Baking It; Part 2
If you’re struggling to find a use for leftover Christmas nuts, how about experimenting with some divinely nutty biscuits & pastries?
Lacking the gluten found in wheat & some other grains, baking pastries & biscuits with nut flours is a whole new ball game. Gluten lends elasticity to dough, making it pliable & easy to work with. A pasty, nut-based concoction is an altogether trickier beast to tame. Treat it with the rough abandon afforded to traditional pastry & it will reward your efforts will a stalwart display of non-cooperation.
However, with a few tricks & turns, & some sensitive handling, even the stickiest customer will yield & become putty in your hands. And the big advantage to no gluten is that it’s impossible to over-work these doughs. No matter how many times you roll & pummel your pastries they will retain their soft texture.
The greatest frustration in my early attempts at pastry making with nuts was that their inability to stretch meant that the pastry tore as soon as it was lifted. Also, it is stickier than wheat flour pastry so was almost impossible to roll out. Although I’m not a fan of mixing plastics & food, the use of cling film is the magic bullet that transforms an unwieldy nut dough into a malleable one.
Chestnut flour is my all-time favourite for biscuits. It is naturally sweet & tastes similar to digestive biscuits, so I don’t find it necessary to add any sweeteners. As a baseline I use approximately double the weight the weight of chestnut flour to butter, & then use enough beaten egg to form into a firm dough. The basic mix can be spiced up with cinnamon, ginger & nutmeg, enriched with dried fruits, or seasoned with fresh herbs to accompany cheese.
To form into biscuits either roll into balls & then flatten down with the heel of your hand, or roll out between two sheets of cling film. If you have a cake tin with a removable bottom this also makes a great base for a cheesecake. Lightly grease the bottom, roughly flatten the dough with your hand, cover the flattened disc with cling film then roll it out directly onto the tin bottom. Any excess can be trimmed & the base will fit snugly into your tin.
For chestnut pastry you need to add a little more fat to the mixture to make it softer & easier to roll. On warm days chilling it in the fridge for 15 minutes can help if it’s a little too squishy. The trickiest part is transferring the pastry onto the pie dish. Roll between two sheets of cling film, carefully remove the top sheet & then place your inverted dish on the pastry. Slide your hand under the pastry & then flip into the dish. The base layer of cling film keeps the pastry from tearing, so all you now need to do is press the pastry into the dish & peel off the redundant cling film.
Other nut pastries can be made following the same basic principals, adding any sweeteners or flavourings to taste. However, their higher oil content means that you need far less fat, often only a tablespoon or so, to form a mixture that will clump into a dough. Also, as they don’t have the absorbency of chestnut flour, they will be stickier, so minimal handling works best.
If you don’t mind getting a bit sticky, biscuit dough works well rolled & roughly shaped in your hands. For pastry bases I tip the dough into the middle of the dish, wrap my fingers in cling film & gently ease it out towards the sides.
Bake in a moderate or moderately hot oven for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.