Sunday, November 18, 2018

Living in the Time of Chestnuts: Chestnut Gnocchi alla Romana







Sometime in mid-November, around the clock switch, Fall gets serious. It sobers up, stops playing games, and becomes an adult -- clean-shaven and up to a point. Soon after, the winds from the harbor blow in. The scents of cinnamon, pumpkins and hazelnuts fade away, and crisp autumnal air takes over -- wise and knowledgeable -- like a person whose seen things and been places. And Fall becomes that person; it begins to age, slowly, but steadily, hinting at its demise.

Close to Thanksgiving, winds move in with more force, blowing the crispness away, blowing everything away, leaving the air pure and celestial -- until there is almost nothing left but the scent of frost and upcoming snow, the mossy residue of the decomposing leaves, and the warmth of roasted chestnuts.

I grew up on a street lined with chestnuts trees. They ruled over our schoolyard and the small park nearby, stretching all the way uphill, towards the big church, towards Tašmajdan. In the summer, when the trees were in full bloom, they provided us with flower crowns and fairy costumes. In the fall -- the happy, youthful, playful fall -- we fought chestnut wars. We fought strong and hard; the Red Tribe against the White Tribe until late in the night -- forgetting about our dinner, forgetting about our homework -- and then we fell asleep with chestnuts in our pockets.

Come November, at every corner in the old town there was a small stall selling roasted chestnuts.

They came in cones made from old newspapers, two dinars for a small packet, four dinars for a large one. No one wore gloves, and no one needed them -- the chestnuts were just about perfect -- they warmed up our hands and our tummies with happiness.

I wonder why it's so hard to find roasted chestnuts in New York City. There are a couple of stalls on the 5th avenue, close to the Central Park that sell them, but these are the tourist trap chestnuts and they never taste like they should, newer quite warm, newer quite sweet, never fully roasted, never so comforting; they are chestnut imposters, yet come November, I always make a trip to the 5th avenue to buy them. I take the first one and peel the skin off carefully, with anticipation -- hoping for that sweet mouthful, yearning for it... I pop the chestnut in my mouth, waiting for the fairy crowns, for the bell-like echo of the children's laughter, but they never come.

That's why I keep a small bag of chestnut flour in the pantry. Every once in a while, I open it up, and sniff -- once, twice, three times -- and it never disappoints. There are not that many recipes that call for chestnut flour, especially savory ones, and I have to invent new ones. It takes some experimenting, because chestnut flour is not a solo player, it works best in a team; but it's not an easy companion either, there is a stubborn, edgy side to it, and it takes some experimenting to get the ratio right. But once I nail it, oh-my it's one-of-a-kind experience. This dish is one of my favorites. It has the spirit of a perfectly roasted chestnut, and that comforting mouthful I keep on searching for. It's one of those dishes that evoke memories and take us places. The best of all, you can make it ahead, and freeze. That's what I do. When we have friends over, I take it out of the freezer, pop it in the oven for thirty minutes, sit down with my friends -- rid of the prep and kitchen work -- have a glass of wine, and wait for that sweet scent of roasted chestnuts to rise from the oven. We all gather at the table and toast to it, and hop on a ride along Resavska street, pass my school, pass the little park, all the way uphill towards the big church, towards Tašmajdan and beyond.













 

Chestnut Gnocchi alla Romana


* 1/2 cup chestnut flour
* 1/2 cup semolina flour
* 3 1/2 cups milk
* 5 oz Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated
* 1/4 tsp finely chopped rosemary
* 1 large egg, lightly beaten
* 3 tbsp + 2 tbsp butter, plus another tablespoon for greasing the baking dishes and the gnocchi
* 3/4 tsp salt

hardware

* rectangular half sheet pan or dish (about 10x14 surface area)
* one 11-inch round pie dish
* 2-inch cookie cutter


Heat the milk and salt in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. When the milk starts to simmer, slowly sprinkle in the semolina and chestnut flours, whisking constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to whisk for about 10 minutes, until the mixture becomes thick and velvety, and begins to pull away from the edges of the saucepan.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in rosemary and three tablespoons of butter. Mix well. Once the butter has been incorporated, add the cheese (leave about 1 oz of cheese for sprinkling the top). Once the cheese has been incorporated and the mixture has cooled enough, add the egg. Mix well. The mixture should be creamy, with a consistency of hummus. Moisten the half sheet pan with cold water over a sink and allow the excess water to drip off the pan. Pour the mixture into the pan and spread it evenly with a wet spatula to a thickness of about 3/8-inch. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight, until the dough is very firm and can be cut with a cookie cutter.

Butter the round pie pan. Use the cookie cutter to cut disks of chilled dough. Lift disks off the baking sheet with a spatula, and arrange, slightly overlapping, in the baking dish. (You can shape the scraps into a few additional disks, but I usually just bake them separately for munching). Divide two tablespoons of butter into small pieces and distribute on top of the disks. Sprinkle the disks with the remaining grated cheese. (At this stage if you want to freeze the dish, wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and place in the freezer. Or store in the refrigerator for up to one day).

Preheat the oven to 400°F (375°F convection). Place the baking dish straight from the refrigerator (or freezer) in the oven and bake until the dish develops golden-brown crust and the disks are crisp around the edges, for about 20 - 25 minutes (slightly longer if the dish was frozen).

Remove the dish from the oven, let it rest for about 10 minutes and serve warm.

1 comment :

  1. A good handful of roasted chestnuts are one of life’s simple pleasures! What a great idea to make your gnocchi alla Romana with chestnut flour! I bet the flour imparts such a rich and beautiful flavour! So happy for your new post on this sunny afternoon!

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