It’s the same thing, year in and year out. December comes to a lively end, flowing by faster than we could ever have imagined. This cold, cold month comes to a rousing, bubbly conclusion and as the end draws nigh something odd and inexplicable takes over us. All power of sensible thinking comes screeching to a halt and irrational thoughts flood through our poor over-holidayed brain. Maybe it was all that food, the turkey and stuffing, the glazed ham and cranberry relish, all the cakes and puddings and pies that softened our brains. Maybe it was the days and days of stirring cookie dough, pushing heaping spoonful after heaping spoonful of the stuff off onto innumerable cookie sheets and putting a tray in, pulling a tray out and replacing it with yet another tray of even more little mounds of cookie dough. Maybe it was all that sentimental, gooey “Good will towards men” stuff, all the presents that softened our hearts, all those Christmas specials, cartoons and old black and white films that did the job. Spending time with beaming grandparents or too many giddy little kids, thoughts of jolly Old Saint Nick sliding down yet another chimney or all the dazzling, glittery candles and fairy lights that blinded us, made us go all wobbly and weak-kneed and completely lose all reason. Hours of sitting too close to a blazing fire may have softened the old noggin. But every year it happens again and no matter what we’ve told ourselves, no matter how many times we’ve seen that it only ends in disaster, something – what, oh dear, what? – makes us do it again.
New Year’s Resolutions.
Yes, my friends, the time is once more upon us when we sit down and, pen and paper in hand, draw up that impossible list of resolutions, that endless list of promises to ourselves, promises rarely kept. All of those heavy meals and sweets must have made us delirious, intoxicated by one too many candy cane or marshmallow Santa. Glancing over past lists, we shake our head in disbelief and wonder how we can, year after year, set the bar so high: stop smoking, lose 10 pounds, visit grandma every Sunday, never raise our voice to children or spouse, quit our job and live the dream, plan that round-the-world tour we’ve been dreaming of. Pledging ourselves to such is on par with blowing out birthday candles wishing for world peace when what we really hope for is to win the lottery or for the guy that sits two rows over from us in class to fall in love with us. New Year’s Resolutions are as ephemeral as that genie in the bottle, as fleeting as time itself. Yet here we go again.
Yes, the New Year is swiftly approaching, but before we pop the cork on that bottle of bubbly we still have the time to savor the last few days of this year, playing with the toys we have received from loved ones, the standing mixers and cameras, the digital scales and the cookbooks. We watch as the leftovers disappear from the fridge, never fast enough although we know that all those plastic containers of turkey and relish, stuffing, salads and pumpkin pie will save us from having to cook yet another meal. We sit in our favorite comfy chair and sigh contentedly, smiling at those who gather round us as we tiptoe towards a new decade. So just take a breath and, before we commit ourselves to those big, impossible resolutions, let’s have a little more cake and think it all through.
Starting a new year is both exciting and scary, a time of reflection, thanks and wishes. We hope for great things yet are unsure of what it will bring. This year, I have decided to try and put together a list of reasonable resolutions for I know that I am lazy and that, no matter the good intentions, I would much rather be baking.
RESOLUTION 1: Clean up my desk and my work area. And keep it that way.
RESOLUTION 2: Create a workable space for my food photography and learn how to use my camera (see Meeta and Ilva).
RESOLUTION 3: Find the courage to create more elaborate desserts, working more on presentation (see Mowie and Deeba).
RESOLUTION 4: Organize my weeks better so I can spend more time visiting other blogs on a regular basis as I used to do and which I have so neglected these past few months.
RESOLUTION 5: Organize my days better so I can return to my old ways and spend more time on FB with my old Mudpuppy sisters, my hearts and souls, Minna, Vera, Claire, Sabine, Bobbi as well as my darlings Debbie, Lisa and Lee and my high school friends.
RESOLUTION 6: Work more on my writing, completing the stories of blog posts past, trying to write non-blog post articles and stories. Write. Write. Write.
RESOLUTION 7: Isn’t 6 enough?
2009 has brought me an armful of fabulous friendships, a bevy of sisters and a few brothers who have helped me through thick and thin, seen me through the hard times and the fun times, who have encouraged me, taught me, supported me and made me laugh. Where would I be without them? Deeba, Hilda, Meeta, Mowie, Minna, Bobbi, Claire, Vera, Sabine, Debbie, Lee and now Lisa (yay!), Nanette, Ilva, Simone, Kerrin. Ellen, Mike and Frank. And of course Sue, Carolyn and Andrew. There are many more that I am thankful that I have met and become friends with, but these special people are truly special indeed, more than one person could ever expect to know in one lifetime and I am truly thankful. And hope they each know how much they mean to me.
And now for something very special, an amazing, very elegant, festive dessert, perfect for your New Year’s Celebration, luscious and fancy, perfect with champagne. A gorgeous treat, rich in flavor yet light enough to round off a celebratory meal without pushing you over the edge. Barely sweet, feather light chestnut mousse filling, its nuttiness perfectly matched to the sweet chocolate buttercream cradled in tender, moist vanilla sponge.
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT CHARLOTTE
¾ cup (95 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup (70 g) + ½ cup (100 g) sugar, divided
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup (50 g) powdered sugar
CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FILLING:
1cup (120 g) powdered sugar
1 stick (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbs hot or boiling water
21 oz (600 g) cooked chestnuts
2 cups (500 ml) milk
1/3 cup (70 g) + 3 Tbs sugar, divided
2 envelopes (12 g) unflavored gelatin
½ tsp salt
3 egg whites at room temperature
1 cup (200 – 250 ml) heavy whipping cream
Prepare the Sponge Cake:
Prepare the sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream a day before (or at the very least early in the day) serving the Charlotte.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 15 ½ x 10 ½- inch (40 x 27-cm) jelly roll pan with parchment paper, leaving a bit overhanging the sides.
Blend and whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Separate the eggs. In a plastic or metal bowl, whip the egg whites, beating first at low speed for 30 seconds then increasing to high speed, until the whites hold soft peaks. Continue beating the whites on high speed gradually adding the 1/3 cup (70 g) of sugar until you have stiff, glossy peaks.
In a large mixing bowl beating at high speed, beat the egg yolks until thick and pale. Gradually beat in the ½ cup (100 g) sugar until very thick. Beat in the vanilla.
Gently fold both the flour and the meringue (egg whites) into the egg yolk/sugar batter using a rubber or silicone spatula until well blended and smooth with no more chunks of whites remaining.
Spread the batter gently and evenly in the prepared jelly roll pan, making sure the batter is spread into the corners (you can “glue” the paper to the bottom of the pan by dabbing a bit of the batter between the paper and the pan and pressing down. This will keep the parchment from moving around as you spread).
Bake the sponge in the preheated oven for 15 minutes until the top springs back when gently pressed. If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly simply lay a piece of aluminum foil on the top of the cake.
Have a very clean kitchen towel ready before removing the cake from the oven.
Remove the cake from the oven onto a cooling rack. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the powdered sugar making sure it is sprinkled evenly all over the surface. Lay a clean kitchen towel over the top of the cake and invert the whole thing. Lift off the baking pan. Very very gently (the cake is delicate) peel off the parchment paper from the cake. Now, working from a long side of the cake, roll the cake and the towel up together into a tight roll. Let the cake cool completely rolled in the towel set on the cooling rack.
Prepare the Chocolate Buttercream Filling:
Place the powdered sugar, the soft butter, the cocoa powder and the hot water in a medium-sized mixing bowl and beat until very well blended, smooth and creamy. Taste. Feel free to add a bit more sugar or cocoa to taste.
When the sponge cake has cooled completely, remove it from the cooling rack and place lengthwise in front of you on the work surface. Carefully unroll the cake. If the cake seems to have shrunk a bit, don’t worry about it. Spread the chocolate buttercream evenly all over the surface of the cake. Now, gently but firmly reroll the cake, rolling it as tightly as possible. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to prepare the Charlotte.
Prepare the Chestnut Mousse Filling:
Grind the cooked chestnuts very finely using a food mill or grinder with fine cutting disc (using a food processor may turn the chestnuts to paste) until they are like sand. Get a teen or a young man to help you out as this is hard on the elbow grease. Place the ground chestnuts in a large mixing bowl.
In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk with 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar and the gelatin. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until the milk is hot and the sugar and the gelatin are completely dissolved (you will see flecks of pale yellow/goldish on the surface – this is the gelatin. When the gelatin is dissolved these flecks will vanish.)
Pour the hot milk/sugar/gelatin over the chestnuts along with the remaining cup of milk and the salt. Stir until well blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour and a half until the mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon onto a plate.
Assemble the Charlotte:
When the Chestnut Mousse mounds after refrigeration, be ready to prepare the Charlotte: Line a 4-quart (4-liter) glass bowl, preferably round bottomed, very well with plastic wrap. Remove the sponge cake/chocolate buttercream roll from the fridge and remove the plastic wrap. Carefully and evenly slice off the uneven ends then slice the cake into ¼-inch (1/2 cm) slices. Starting at the bottom, line the bowl with the slices of cake, working your way up and around, pressing the pieces gently together to try and eliminate any gaps between the cake slices.
Complete the Chestnut Mousse Filling: In a small plastic or metal bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. Continue beating, gradually beating in the 3 tablespoons of sugar until peaks are firm and the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, preferably chilled, beat the whipping cream until peaks hold their shape.
Using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold the beaten egg whites and the whipped cream into the chestnut mousse until well blended and smooth. Mound the mixture into the cake-lined bowl, filling up the bowl to the top.
Carefully trim any cake slices that come above the edge of the bowl and fold them over. Cover the surface (which will be the bottom of the Charlotte once it is flipped over and unmolded) with more cake roll slices. Cover with plastic wrap and put back into the refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours or longer if possible.
Remove the Charlotte from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic wrap from the surface and invert a serving platter onto the Charlotte. Invert the platter and the Charlotte. Lift off the glass bowl (yay! It’s clean!) and the plastic wrap. The Charlotte is ready to serve.
I lift up my glass and my fork and I toast you, my dear friends and those of you who come and pay me a visit here at Life’s a Feast every now and then. You keep me alive and keep me going. And I am thankful for each and every one of you.
(ok, she’s had too much to eat and drink, she’s gone all soppy and sentimental now. Grab her arm there, come on, help me pull her off and get her to bed…. Quick, push her out o’ here before she starts on again with all that love and friendship and soppiness and stuff…geez she just doesn’t stop does she? Oops, come on, pick her up again… take that chocolate Santa away from her, oh wow, she’s stuffed it in her mouth already….yipes, oh gee whiz she’s going for the old films now, oh no! not Christmas in Connecticut again! Wowee how many times can one woman watch that stuff… take that bowl of candy away from her I said… almost there…easy now… ok! Whew! She’s stopped now…..