Today we wanted to share a little information about the history, nutrition and other interesting facts about chestnut trees, prior to giving you our latest recipe using this exquisite and delicate flour.
There are many different species of the chestnut tree. The trees that most of our current edible chestnuts come from are the Sweet Chestnut, or Castanea sativa, a European variety, as well as the American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, the most familiar American species.
Castanea sativa is native to Southern Europe. The American Chestnuts, Castanea dentata, Castania Pumila (primarily found in the Eastern U.S.) and Castania paupis pina (found in the Southeastern U.S.) are our own native edible varieties. There are also many Asiatic varieties, namely Castanea crenata (Japan), C. mollissima (China), C. davidii (China), C. henryii (China) and C. seguinii (China), many of which also grow in the United States.
These edible species are not to be confused with the Common Horse Chestnut, which bears a similar shaped fruit, but is not considered edible.
Native Americans were eating the American Chestnut species long before European immigrants introduced their stock to America, and long before the arrival of the devastating Chestnut blight. We learned that in some places such as the Appalachian mountains and others, one in every four hardwood trees was an American Chestnut. Mature trees grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet, many times up to 100 feet, averaging up to 5 feet in diameter.
Most barns and homes east of the Mississippi were made from the wood of the American Chestnut trees. However, in 1904, the discovery of the Chestnut blight fungus on some Asian Chestnut trees that were planted on Long Island, New York was discovered and made public. This blight devastated the near 4 billion chestnut trees within 40 years. Only a few areas were spared, namely in California and the Pacific Northwest. Due to this devastation, any food or wood from these trees dissappeared from the general market for many decades. Efforts were made to reintroduce a disease-resistant variety in the 1930s and are still ongoing.
A few chestnut tree farms have been reestablished throughout the countryand you can learn more about these magnificent trees by checking out this informative site. You can visit Green Valley Chestnut Ranch, an Oregon Tilth Certified Organic farm here, and find out even more information at this site.
Today, the demand for chestnuts outweighs the supply. In fact, back in 2007, the United States imported 4,056 metric tons of European chestnuts worth an estimated $10 million.
Chestnuts offer a great nutritional profile, making them an extraordinary food source and dietary staple. In fact, until the introduction of the potato, the forest-dwelling communities in Southern Europe, which generally lacked access to wheat flour, relied on chestnuts to provide their main source of carbohydrates. In parts of Italy, a cake made of chestnuts, provided an alternative to potatoes. When fresh, chestnuts contain about 50% water, which makes them highly perishable. They contain complex carbohydrates, are very low in fat (about 1%), contain significant amounts of Vitamin C and potassium, are very low in sodium, and most importantly to us, are gluten free, as well as oil and cholesterol free. They are high in protein which can be easily assimilated by the human body. You may learn more about them here, as well as at The Cambridge World History of Food.
There are many culinary uses for chestnuts, the most familiar one to most Americans and Europeans are the roasted chestnuts.
- The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw, the taste can be somewhat astringent.
- Roasting the chestnut requires scoring the fruit beforehand to prevent undue expansion. Once cooked, its texture is similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet and nutty flavor.
- Chestnuts can be dried and milled into flour, which can then be used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas (it is the original ingredient for “polenta”, known in Corsica as “pulenda.” In its milled form, chestnuts provide a good solution for long-term storage of a nutritious food.
- It is also used as a thickener in soups and sauces.
- The Corsican specialty “fritelli” is a doughnut-like fritter, a similar version of this is the French” beignet” (meaning fried dough). In France, chestnut flour is known as farina dicastagne and is used in some regional crepe recipes. The Dordogne region of France has many specialties made from chestnut flour.
- Chestnuts are also eaten candied, boiled, steamed and grilled. There are many savory recipes for stuffed vegetables, poultry, etc.
Many chestnut-based recipes are now in demand, as part of a trend toward rediscovering traditional cuisines, and a search for better nutrition.
The following image is so beautiful, that we wanted to share this with you. It depicts a photographic image of a painting by Jean-Pierre Houel, ca 1777.
Chestnuts clearly offer an exciting gluten free option to anyone who is gluten intolerant, or celiac. Please click here to learn more about it.
Finally, as promised, here is our latest adventure in gluten free baking. We have included the use of chestnut flour in some of the recipes in our book “A Celebration of Gluten Free Baking,” but wanted to create a new version of an old favorite, scones.
This recipe will make 16 scones (8 in the traditional pie slice version, and 8 round scones). You will need the following ingredients:
Scottish Scones with Chestnut Flour:
- 2 cups brown rice flour
- 1-3/4 cups chestnut flour
- 1/2 cup potato starch
- 1 Tbsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. guar gum, or 2 tsp. xanthan gum
- 1/2 tsp. Himalaya salt
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- grated rind of one organic lemon (we used Meyer)
- 2/3 cup sucanat
- 2/3 cup firm butter
- 4 organic, high omega-3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2/3 cup ‘So Delicious’ Coconut milk (or milk of your choice)
- 1/4 ‘So Delicious’ coconut yogurt (or dairy version)
For the topping you will need:
- 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup melted organic grass-fed butter
- a little extra sucanat (to sprinkle on top)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
In a saucepan, at very low temperature, melt 1/4 cup of butter, for brushing the scones. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the rice flour, chestnut flour, potato starch, baking powder, guar or xanthan gum, salt and butter (cut into smaller chunks). Using your hands, mix the butter with the flour blend, until it takes on a crumbly texture. Then add the grated rind of lemon, coconut milk, lightly beaten eggs, vanilla extract and yogurt. Mix until all ingredients form a cohesive dough. The dough will still be relatively soft and somewhat sticky. Cut the dough in half.
Sprinkle some extra rice flour on a baking board and place one half of the dough onto it and sprinkle it with just a little (emphasis on little, just enough to make it easier to touch with your hands) extra flour. Press the dough into a round flat shape and cut into 8 slices.
Brush the top with a small amount of melted butter, sprinkle each scone slice with a little sucanat, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for about 15-18 minutes. Check carefully around 15 minutes. The scones should be just a light golden color, not dark brown. When done, remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, prepare the remaining half of the dough. Prepare your baking board by sprinkling some rice flour onto it, allowing for the dough to be rolled out into a large, even rectangular shape.
Brush the dough with a little melted butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and sucanat and carefully roll the dough (starting with the longest side of the rectangle) into a “jelly roll.” Tuck in the ends and smooth out any uneven edges.
Cut the roll in half, then cut each side in half again, until you created 8 slices. Shape each slice into a flat, round scone.
Place the scones on an ungreased cookie sheet, brush with some melted butter, and sprinkle with just a small amount of sucanat. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15-18 minutes, again, check carefully for excess browning.
When done, remove from oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
You may serve them warm with your favorite jam, or marmalade.
These scones have a more delicate texture, due to the chestnut flour, than our other scone recipes, but the flavor is superb. This is a recipe we are still in the process of adapting, since most of our recipes go through many experimental stages, before we are completely satisfied that we have explored all possibilities. Please feel free and share your own experiences working with chestnut flour.