Let's Cook with Meg and Ted


In August 2001, Australian Gourmet Traveller included an article about rustic cakes - cakes made on buckwheat flour, polenta, almond meal and so on, all un-iced, mostly from traditional Italian recipes. The recipe which really struck me at the time, and which remained in my memory since then, was a chestnut flour, rosemary and pine nut cake. I had never tasted chestnuts at that time, but the cake sounded delicious and unusual. Ever since, I've kept an eye out for chestnut flour every time I found a new deli or foodstore. No luck until a month ago, when I went in to Infinity Foods in the right frame of mind and came out with not only the newly-discovered chestnut flour but also millet, spelt berries, spelt flour, barley flour, cracked buckwheat, interesting seedy things to add to bread, Japanese spices, organic dark chocolate with cherries and various other heavy things which had me cursing them by the time I'd carried them halfway home.

The chestnut flour then sat in the fridge for a few weeks while I was sick and busy and Ted was away and I couldn't be bothered to cook and so on and on, until yesterday when I finally felt like a cooking challenge again. I hadn't had a good look at the recipe in AGT since buying the flour, so wasn't entirely sure what I'd need to get at the store on the way home. So I did a web search for chestnut, rosemary and pine nut cakes before leaving uni, and found any number of recipes, all quite varied - some included sugar, others didn't, one suggested soaking the sultanas in verjuice, another in vin santo, others didn't specify but did include both walnuts and orange zest as additional flavourings. There was also variation in whether the sultanas, pine nuts and rosemary were stirred through the batter or scattered on top, on the relative proportions of chestnut flour and and water, and on the cooking time. But this didn't particularly bother me - I knew I was going home to the AGT recipe, so I'd just pick up all the possible additions, and use whichever ones were called for there.

You see where this is going, right? I stopped at Waitrose and picked up rosemary, pine nuts, walnuts and an orange. Then when I got home, I opened up the magazine and found that it was, as they called it, an adaptation of the original recipe - half chestnut flour and half self-raising wheat flour, lots of sugar, plus bicarbonate of soda, butter and an egg. I read this and with all the authority of an hour's web research exclaimed "a real castagnaccio would never include these ingredients!", and decided to cook a cake based on the other recipes I'd looked at. This was where all those inconsistencies I mentioned above reared their ugly heads. I wanted to be reasonably sure that what I produced would be edible, but none of the individual recipes contained all the elements I wanted - I knew I definitely wanted to add the orange zest and a little sugar, didn't want walnuts, and would rather that the raisins were stirred through the batter but some at least of the pine nuts and rosemary were on top.

So I worked out the most commonly-used ratio of chestnut flour to water (and most of the other recipes didn't deviate from it that much), then estimated the volumes of the remaining ingredients which would be appropriate, and began. I got halfway through the early step of adding the water, then stopped and went to throroughly recheck the recipes. Yes, it really was that much water, and yes, one recipe did reassuringly say that the batter would be "fluid". So I continuted and ended up with a very thin, brown batter, into which I stirred the oil, zest, sultanas and rosemary. I could see that the sultanas dropped straight to the bottom of the mixture, and realised that it was going to be dificult scattering anything over the top of this batter and expecting it to stay there, so stirred the pine nuts through too. I decanted it into the tin, strewed a few whole rosemary leaves over the top, and put it in the oven to bake. After the 70 minutes cooking the top was nice and brown and cracked, but since I'd fooled around with measurements and cake tin sizes and cooking times and so on I wanted to be sure it was done, and so stuck a knife into the centre. It came out caked with mush. I left the cake to cook for a further 10 minutes. Still mush. Another 20 (by which time, in my heart, I had completely given up on eating the cake - it was now a chemistry experiment): still mush. I was sick of checking on it so took it out of the oven and left it alone, cross and bothered that it hadn't worked.

The next morning, in a rather happier frame of mind, I cut a slice of the cake to try. And you know, I think if I had taken it out of the oven at the right time, it would have been pretty damn nice. The edges of the cake were chewy and overcooked, and the top was too dark and a little dry, but most of it was delicious. I had been deceived by the idea that it was a chestnut "cake", and by the picture of the adapted recipe in AGT. What I had wasn't a cake, except in the sense that it was made on a kind of flour and baked in a cake tin. It was more like a firm chestnut paste, similar to a smooth baked cheesecake in texture, slighly sweet, with lovely hints of rosemary and orange flavours. The sultanas had sunk to the bottom and were discernable only as slighly squishy, chewy sweet bits on bottom crust, and the pine nuts had all floated to the top and were golden and toasty. I have no idea whether what I made was a genuine (if overcooked) castagnaccio, but I liked it (or what it had the potential to be) and would make it again, this time cooking it for just 70 minutes and keeping my fingers crossed that it would set when cold. If anyone knows anything at all about cooking castagnaccio, and has any advice or comments or corrections for me, please email me at and let me know!


1/3 cup sultanas
vin santo, other Italian dessert wine, or verjuice, to soak the sultanas
500 g chestnut flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
a pinch of salt
1 litre cool water
3 tablespoons olive oil
grated zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 large sprig of rosemary, leaves chopped
a few extra rosemary leaves, whole, to decorate

Preaheat the oven to 230 C. Grease and line a 22cm (9 inch) diameter springform pan.

Put the sultanas into a small bowl, just cover with the wine or verjuice, and leave to soak and plump up for 20 minutes. Drain and set the sultanas aside.

Stir the chestnut flour into a large bowl, the add the sugar and salt and stir to mix. Add the water gradually, mixing well between additions to avoid lumps. The batter should end up fluid and completely smooth. Add the olive oil, orange zest, pine nuts, sultanas and chopped rosemary, and stir well.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake at 230 C for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 200 C and bake a further 60 minutes. Check on the cake after 30 minutes, and cover with alfoil or newspaper if the top is browning to quickly. Don't use the skewer test to check if the cake is done - the centre won't set until the cake is compeltely cool. After 70 minutes in the oven, the surface of the cake should be dark golden brown and covered with cracks like a dry lake bed. Remove the cake from the oven and cool in the tin for a couple of hours before removing. Serve at room temperature.

19 February 2004

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