Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
NUTS TO YOU!
Nothing means Winter – and Christmas - quite like chestnuts. Yes, yes, you can say that pumpkins start the season rolling, deep orange pumpkins with their jack-o’-lantern grins and afternoons spent kicking piles of golden and red and violet leaves, strolling through the forest looking deep into the lush olive green moss for mushrooms and coming home, hands chilled, noses the color of Rudolph’s, to a steaming bowl of savory sweet pumpkin soup and a slice of homey pumpkin pie. Or you can tell me all about cranberries, that ruby red jewel of the season, all that tangy excitement bursting forth from muffins and coffee cakes, glistening bowls of relish gracing the holiday table, the perfect marriage with that other winter fruit, the orange, a wonderful love affair of tart and sweet. Or strung up by children, wrapped gaily around the tree, adding the jolliness to the otherwise glamorous fir all aglitter with silver and gold.
Dark chocolate truffles nestling in tiny paper cups offered like precious gifts, dusted with icing sugar or dense with cocoa. Or gingerbread men dancing along the countertop, glazed and bespeckled with sugary treats, or shaped like elfin houses decked out in candy cane and gumdrop glory, winter’s first snow of icing sugar powdering a candy-tiled roof. Or pears turned into spicy sweet delicacies, homey and warming after a day in the snow, served up with mugs of hot cocoa or warm mulled wine. Sensuous pears, or maybe even the sophisticated fig, all sugar-and-spice Christmassy, their elegant, coy dew-drop shape dripping with chocolate or drenched in golden cinnamon and nutmeg spiked syrup, caramel or maple, snuggling down deep into a blanket of soft fragrant cake or lavishly adorning an otherwise any-season dessert.
Yes, yes, go on, you can tell me the stories, try and convince me, but truly the simple chestnut, that ugly, lumpy, homely fellow, picked up from the ground, out of the dirt, gathered into baskets on a forest adventure, carried home and steamed or grilled or tossed into the fire truly means Christmas. Or bought at street corner stands, large ramshackle tin drums set up haphazardly on grocery carts or bicycle wheels parked under swags of Christmas lights, drawing you through the icy mist towards some magical Shangrila, the fragrant scent of roasting chestnuts like a welcoming hug. Warm your hands over the woodsy, earthy-scented steam while he scoops the perfect quantity of perfectly roasted chestnuts, skins crackling invitingly, and pours out a measure and walk away cradling a paper cone of Christmas.
Chestnuts added to seasoned cornbread stuffing or tossed with sausages and sage then stuffed in your holiday bird, chestnuts married with apples and sweet potatoes adding their nutty goodness to the sweet. Risottos and gnocchi, soups and breads all thrilled to be embellished by this hearty, rich nut, infusing warmth and all the good things of the earth into an otherwise frivolous dish. Chestnuts just have a way of surprising, jazzing up anything, both the savory and the sweet, adding depth and richness and something so earthy and warming, pulling us into a secret hide-away place of forest creatures and elves hidden under toadstools, sitting us down in front of a blazing fire all cozy and warm on the hearth, feeling as if we are all snuggled up in red flannel jammies clutching a mug of steaming hot chocolate and waiting for Jolly Old Saint Nick to slip down the chimney laden with brightly colored packages, gifts just for us.
I know, I have told you that Hanukkah is my holiday; nary a Santa crosses my threshold, no reindeer prance on my rooftop. No fir tree all dressed up in her holiday best adorns my living room, no holiday meal for the family has me frazzled. We set up our Hanukkah menorah and the scene of the great battle won by the Maccabees that the boys drew and cut out so diligently when they were young on a tabletop and we hang a few blue and silver garlands across the wall. Chocolate Hanukkah gelt is strewn across surfaces and presents are hidden in closets to be brought out one by one after the lighting of the candles over the eight nights of this wonderful, magical holiday. Potato latkes and cheese fritters sizzle away on the stovetop and cookies are cut out in Hanukkah shapes: buttery stars and Menorahs and dreidls all glazed in white and sprinkled with blue. The candle lights flicker and dance in the wintry darkness adding romance and mystery to this simple family holiday.
Yet I love the glittery, shimmering, garish, gay side of Christmas. Who doesn’t? The streets all aglow in lights, shop windows dressed up in their holiday best or full of silly Santas and snowmen. Wreaths hanging on doors and decorated windows beckoning. “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” follow you down the street adding music to the bounce in your step and evening after evening those old favorite black & white Christmas films shown year after year on TV still entertain. And I love all the special festive seasonal treats, boxes of chocolates all wrapped up in gold paper and red velvet bows, golden-fried puffs hidden under a shower of powdered sugar or Bûche de Noël, sumptuous in her holiday finery. And chestnuts. Chestnuts in all simplicity, roasted and eaten one by one, or blended into any dish, savory or sweet. But for all those wonderful chestnut this and chestnut that, the soups and ravioli, the stewed and the sauced, what really goes best with chestnuts? Why chocolate of course!
I fell in love with chestnut flour in Italy and once I discovered this moist, incredibly flavored, dense, delicious layer cake recipe from The Cake Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s fabulous cookbook, I have never looked back. Slathered with the best chocolate buttercream frosting, this is my very favorite recipe using chestnut flour. I recently offered a small cellophane sack of this most precious of flours to my lovely Deeba of Passionate About Baking as she had never had chestnuts before in her life (the chestnut flour along with a can of sweetened vanilla chestnut cream and a vacuum-packed package of cooked chestnuts) and I promised to post my favorite recipe using the chestnut flour. I make this wonderful cake yearly, usually on my post-holiday birthday, but I wanted to offer it to Deeba and my readers for the Christmas holidays. I also added something especially seasonal and festive: layers of chocolate chestnut cognac cream (based on a recipe found in this month’s Saveurs magazine). This fancy yet extremely easy to make cream adds a luscious, very adult, very elegant facet to this beautiful cake. Serve it at the end of your holiday meal with a cold glass of champagne, bien sûr!
CHESTNUT LAYER CAKE
From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible
3 large eggs
1 cup (250 ml) milk
2 ¼ tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups + 1 Tbs (190 g) sifted bread or cake flour
1 cup (110 g) sifted chestnut flour
1 ½ cups (300 g) sugar
1 Tbs (14.5 g) baking powder
½ tsp salt
12 Tbs (170 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature (the softer the better)
* I don’t sift my flours and I use French regular white flour which is the equivalent of American cake flour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter two 9 x 1 ½-inch (23 x 4 cm) round cake pans, line with parchment paper then butter and lightly flour. ( For this recipe, I used 3 pans for a 3-layer cake and it worked perfectly).
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, ¼ cup (@ 65 ml) of the milk and the vanilla. Set aside.
Place all of the dry ingredients (the flour, chestnut flour, sugar, baking powder and salt) n a large mixing bowl and, using an electric mixer, blend together on low speed for 30 seconds.
Add all of the soft butter and the remaining ¾ cup (185 ml) milk to the dry ingredients and blend on low speed until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase the mixer speed to medium (high if using a hand mixer) and continue beating for another 1 ½ minutes, scraping down the sides as needed.
Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for about 20 seconds after each addition to blend. Scrape down the sides and make sure that the batter is smooth and well-blended.
Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans and gently smooth the surface with a spatula. The pans shouldn’t be more than half full. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes depending on your oven until the cake is golden, puffed, set in the center and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. I baked mine for 20 to 25 minutes as I had divided the batter into 3 pans instead of 2.
If you must bake the layers one at a time – as I do because my oven is just too small – then loosely cover the remaining layer(s) with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake.
Remove the cake pans from the oven to wire cooling racks and allow to cool for 10 minutes before loosening and then turning the cakes out of the pans and letting them cool completely before frosting.
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT COGNAC CREAM FILLING
From Saveurs magazine Spécial fêtes 2009 issue
6 ½ oz (200 g) crème de marron (sweetened vanilla-scented chestnut cream)
slightly less than 7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
6 ½ oz (200 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (I used Lindt dessert 70%)
2 – 3 Tbs cognac or to taste
In a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water melt the chocolate and then let it cool slightly.
In a medium-sized bowl, beat the chestnut cream with the softened butter until smooth and fluffy. When the chocolate has cooled slightly, whisk the chocolate into the chestnut mixture, then whisk in cognac to taste.
If the cream is too thin to spread between cake layers, simply chill it in the refrigerator until spreading consistency.
SIMPLE CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM
(a double recipe of our favorite chocolate buttercream)
12 ounces (350 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
4 tablespoons (50 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons very hot water
* I used 325 g powdered sugar
Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar together. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy.
To assemble the cake:
Place one of the cake layers on your serving platted. Slide wide strips of wax or parchment paper under the edges of the cake all around; this will let you frost the cake while keeping the serving platter clean!
Divide the Chocolate Chestnut Cognac cream filling evenly between the bottom layer of cake and a second layer of cake. Using a spatula gently spread the cream over the tops of both layers to the edges. Gently and carefully lift the second cream-coated layer and place on the bottom cream-coated layer on the platter. Now place the final clean layer on top. You now have three layers with two layers of chocolate chestnut cream filling sandwiched in between.
Using your metal spatula frost first the sides of the cake, evenly covering all around the cake. Then finish by frosting the top making sure to fill in all the gaps along the edge.
Gently pull the waxed paper out from underneath the edges of the cake and voila! frosted and you still have a clean serving platter. Decorate as you like (I kept some chocolate buttercream frosting aside to pipe a decorative border with then I sprinkled gold candy sprinkles all over the top of the cake.