Every so often, I pull a medium-size paperback off my bookshelf and get lost in its pages. The book is Tempo di Castagne (Chestnut Time), by Carla Geri Camporesi. It is a cookbook, but also a memoir of sorts, an ode to childhood, to country life in a different era, and to the chestnut in all its manifestations ~ tree, fruit, and versatile ingredient.
Chestnuts are often associated with fancy food: think marrons glacés, whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup in a painstaking process that takes several days. Chestnut jam ~ sweet, smooth and spiked with vanilla, was one of my favorite breakfast treats when I was a kid. I used to spread it thickly on toast (still do).
And yet, for generations of Italians, chestnuts were anything but an indulgence; they were an essential food source, especially for those living in mountain communities in central and northern regions. Cooks turned chestnuts into soup and used them to “stretch” meat recipes. The fruits were dried and roasted over low heat, then ground into flour to make pasta and polenta. The flour’s sweet, earthy flavor made it a natural ingredient for rustic cakes and sweets.
Camporesi’s book contains more than 100 recipes, from chestnut lasagne to chestnut and chocolate tart, and from chestnuts in vinegar to chestnuts in syrup. There are risotti, porridges, stews, puddings, creams, cakes, jams and more. Chestnuts and apples appear together in a handful of recipes, and no wonder ~ they share the same seasons (fall and winter) and their characteristics ~ the starchy sweet nut and the juicy tart fruit ~ complement each other nicely.
The other day, my eye fell on this recipe for chestnut flour and apple fritters. I assumed the apples would be sliced and dipped or into batter and fried. Instead, they are cooked down to a puree and incorporated fully into the batter, which is then dolloped into hot oil and fried. This, to me, makes all the difference. The fritters are not crispy, but tender and bouncy.
They’re a bit like the traditional castagnole that are enjoyed all over Italy (but especially in the north) during Carnevale. Those are typically made with all-purpose flour and flavored with lemon zest, though there are endless variations. The name “castagnole” refers to their chestnut shape and size, rather than the use of chestnuts in the recipe. The dough for the traditional version is firm enough to roll into ropes, which are then cut into nuggets. They puff up into bite-size spheres when fried.
Having made both, I can say I prefer these, not only for their springy texture but also for the nuanced flavors imparted by the chestnut flour, which is sweet and a little bitter, and by the apples, which are tangy. Because the batter is soft and drippy, the shape of these fritters is not uniformly round, but I like their squiggly imperfections. Also, unlike most fried sweets, which are best consumed hot, these keep surprisingly well (at least a day) and are delicious at room temperature.
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A brief heads-up on upcoming events:
- Saturday, March 5: Celebrating Food, a bi-annual one-day conference at the Universities of Shady Grove, MC, hosted by Les Dames d’Escoffier’s DC chapter. I’ll be part of a panel discussing women in the culinary arts. Details on my Events page.
- Giro d’Italia Cooking Class: This is the first of a series of cooking classes I’ll be teaching at Hill Center, on Capitol Hill, DC. First up: Abruzzo (natch). Details here.
ABRUZZO Culinary Tour
Interested in exploring delicious Italy off the beaten path? Join our third annual Abruzzo Presto/Domenica Cooks culinary tour of Abruzzo in September. This is a week-long tour exploring the food, culture, and landscape of this spectacular region. You can find the details on my tours page, and please feel free to forward the link to friends and family with the travel bug.
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Chestnut flour gives these fritters a distinctly earthy sweet flavor with a faint bitter finish. Cooked, pureed apples make them extra-tender. You can roll the hot fritters in granulated sugar, as I do, or sprinkle powdered sugar on top. Chestnut flour, which is naturally gluten-free, is easier to find than it once was. Look for it in well-stocked supermarkets, Italian groceries, or online. This recipe is adapted slightly from one in "Tempo di Castagne," by Carla Geri Camporesi (Maria Pacini Fazzi, ed., 1993).
- 4 sweet-tart apples (I use a variety), about 1 3/4 pounds
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 2/3 cup sugar, divided, plus more for dipping
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 2/3 cups chestnut flour
- 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 packet lievito per i dolci (see NOTE) or 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon Punch Abruzzo or dark rum
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Sunflower oil for frying
Peel and core the apples and chop them into small (1/2-inch) pieces. Squeeze the lemon half into a bowl and toss the apple pieces as you go, turning to coat them with the lemon juice.
Place the apples in a medium saucepan and sprinkle 1/3 cup sugar over them. Pour in the water and cook, partially covered, over medium-low heat until they are completely soft and turn to puree when they stir them, about 30 minutes. Give them a stir from time to time as they cook to prevent scorching. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Sift the chestnut flour and unbleached flour into a large bowl (this is mainly to break up any little clumps of chestnut flour). Whisk in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, the leavening, and the salt. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the vanilla extract. Gently whisk the cooled apple puree into the eggs until well incorporated. Pour the mixture into the bowl withe flours and mix with a sturdy spatula to form a thick batter.
Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches into a deep-sided skillet or Dutch oven. Heat on medium-high until the oil shimmers (375 F). Gently drop spoonfuls of batter (about 1 full tablespoon) into the hot oil, a few at a time, and fry for about 2 minutes, turning them once or twice so they brown evenly on both sides. Turn the heat down if they start to brown too quickly ~ you want to make sure they are fully cooked through before removing them.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the castagnole to a rack set over a paper towel-lined tray to drain for a few seconds. Dip the fritters in a bowl of sugar while still hot, coating them all over. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.
NOTE Lievito Paneangeli is an Italian leavening agent flavored with vanilla that is used for making cakes and other sweets. You can substitute 2 teaspoons baking powder per packet of lievito.