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Chestnuts

Chestnuts and other fall specialties for sale in an Italian market.  

Soon crisp leaves will lay beneath our feet, leaving the trees to expose their spindly twigs. Days will get shorter and the colorfully tinged leaves of the vineyards will fade. Fall will announce its arrival.

As the seasons change, so do the fresh foods available to us. Heirloom tomatoes, peaches and cherries are replaced by pumpkins, chestnuts, figs and porcini mushrooms.

The Italians will tell you to celebrate these changes because new seasons bring traditional fall favorites back to the table. Some of the primo produce the regions have to offer hits the marketplace during this season. Seasonal delights are many.

I can already see the pumpkins announcing their arrival in the fields surrounding Napa Valley, so it’s time to dig my fall recipes out of the ancient recipe box I still use.

Castagna (Cast-AH-nyeh) have been cultivated for more than 2000 years and were imported into Italy from the Near East and Turkey. Ancient Greeks wrote about the health benefits of chestnuts. Early Christianity believed chestnuts were a symbol of chastity. In the outlands, chestnuts were a main source of carbohydrates.

In our house the most important thing to remember about the Castagna in the Fall was the sweet and savory cake.

Pear and Chestnut Cake

(Torta di pere e castagna)

Serves 8-10.

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried prunes

2 Tbsp. hot water

2 Tbsp. brandy or cognac

4 medium-sized pears (excluding Bartlett)

1/2 cup sugar

6 Tbs unsalted butter

1/4 cup water

1 cup + 3 Tbsp. all purpose flour

1/3 cup +1Tbsp.) chestnut flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp.unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/2 vanilla bean, split down the middle and seeded (or substitute with 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract)

1 tsp. brandy or cognac

1/3 cup whole milk

2 Tbsp. sugar

Powdered sugar for dusting

Filling: Place prunes and liquor in a small bowl. Add boiling water. Mix well. Set aside to allow prunes to plump and soften.

Caramelizing pears: Peel, halve and core pears. Sprinkle bottom of baking dish evenly with 1/4 cup sugar. Put 1 Tbsp. butter into each “well” created by coring the pear halves. Place cut side down over sugar. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup sugar over the top of each pear. Top the pears with remaining butter. Bake covered at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove cover and continue baking until pears are just fork tender,approximately 15 minutes.

Set aside to cool while you prepare the cake.

For the cake:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 8-inch round cake pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. In a separate medium bowl, whisk both flours together and add baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.

Add egg and egg yolk to butter mixture one at a time. Beat until mixed well. Add liquor and vanilla and mix again.

Add dry ingredients, alternating with milk, in three stages. Begin and end with the dry ingredients. Beat batter on low speed after each addition. Scrape the bowl often.

Drain any remaining liquid from and add to the mixture. Mix again for 30 seconds.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pan. Smooth top evenly with spatula. Place the caramelized pears in a circular pattern and sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. sugar.

Bake 40-45 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool.

Place cake on serving platter and dust with powdered sugar. To serve, place the cake on a serving plate and dust with confectioner’s sugar.

Cake can be stored tightly covered, at room temperature for several days.

Porcinis

Porcini mushrooms are known for their versatility and ability to add a unique earthy flavor to a variety of dishes. When cooking with porcinis, we want to be sure not to overwhelm their incredible flavor. This Roman dish enhances the flavor profile of the “little pig” mushroom.

Sformato Porcini

Serves 4

4 oz. raw Porcini mushrooms

2 eggs

6 oz. heavy cream

2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

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1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Slightly saute mushrooms in 1 Tbs. butter. Remove from any excess butter in pan. Whisk eggs and cream together in medium bowl. Add nutmeg, cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold in mushrooms.

Use 1 Tbsp. butter to coat individual baking forms. Fill 2/3 full with mixture. Place forms into shallow baking pan with a small amount of water in the bottom. The water should only come 1/3 way up the baking forms.

Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes or until tops are golden. Allow to set 5 minutes before inverting onto individual dishes or serving platter. Serve immediately.

Pumpkins

It wouldn’t be Fall without a pumpkin dish. Pumpkins are synonymous with Fall. It’s not just their vibrant colors and decorative uses that we should note. Although we often prepare and treat pumpkins like a vegetable, they are actually a fruit and a fruit with many health benefits. High in fiber, low in calories, chuck full of beta carotene and antioxidants. Recent studies indicate pumpkin can help to lower blood glucose levels.

Zucca Sformato

(Pumpkin Souffle)

Serves 6

2 cups canned pumpkin (if you prefer to prepare from a fresh pumpkin conversion is 3 1/2 lb. fresh baking pumpkin)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg, lightly beaten

Pinch of nutmeg

Pinch of sea salt

8 egg whites

Extra virgin olive oil

Flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Oil and flour individual ramekins or jumbo cup cake tin.

Stir together pumpkin, Parmesan cheese, egg, and nutmeg.

In bowl use a hand or stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt. Whisk until egg whites hold a stiff peak.

Gently fold 1/3 of egg whites into the pumpkin mixture. Gently fold in the rest of the egg whites until no streaks are present. Put mixture into the prepared ramekins or baking cups. Mixture should come about halfway up the side. Gently smooth out the top. For ease of handling, place ramekins or baking cups on a cookie sheet.

Place in oven and bake for 20—25 minutes, turning the oven temperature down to 375 degrees after 12 minutes. Do not open oven door while the sformato is baking. Tops should have a nice crust, with no wet spots.

Remove from oven. Allow to set 5 minutes and invert immediately — inverting over a light beschamel is an option. Drizzle with just a hint of authentic balsamic

Mangia Bene!

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Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or letsgocookleboncuisine.com for more information.

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