In poor Italian households this cake is one of the oldest of all, traditionally children would take a hot slice wrapped in paper to nibble on the way to school. Chestnuts are plentiful in Italy and so the flour is cheap, or free if you collect dry and grind the chestnuts yourself. Chestnut flour is a useful alternative to wheat flour as it is gluten free and therefore suitable for celiacs. This recipe has no added sugar and so is also very healthy.
Unlike a traditional fruitcake the fruit and nuts are added to the top of the cake rather than mixed with the dough, which is simply chestnut flour and water.
Being quite heavy and dry to modern tastes I have modified the recipe and instead of water I use milk. I also add 100g of sugar, an egg, a couple of tbs of sunflower oil and half the fruit to the batter mix. This helps it rise and give the base a bit more taste and I am afraid I do prefer the sweetness a little sugar adds!
450g chestnut flour
cold water to mix
1 tbs caraway seeds
3 tbs chopped pinenuts (or almonds)
pinch of salt
Soak the sultanas in cold water 15 minutes, drain and dry on kitchen roll. Sieve together chestnut flour and salt, stir in enough cold water to make a stiffish batter, slightly stiffer than a pancake batter.
Oil a shallow cake tin (I use a skillet – frying pan with a metal handle) and pour in the batter, smooth with the back of a spoon and scatter with caraway seeds, remaining sultanas and almonds
Bake in reasonably hot oven around 190c, for 20 minutes or until surface is crispy. serve straight from the oven or cold with a glass of dry white wine suitably chilled.
Italian New year and Christmas pudding: posted by Debby
Fristingo is Marchegiana christmas or new year pudding served cold. It goes by many different names all over the region and according to folklore there are at least 22 different recipes which can include nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, breadcrumbs, candied fruit, orange juice, lemon rind, olive oil, cinnamon, rum, cocoa, coffee white wine and grape juice.
The recipe in its most basic form goes back 2000 years to the Etruscans and via the Piceni. At it’s earliest time it was just a mixture of ground flours mixed with semi dried grapes. It has always been food ‘for the poor’ and that is reflected in the use of dried readily-available fruit to sweeten it rather than sugar which was only available to the rich.
The Romans called it Piceni bread and ate it with honey and the recipe has developed over the years depending on fashion and the availability of different ingredients such as chocolate and spices.
Traditionally it is mixed and left to rest for hours before being cooked in a wood oven. When ready it is eaten together with a nice glass of vino cotto.
Pasquina is my neighbour who has been making this traditional Le Marche cake for years and she presented me with the recipe she uses, written on a much treasured old scrap of paper. The main ingredient is figs and they grow abundantly in Le Marche. One can find large black figs with succulent purple centres and edible skins, large green figs with red centres and tougher skins and many other varieties, my personal favourite being the small black ones which taste like marzipan.
Eaten fresh, straight from the tree they are divine but Le Marche people have always wanted to preserve them for winter use. Pasquina picks them in early September and dries them very slowly in a wood oven over many hours, turning them and ensuring that they are thoroughly dry. Then she tells me they will keep all winter if there are any left by January!
1 kilo of figs
200g vino cotto ( a sherry like drink made in Le Marche)
150g raw almonds chopped
250g walnuts chopped ( if you prefer more almonds then reverse the nut amounts)
300g wholemeal flour
3 sweetened espressos
200g olive oil
zest of an orange and a lemon
tsp cinnamon and nutmeg
a glass of vino cotto
150g sugar (Pasquina’s family recipe didn’t add sugar as would have been an expensive commodity in days gone by, so this is optional depending on how sweet you want it)
It is also possible to add 100g melted chocolate plus 100g cocoa powder to the mixture. I halved the mixture and added chocolate to one half only.
The day before, roughly chop the figs and pour over the 200g vino cotto and allow to soak overnight. The figs take in the liquid and soften.
Then mix everything together. It’s a very rustic cake of the cucina povera tradition so no need to finely chop everything. Nowadays dried figs and nuts can be rather pricy but in Le Marche every farmer has a few fig and nut trees so they are simply using what is available for free!
Finally, spread the mixture over one large baking tin or use 2 loaf tins, drizzle some olive oil over the top and bake at 180 degrees for about 40 minutes.
Keeps for weeks in an airtight tin. Has a moist, crumbly texture and is very rich so you only need a small piece!
Autumn fruits and religion seem to go hand in hand through myth and legend.
According to mythology the fig tree was created by Gaia the Mother Earth, to hide her son Syceus who was a giant fleeing from the wrath of Zeus. Perhaps that explains why each year I am faced with pruning back a gigantic amount of new wood growth on my trees!
Adam and Eve supposedly covered their nakedness using fig leaves but I bet they regretted that move as fig leaf sap is notorious for causing terrible blisters when combined with sunlight!
In Greek and Roman mythology Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), God of wine and fertility, and Priapus, a Satyr who symbolized sexual desire are both connected with the fig which probably goes some way to explain it’s less than savoury use in the local dialect!
Even the Buddha has a connection with the fig as apparently he achieved enlightenment one day in 528 BC while sitting under a Bo tree. The Bo is a kind of fig.
Almonds also have a special place in legend and folklore and are given, strictly in odd numbers, as tokens of hope and good fortune in religious ceremonies around the world.
The Romans showered newlyweds with almonds as a fertility charm, sugared almonds are still presented to wedding guests today in Italy and elsewhere.
According to the Bible the almond tree is a symbol of divine approval. At Christmas time in Sweden they eat a cinnamon-flavoured rice-pudding with an almond hidden inside. The lucky finder gets good luck for the year, always assuming they didn’t choke on it first!
Here in Italy at Christmas time the tradition is to give ‘Torrone’ as a gift. Torrone is a type of confectionary, typically made from honey, sugar and egg-white and toasted almonds. It’s chewy, delicious, bringing good luck to all who eat it and I’m fairly certain that it goes some way to pay for Dentists’ skiing holidays in January…