Castagnaccio – A Magical Chestnut Flour Pudding

A slice of a brown pancake topped with nuts and herbs next to some ricotta cheese and honey on a white plate with a glass of wine behind it
A slice of the castagnaccio I made with (not vegan) ricotta and honey, and white wine. (Photo David Ouziel, January 2022)

Though I myself still partake in many animal products and a rather abundant amount of gluten, I am trying to learn some more gluten-free, vegan dessert and snack recipes. Some of this has to do with the fact that I now interact in spaces with people with each or both of these dietary needs, and I’m too lazy to make two things. Also, some of this is that this skill is probably useful to develop for potlucks. In my research, I was reminded of a delicious dessert or snack from Italy – castagnaccio, a nut- and herb-studded chestnut flour pudding. This traditional snack has not only a wonderful, chewy but dense texture and earthy, nutty taste – but is also vegan and gluten-free.

Chestnuts have a fairly interesting Jewish history which I have touched on in prior posts, particularly in my recipe for kestaneli kuzu – lamb stewed with chestnuts. In additional research, I came to learn that the Jews of Northern Italy put chestnuts into many delicious things – including a traditional charoset recipe, polentas, and stuffed pastries. Some of the use of chestnuts had to do with poverty – before potatoes and corn arrived in the New World, chestnuts were a key source of starch for many European peasants. Wealthy people ate chestnuts too, often cooked with more expensive things like meat or sugar. I have a suspicion that dishes like castagnaccio crossed some boundaries – because while the chestnuts themselves were accessible, grinding chestnuts into flour required significant labor. It is a modern miracle that I can simply order chestnut flour online that has already been ground for me. I imagine castagnaccio graced more well-off tables more frequently – especially if there was someone else doing the grinding or cooking.

Back to today – most of the recipes called for raisins. My partner despises raisins, which is one of the traditional cornerstone ingredients in castagnaccio. I solicited advice from my Facebook friends on how to substitute the raisins – a key source of sweetness – without losing too much in taste. (Thank you!) I landed on a substitute with a splash of wine and some added sugar – which many castagnaccio recipes traditionally omit.I served the castagnaccio along with some ricotta and honey for added moisture – though you can obviously substitute similar vegan things or omit these. The texture is very difficult to describe but quite lovely – with a certain firm chewiness, and the nuts add a wonderful taste and aroma. I will definitely make this again.

Castagnaccio with Nuts and Rosemary

Based on recipes by Anissa Helou and Emiko Davies

Makes a castagnaccio with 6-8 servings

1 cup chestnut flour

2/3 cup lukewarm water

2 tablespoons white wine or white grape juice

2 tablespoons cane sugar

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Olive oil, for greasing the pan

Ricotta and honey for serving (optional, and you can use vegan equivalents)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a 9-inch/23cm cake pan with olive oil.
  2. Sift the chestnut flour into a mixing bowl, then whisk in the water, wine, and cane sugar. This mixing should create a batter.
  3. Pour the batter into the greased pan.
  4. Sprinkle the pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary evenly over the surface of the batter.
  5. Put the pan in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the batter has firmed up and the cake begins to pull away from the edges of the pan.
  6. Remove from the oven and let cool. The castagnaccio will shrink slightly – that is okay!
  7. Transfer to a plate and cut into slices. Serve with ricotta and honey on the side. Keep any leftover castagnaccio covered at room temperature for up to three days.

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