enjoyed eating them as well."
Veniero's makesabout 300lbs of these colored morsels each month, with about 15 cookies in each pound.That number increases around the holidays, Zerilli claims proudly, "So each year, we produce about 3000-3500 lbs!". Veniero’s "Authentic Rainbow Cookie" definitely stands out as one of the best that's enjoyed by folks all over the world.
Italian? Rainbow? Cookie?
First of all, it's not really a cookie. It's more of a triple-layer sponge cake, although some bakeries put so much almond paste into their sponge that they really aren't "cake" any more! They are baked in large sheet pans and meticulously cut into those little squares that we all love. I shouldn't say "all" love them, because I have met people who just don't go for almond/marzipan flavors, even if they are presented with a neon, edible rainbow.
That's another thing... it's not really a rainbow, which have seven colors. This delightful pastry creation has only three. And while a rainbow comes from white light being broken up by a prism into colors, this cookie has one white layer to start with.
Finally, most claim this recipe is not Italian. They say that it is an Italian-American creation, created to honor the Italian flag by Italian-American bakers. I doubted this, so I did some research... In fact, you can find version called Pasticcini arcobaleno (little rainbow pastries) in Italy during the Christmas season. Besides, nearly every "Italian-American" recipe owes its existence to a recipe from mainland Italy. Perhaps the recipe has changed a bit, its core is Italian. I really can't imagine such a complex pastry preparation coming out of American bakeries alone without any historic link to the traditional recipes of the past.
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.