The humble Necci is a sort of crepe made with chestnut flour, eaten plain or warm with a dollop of fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese. The recipe comes from the forest-filled Tuscan region of the Garfagnana, near Lucca, where chestnuts have been a traditional staple for centuries.
Chestnut flour is gluten-free and also has a naturally low moisture content, which means it keeps well. It has a naturally sweet taste and falls apart easily when cooked, so is often mixed with other flours or olive oil to help hold it together.
There is something very medieval about making Necci the traditional way. To start with, you need a good fireplace with a roaring fire and glowing coals and a pair of cast-iron "testi" – two flat, heavy iron plates, about 25 cm in diameter, with long flat handles. Nothing says “Medieval” like cast-iron.
What’s unusual about these necci is that rather than spread the batter and flip it like a pancake, the batter is spooned onto the lightly greased "testo" and is spread and flattened by placing the other testo on top. With both hands, the testi simply get flipped over the fire together until both sides are cooked evenly. The necci are then piled between chestnut leaves until the batch is ready to eat.
The simple batter – water and flour – is traditionally eaten alone or with some ricotta, but it also lends itself well to savory fillings of prosciutto and cheese, or sweet fillings such as nutella. My personal favourite is a bit of ricotta and a drizzle of chestnut honey. But you can be inventive...
The recipe couldn’t be simpler but it’s the flipping that’s tricky if you don’t happen have a pair of testi handy. While the traditional recipe calls only for chestnut flour and some tap water to make a slightly thick batter (thicker than crepe batter), I find that if you’re going to make it on a regular pan and attempt to flip it over, you’ll need to add a little olive oil to the mixture to stop it from simply falling apart as soon as you touch it. Greasing in between each neccio really helps too.
As with most street food, it always seems to taste better when you're standing on the street eating it, so where I go to get my Necci fix in Florence where I live is the Santo Spirito market, the 2nd Sunday of the month. The elderly couple that still prepare Necci the traditional way and cook them on the spot with cast-iron testi seem like a postcard from another era. And for 2.50 euro each with fresh ricotta, it’s a snack I never pass up when I see it. - Emiko —Emiko
Test Kitchen Notes
This sweet, nutty, slightly funky crepe couldn't be easier to make (the batter has only 3 ingredients) and, filled with ricotta and drizzled with chestnut honey (or whatever honey, really), it makes for a delicious -- and gluten-free -- breakfast or dessert.
Note: If your batter is so thick it's misbehaving, shoot for Emiko's helpful visual description (it should be slightly thicker than crepe batter). - kristen miglore —Kristen Miglore
In a large bowl, mix the flour with enough water to get a smooth, dense batter, slightly thicker than crepe batter. Add olive oil and a pinch of salt and mix again. Heat and lightly oil a frying pan. Add a couple of spoonfuls of the batter to the pan and tilt slightly to evenly coat the pan (note that this batter does not move as fluidly as crepe batter).
Cook for about 2 minutes or until you see that the top of the batter looks dry. Loosen with a spatula, flip over and cook the other side for one minute. Set aside and keep warm. They can be eaten plain, as is, or try them with a spoonful of fresh ricotta spread on each, roll them up and serve drizzled with honey.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.