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All About Ceci Flour

Article by Lesa Sullivan

No good Italian cook is without his or her own favorite recipe for preparing beans. Though ancient Romans considered the pulse to be peasant food, its presence in Italian cookery is considerable. Beans are boiled for elegant soups and rustic stews, whipped up into sweet confections, candied, mashed with olive oil and salt for a spread, roasted for crispy, salty snacks, and milled for flour. As Marcella Hazan mentions in her book Marcella Cucina, the preference for a particular kind of bean is regional. Liguria, in particular, prefers the ceci to other popular Italian beans like cannellini and borlotti beans.

The Italian love for the Cicer arietinum (“little ram’s head”) doesn’t stop at the border-dishes for ceci beans are found in most regions that ring the Mediterranean, and other nearby continents. The ceci bean originated in the Middle East and migrated to India, Africa, Greece and Turkey and later to France, Spain and Italy. Eventually they crossed over into the new world and were cultivated in Mexico. The bean has made its way up the American continent and these worldly beans are now cultivated here in the northern US.

Ligurian fried and baked goods made from the finely milled flour of the ceci bean, called farina di ceci. Italian bakeries draw lines of people who wait for the first warm bite of farina , a baked cake of farina di ceci, olive oil and water. It is eaten straight out of the pan, or sliced into pieces, topped with thinly sliced onion or cheese and broiled. Waverley Root, in The Food of Italy’s chapter on Liguria, describes a polenta-style preparation called fritura di crema. It begins with a sofrito of parsley and onions, to which the flour is added along with hot milk or cream. It is stirred until it becomes very thick. Egg yolks are beaten in and the mixture is turned out onto a plate to cool. It is then dipped in the whisked whites of the egg, dredged in cornmeal and deep fried.

Panelle, or farina de ceci fritters, is a favorite snack food southern Italy. Again, the flour is mixed only with water and oil (or combined with sugar for a sweet treat), making a batter thick enough to scoop up in spoonfuls and fry. The dough can be refrigerated to allow it to “set” a bit. Once cooked the panelle is eaten right away.

In southern France, farina di ceci (in French, farine de pois chiches ) is a necessary ingredient in socca, a savory crepe. In India it is called gram flour or besan, and it is used to make pakora. Shoroe, a sauce made from chickpea flour and mixed with anise seed, ginger and turmeric, is a common Sephardic dish from Ethiopia. Here in the US, creative gluten-free cooks have discovered the joys of this versatile flour. Combined with other flours such as fava bean, rice and nut flours, it can create a lofty and tender bread or a crunchy cracker. Even if you’re not living gluten free, farina di ceci is an excellent thickener, and can be mixed with water as an egg substitute. You can even use it to make a silky version of hummus.

The flavor of farina di ceci varies depending on the way it’s used: when toasted it’s very sweet, when baked in crackers or bread it has a pleasant buttery flavor. Cooked as a thin batter over very high heat it takes on an egg-like consistency and taste. Whether it’s used as a substitute for wheat flour or in a traditional chickpea flour recipe, the taste is very smooth and pleasant.

The flour, like the whole beans themselves, is very high in protein, iron, trace minerals and “good” carbs. The soluble fiber is very good for stabilizing blood sugar, and its insoluble fiber is excellent for preventing digestive disorders like diverticulitis. When eaten regularly, it can help lower your LDL cholesterol and lower your risk for heart attack. But eating this wonderfully versatile flour only for its health benefits is like eating ice cream only to get more calcium; the sheer pleasure of cooking with farina di ceci is its own reward.

(c), 2021