Oh, Fall

Chestnut Trofie with Creamy Porcini Sauce

It sneaks up entirely without warning. One minute I’m still clinging to summer, blissfully munching away on colorful salads for dinner, slicing up some fresh fruit for dessert, picking new recipes out of cookbooks because they feature the words ‘light’ and ‘healthy’ in their headnotes, when suddenly, as Emeril would say, bam! Overnight, it’s all I can do to not eat everything in sight. Those same salads that stuffed me a month ago leave me raiding the fridge two hours later. ‘Rib-sticking’ and ‘robust’ have become the two most beautiful words I know. Fruit is no longer very attractive outside of a pie crust, tart shell or crisp topping. I while away the day at work daydreaming about hot chocolate and big hunks of meat and melted cheese on everything.

Oh, fall.

I don’t think my change in appetite would take me so much by surprise if we had a proper fall, you know, of the the red-leaves and frost-on-the-ground kind. But because the weather doesn’t actually change that much here, and all that stands between the rains of summer and the rains of fall are a few degrees of chill, it doesn’t seem like fall should hold that much sway over what I eat. I mean, even when the icy northern winds start to blow in late October, there’s always a few mild, balmy days thrown in here and there to temper things out. Truly cold weather on the coast of Scotland is in fact a rarity; in the six years I’ve lived here I’ve seen it snow fewer times than I have fingers to count them on, and even when it does it never lasts more than a day. But somehow that fact is lost on my appetite, and as soon as the days start to grow shorter, those ancient survival instincts kick in, telling me to prepare for winter by ingesting as many calories as humanly possible.

Thankfully, much of the fall produce I love lends itself to exactly the rich, earthy preparations I’m craving. In northern Italy, the fall harvest includes two of my all-time favorites, the sweet chestnut and the dusky, pungent porcini mushroom. I could eat both of these a million different ways and never get tired of them, but combining them in a rich, belly-warming pasta dish is about as good as it gets. You might be thinking that making the pasta itself out of chestnuts sounds awfully avant garde, but it’s actually a preparation that goes back hundreds of years, to a time when wheat was a rare and expensive commodity in the mountainous areas where chestnut trees grew rampant. By drying and grinding the abundant nuts, the region’s poor discovered a virtually cost-free starch they could used in cakes, bread, polenta, and of course this, a sturdy, flavorful, subtly-sweet pasta that is equally at home under a thin blanket of melted butter and parmesan as it is standing up to a gutsy mushroom sauce. By all means substitute fresh porcinis if you’re lucky enough to have a source for them, but using dried in no way makes for an inferior dish, and it also means you’ll be able to enjoy this dish deep into the winter, when the very idea that you were once eating nothing but salad for dinner is all but laughable in its inconceivability.

Chestnut Trofie with Creamy Porcini Sauce

Before some of you get freaked out by the idea of making your own pasta, let me just reassure you that this is not your average pasta. In fact, adding chestnut flour to pasta makes the whole thing a snap, as it needs far less elbow grease than its wheat-only sibling. The only caveat is that rolling all those cute little trofie takes quite a while, so don’t plan this for a night when dinner needs to get on the table quickly (or else, just roll out the pasta with a machine). The other thing to keep in mind is that the proportion of chestnut flour is adjustable depending on your tastes. Some recipes call for a one-to-one ratio with wheat flour, and while this gives by far the best chestnut flavor, the lack of gluten causes quite quite a heavy, dense texture. Other recipes call for as much as four times as much wheat flour as chestnut; while this produces a better pasta texture-wise, the flavor of chestnut gets easily lost. I’ve put what I think is a good compromise here, but should you wish to tinker, feel free to increase or decrease the proportion of chestnut flour to your liking. Also, a word about chestnut flour itself: try to buy it from a place with a high turnover, and store it in the freezer as it goes rancid quickly. And if you can’t find any locally, don’t worry – it’s widely available online.
Serves: 6-8

For chestnut pasta:
2 1/2 cups (360g) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups (180g) chestnut flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon olive oil

For porcini sauce:
1 ounce (30g) dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup (250ml hot water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup (125ml) dry Marsala or dry sherry
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 cup (250ml) chicken stock
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
salt and pepper

freshly grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Mix the all-purpose flour, chestnut flour and salt on a work surface, shape into a mound, and make a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well, add the oil, and start mixing them together with a fork or your fingers. Gradually incorporate enough of the flour into the eggs to make a fairly firm but easy-to-work dough; it will feel slightly tacky but should not stick to clean fingers. Add more flour if needed. Knead it for a couple of minutes, just until the dough is smooth, then cover the dough with a damp tea towel and let it rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the porcini mushrooms and the hot water in small bowl. Let stand for 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid, squeezing excess liquid from mushrooms back into bowl; reserve the liquid. Chop the mushrooms coarsely and reserve.

To make trofie, break off chickpea-sized nuggets of dough, keeping the rest covered so it doesn’t dry out. Roll out each nugget between your palms or on the work surface to a skinny rope about 2 inches (5cm) long. Holding each end of the rope between thumb and forefinger, twist the ends in opposite directions until the pasta curls on itself like a corkscrew. Alternatively, if you’re feeling dexterous you can try this technique. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect; the rustic, handmade look has a charm all its own. If this sounds like too much trouble, roll out the dough with a pasta machine and cut into wide ribbons (say, 1/2-3/4-inch). Leave the pasta to air-dry on a floured baking sheet while you make the sauce.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until onion softens and turns brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. Add Marsala and boil until most of the liquid evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add rosemary, mushrooms, chicken stock and reserved mushroom liquid, carefully leaving any sediment behind, and let the mixture boil until
it has reduced by about half. Add the heavy cream, lower the heat slightly, and let it boil gently until the sauce thickens, another 8-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and cook the pasta (in batches, if necessary) until it has softened and lost its raw taste, for trofie about 6-8 minutes, and machine-rolled pasta a bit less. The pasta will never become completely soft like traditional wheat pasta, but will retain a toothsome bite in the center.

Drain the pasta and add it to the pan with the mushroom sauce, tossing to combine. Serve hot, passing a bowl of freshly-grated parmesan cheese at the table. A great accompaniment is a salad of crisp greens, sliced pears and walnuts.