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Cooking with chestnut flour

Olivia Leadbetter

Olivia Leadbetter has gotten into nut flours.

The intrigue began when she noticed that an Italian market in Falmouth sold chestnut flour. It had been in the back of her head as a possible ingredient ever since.

"But then also over the pandemic, I’ve gotten really into foraging. And so you know in kind of learning about the mushrooms and the plants that are edible in this area I also learned about a lot of the nut trees,” she said.

Olivia learned that acorns are edible and can be turned into flour, and that you can do the same thing with chestnuts. She hasn’t found any wild chestnuts nuts locally — the native American chestnut that once made up 25 percent of forests in the eastern United States was almost completely wiped out by blight in the early 1900s. But Chinese Chestnut hybrids can and do thrive here, and while Olivia’s been searching for a local tree, she picked up a bag of chestnut flour at the Italian market and started experimenting.

“So the two projects I’ve been experimenting with right now are the chestnut flour gnocchi and the chestnut flour crepes.”

For these recipes, Olivia mixes the chestnut flour with either bread flour, pasta flour, or semolina.

“Because I think that when you use 100% of the nut flour you tend to get more of the bitterness but when you blend it with other flours you get a sweeter nuttiness coming out,” she said.

I asked her what the chestnut flour is like. She said it’s darker than normal flour and it’s softer.

“Compared to regular flour, definitely more expensive although I think traditionally in Italy it started out as Tuscan peasant food and was actually the cheaper alternative to wheat flour,” she explained.

Which brings us to the gnocchi.

“So I start with just one russet potato and the ratio of flour to potato is about 1 cup per one potato and then one egg yolk and so basically I steam the potato until you can stick a fork all the way through it and then I skin it and put it through a potato ricer.”

Olivia says you can also use a cheese grater in a pinch and then she adds chopped fresh herbs like thyme and chives and plenty of black pepper followed by equal parts semolina, pasta flour, and chestnut flour.

“Then you want to make the gnocchi right away it’s definitely not a type of dough where you want to let it sit for too long. So usually I mix the ingredients with a fork and then bring them together with my hands you don’t want to over knead at all but then once I get into a homogenous blob I roll it into thin tubes the width you want the gnocchi to be.” She added,

She then cuts it into nickel size pieces and shapes it on a gnocchi board but you don’t have to. A lot of people use the back of a fork and roll it and shape it that way.

A gnocchi board is a piece of wood with grooves in it that adds texture to the pasta.

“I think it’s mostly for aesthetics, where it makes the gnocchi look nice but it also allows for the sauce to kind of accumulate in the pasta. I love doing a spicy anchovy tomato sauce that has definitely been my go-to. Something I’ve gotten really excited about too, is during the summer again when I can forage for mushrooms is trying out dishes that incorporate both the chestnut flour and then also foraged mushrooms or foraged berries.”

I’m imagining chestnut flour gnocchi with a mushroom cream sauce, and chestnut flour crepes with homemade ricotta and wild blueberries. In other words, a full meal foraged from the woods.

Here's a link to Olivia's recipe for Chestnut Flour Crepes.

And her Chestnut Flour Gnocchi.

This piece first aired in March 2021.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.