Are you ready? Let’s get the ball rolling, today is December 1st. The wait for Christmas begins.
Wait, the word that perhaps best describes this year that is about to end. In January I had chosen my word for the year, a word that could embody the year I wanted to live. I picked intentionality. Then life, and a worldwide pandemic, changed the game. Shortly before Christmas we discover we were expecting a baby. This is when the most emotional wait began. From season to season, from a late autumn to the following, sultry summer, we waited for Livia, dreaming of the moment when we would meet our little girl.
But there were other long waits that marked 2020.
We awaited for everything to return to a new normal, to be able to travel and see places, to have a pizza with a bunch of friends, or a cappuccino and a jam croissant at the local café as an act of normality, and not as an exceptional moment to remember. For all those months, we were eagerly waiting to see our loved ones: we could not say goodbye to members of our family who left without the consolation of the last embrace. We couldn’t share the news about Livia, or introduce her to some of our friends and extended family, who shared the joy from afar.
Now we’re waiting for Christmas to come. This is a delicate, magical wait, tinged of that childhood alchemy that makes even the impossible, possible.
As we’re missing the hugs and the laughter of the pre-Christmas get togethers, that merry-go-round of dinners, aperitivo, a coffee in our favourite place, a stroll through the town centre to meet and buy the last gifts, we decided to share a virtual Advent calendar on Instagram with some friends.
This is how we will give a rhythm to these days that seem all the same, rather than a parade of occasions to step into Christmas with friends. When you miss the chance to meet with your favourite people, this is when you truly realize how fundamental they are, for your life, your sense of time. Our virtual Advent Calendar will give us a chance to wake up in the morning knowing that there is something beautiful waiting for us. It will bring back that sense of shared joy, made up of recipes and cookies, greetings and hugs.
Every day, one of us will gift the others with his or her time, a recipe and a virtual Advent window. I’m proud to be the one getting the ball rolling. I open the Advent window on December 1st and underneath there is a classic Tuscan dessert, castagnaccio. You can follow our shared Advent calendar following the hashtag #avventocondiviso on Instagram.
Chestnut cake with ricotta
Castagnaccio is an ancient recipe, a dessert that recounts the Tuscan peasant woman’s triumph over poverty and hunger. Chestnut flour would substitute often wheat flour when this was not available, especially in the mountains. The simplest version involves a basic batter of chestnut flour, water, extra virgin olive oil and rosemary, resulting in a cake with an almost biting, smoky flavour and a texture similar to bread pudding.
And yet castagnaccio is in some ways a surprisingly modern dessert. It contains no sugar, and is naturally gluten and lactose free. More elaborate versions call for dried fruit and raisins to be added along with its fundamental ingredient, of course: chestnut flour. Its name derives from castagna, the Italian word for chestnut.
The first time you taste it, castagnaccio’s floury texture melts in your mouth along with its sweet chestnut flavour—a flavour that for we who grew up with it evokes memories of children in winter coats and woolen gloves, of a warm paper bag containing 1,000 lire’s worth of roasted chestnuts, the shop lights seen from the street with mother and father, and the sweet taste of this timeless winter treat.
Talk of castagnaccio among Tuscans can quickly turn into a heated discussion, as every area uses a different kind of dried fruit and different herbs and spices.
Until recently, I would have bet all on the pairing of raisins and pine nuts, a classic where I’m from, but I changed my mind after tasting a version from Garfagnana. Denser, sweeter, less floury, this version is made not only with raisins and pine nuts, but also includes walnuts and, most interestingly, orange zest. The citrus notes lend a Christmastime touch to the cake.
That for castagnaccio is an acquired taste.
A good extra virgin olive oil, the smoked flavour of chestnut flour, the herbaceous smell of rosemary, the absence of sugar: we can hardly match all this with the idea of a dessert. I will always remember the first time I made castagnaccio for a Finnish friend. With enormous kindness she tried it, but then she could not go further than the first bite. After a hesitant silence she exclaimed: it tastes like reindeer!
This is when I realized that you need an ally to make everyone appreciate the chestnut cake: ricotta.
The combination with ricotta is a classic for the Tuscan cuisine: it works with necci, and makes also the castagnaccio easier to be appreciated for those who are not used to its taste.
As we are in a festive atmosphere, I cut out some discs from the chestnut cake and I sandwiched them with a filling of ricotta. I previously whipped the ricotta with just a little sugar, and added chocolate chips and candied orange peel. A final dusting of icing sugar, like a light snowfall, turns the chestnut cake into a Christmas sweet treat, one I would have prepared to end a dinner with my old friends.
Chestnut cake with ricotta
Ingredients for the chestnut cake
- 50 g (1 3/4 oz) raisins
- 1 tablespoon vinsanto, or any sweet dessert wine
- 250 g (2 cups) chestnut flour
- 1 pinch salt
- 400 ml (1 2/3 cups) water
- 50 g (1 3/4 oz) pine nuts
- zest of 1⁄2 an orange
- 1 sprig rosemary
- extra virgin olive oil
Ingredients for the ricotta filling
- 100 g (1/3 cup) fresh ricotta, well drained
- 1 teaspoon icing sugar
- zest of 1⁄2 an orange
- 20 g (2/3 oz) chocolate chips
- 20 g (2/3 oz) candied orange peel
- Heat the oven to 180°C/355°F. In a small bowl, soak the raisins some warm water and a tablespoon of vinsanto.
- Sift the chestnut flour into a large bowl and add a pinch of salt. Pour in the water a little at a time, mixing continuously to prevent lumps. Add the grated orange zest. Drain the raisins, squeeze out the excess liquid and add them to the mixture along with half of the pine nuts. Combine thoroughly.
- Grease a 26 cm large baking dish with plenty of extra virgin olive oil. Pour in the batter.
- Sprinkle the remaining pine nuts and rosemary needles on top of the cake. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake for about 40 minutes, until the cake is dry on the top and textured with fine wrinkles and the inside is still soft.
- Let the chestnut cake cool down, and in the meantime prepare the filling.
- Whip the fresh ricotta with sugar and orange zest, then fold in the chocolate chips and the diced candied orange peel.
- With a 5 cm cookie cutter, cut out 12 discs from the castagnaccio.
- Fill a pastry bag with the ricotta, and use it to sandwich the castagnaccio discs. Finish with a dusting of icing sugar and serve.