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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

French Travel Adventures: Chestnut Recipes and the Keystone

Do you love trees? Is there one you go to, speak to? Walk around for good luck?

It's okay, you can tell me!

Trees are fascinating creatures, yes, creatures, with lore and legends surrounding them. And this one - the oldest and largest known chestnut tree in the world, by thousands of years, somehow became the inspiration for the ending of my novel, City of Ladies.

It is also known as the Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree, being named for protecting a hundred horses during a storm and lives in Sicily near Mount Etna. I didn't know about it when I visited, so long ago now, in 1998.

Sicily itself is one of those places in the world that has felt the trampling of many forks and its most marvelous cuisine that has been blessed by the impact of all its invaders. Roman, Turkish, Arab, and Greek.

I say the tree somehow became the inspiration for the ending of the novel, but upon reflection it was like a keystone that fit all the pieces together. Chestnuts can, and often did, make bread, hundreds of years ago!

The chestnut flour that I have on hand makes a great chewy bread and comes from Italy (actually got it in Philadelphia at Di Bruno Brothers shop there near the old 9th Street market) and is deeply aromatic and smoky. The smoke and fire fit in so well with City of Ladies.

I know its the wrong season for them - we tend to think of them in the fall. But isn't fall present in the flowers  that will become Chestnuts when they bloom?

So, how about Chestnuts, have you ever clowned around with them in the kitchen besides roasting them and putting them in stuffings? There are many famous Chestnut dishes - and not to leave France out of the mix - as they have an AOC region in Languedoc that is justly famous for it's Chestnuts, and that are often used in dessert Marron dishes such as Marron Glace and Mont Blanc, a stupendous pastry that consists of sweetened chestnut puree, crunchy meringue, and unsweetened whipped cream.

Italy too, has their chestnut dishes. The ones I am familiar with are divinely savory.

Gnochetti di Castagne. This video appeals! 
My cat started purring around the laptop when I played it.

Castagnaccio. A Chestnut Flour Cake with Pine Nuts and Raisins and Rosemary. 
(recipe from Babbo, NYC)

Ravioli di Castagne. A Dessert featuring Chocolate and Chestnuts. I know, ummm. 

But back to the tree at hand (which is certainly worth more than a tree in a bush) what makes it so compelling?

Do you adore trees? Can one be a keystone? I really want to visit this one, who's with me?

File:Castagno dei cento cavalli - Jean-Pierre Houël.jpg

Necci, Chestnut-Flour Crepes

I first made these back in September of 2006, and while they are used as a nice little blanket for sweet trappings of ricotta and fig preserves, I see no reason (nada!) why they can't share the same treatment as the Saracen crepes from Brittany, and be utilized and embellished with tuckings of shredded parm, prosciutto, and okay, you know you want it, an egg - all drippy and yolky and sunny, right in the middle of your crepe, bursting flavor all over your plate when you apply pressure with your fork. 

1½ cups Italian chestnut flour
1 cup cold water
pinch of salt
1 t. olive oil
fig preserves and ricotta cheese

Sift the flour to remove all lumps. Chestnut flour has a tendency to absorb moisture, then place the flour in a bowl and make a small well in the center. 

Start adding water little by little, mixing with a wooden spoon. When the water is all used up, add salt and mix again. Be sure that there are no lumps in the batter. If there are, please whisk them away! Cover and let the batter sit for ¼ hour on bottom shelf of refrigerator. 

Place a seasoned crepe pan or cast-iron griddle over medium-high heat. And when it is hot, brush it with 1 tsp. of oil. 

Pour ½ cup of batter in the center of the griddle and tilt the pan to let it run all over the hot surface. Let it cook for 30 to 40 seconds, until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip and cook for 1 more minute until the crepe is golden brown. 

Place the prepared necci on a platter, cover with fig preserves and ricotta cheese, or your choice of savory fillings, and roll it up. Repeat this procedure, until your batter is depleted and spent. Use 1 tsp. of oil for every 3 crepes.

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