From Soup to Nuts

Roasted Chestnut and Hazelnut Soup 


In 1946, when Nat King Cole crooned "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…" he probably didn’t realize he was singing the line that would one day put chestnuts on the gastronomic radar for most of the American population. At the time he sang, chestnuts were a ubiquitous part of Christmas tradition across the U.S., both at home and on the street. Christmas stuffings and cakes groaned under the weight of added chestnuts; in the big cities roasters plied the streets like espresso carts do today. What nobody could foresee was that within a few short decades the omnipresent Christmas nut would have disappeared entirely, its presence in songs outlasting its presence on our tables. From a time when you couldn’t step sideways in December without bumping into a chestnut, what sent us spiralling downhill to the point where the the average annual consumption for every man, woman and child in America can be measured in a fraction of a nut?

Chestnut trees once grew in abundance in temperate climates all over the world, from East Asia to North America, and were particularly abundant in southern Europe. In France, Spain and Italy the chestnut was vital to human survival for several centuries, as it provided a cheap and plentiful source of calories in the winter when not much else would grow. Because of its starchy composition it was widely used as a replacement for flour, and dried milled chestnuts were put through their paces as the backbone of breads, porridges and pastas. Particularly popular were cakes that capitalized on chestnuts’ inherent sweetness; today recipes for these can still be found: castagnaccio in Italy, pisticcine in Corsica and délice à la châtaigne in southwest France are all variations on a dense, moist and subtly-sweet theme.

In North America, there used to be no shortage of chestnuts either. One out of every four trees within the 200 million-acre forest that stretched from Maine to Florida and west to Ohio was a chestnut, and the trees were so visible in the forests that during summer when the tree flowered, many people believed the Appalachians to be snow covered. It’s well documented that Native Americans in many areas were eating chestnuts for generations before the arrival of Europeans, and the early settlers found many uses for both the nuts and the wood. Many recipes published around the turn of the 20th Century included chestnuts as an accompaniment to or replacement for more expensive ingredients; tons of nuts were packed and shipped by train to large cities for street vendors to roast during the holidays.

Then in 1904, the chestnut blight struck. In that year a shipment of Asian chestnut trees was planted on Long Island; what nobody knew was that these trees carried a lethal fungus that the American trees had no resistance to. Within the next fifty years nearly all native American chestnut trees were wiped out. Chestnuts went from being a ubiquitous winter crop to being practically non-existent; generations of Americans grew up without ever so much as tasting one.

My first experience with chestnuts came from a street vendor in Spain, where they still grow in abundance. I was mesmerized by how different they were to my expectations – they tasted nothing like a nut, but more like a nugget of some crumbly primeval sweet potato. I later learned that they probably do have more in common nutritionally with a potato than other nuts, and also that different preparation methods affect their character substantially. While roasting concentrates their flavors and produces a drier, chewier specimen, boiling, particularly in milk, causes the kernel to swell slightly and become moist, tender, and almost buttery. Whichever way they’re prepared, though, once coerced out of its leathery peel, the chestnut dissolves into your mouth with a sigh of crumbly richness, warm and ancient and comforting – a perfect antidote to winter frosts.

Now that chestnut trees are being slowly reintroduced to North America, it’s becoming easier to get ahold of them. These days you can buy American-grown chestnuts at farmer’s markets and over the internet, and imported fresh, canned or vacuum-sealed varieties can usually be found in gourmet supermarkets. In whichever form you have them – and after you’ve roasted yourself a few over an open fire, just for the experience – this soup is a wonderful thing to do with them. The chestnuts’ sweet earthiness combines beautifully with roasted hazelnuts and hearty root vegetables into a silky, nutty, slightly sweet bisque, subtly accentuated with a few drops of hazelnut liqueur. It may not make up for all those chestnut-less years you may have suffered, but it will keep you warm and sated through plenty of sidewalk-shoveling, snowman building, and of course, singing along with Nat King Cole.

Internet chestnut purveyors:

Roasted Chestnut and Hazelnut Soup
Source: adapted from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso
Serves: 6-8
Note: Always puncture the shells of chestnuts before cooking to prevent explosion(!). To do this carve an X into the bottom end of the shell with a paring knife, taking care not to puncture the nut inside. To roast chestnuts over a fire, place the scored nuts in a foil pie tin punched with holes, sprinkle with water, and place directly on hot coals. Shake a few times during the roasting to prevent charring. When a fire is not roaring and ready for nuts, any oven will work. Roast the nuts at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until the scored corners of the skin curl back, and peel while still hot. Alternatively, to boil place the scored nuts in a saucepan and cover with either milk or cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, then peel. 

1/2 lb peeled chestnuts (roasted, boiled or pre-packaged), roughly chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup bacon or pancetta, diced
1 large yellow onion, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups rich chicken stock
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons Frangelico (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste 

Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the bacon or pancetta, onion, celery, carrots, garlic and thyme. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and stock, and stir in the chopped chestnuts. Heat to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered 45 minutes, or until everything is soft and the flavors have blended.

Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the hazelnuts, cream and Frangelico. Puree the soup in batches in a blender or in the pot with an immersion blender until it’s as smooth as you can get it. Pour into a clean pot, taste and adjust seasonings, and rewarm gently. Ladle the soup into small bowls and garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche.


Plune Brogging

Whiskied Prune and Custard Tart 


Manuel (walking into kitchen): What are you making?

Me: Oh,  these are some tarts I decided to make for David Lebovitz‘s Plune Brogging Thursday. It’s supposed to help us rediscover the joys of plunes- oops, I mean… (I stop speaking as I realize Manuel’s gaze has fallen on the open bottle of whiskey next to me.)

Manuel: Plune brogging, huh?

Me: (stammering) Uh well, you know what I mean. Want some whiskey?


Okay, David, you’ve won.  No one has ever convinced me to cook with prunes before. It’s not that I really had the idea that prunes were disgusting, but, well, let’s just say that if they were the last fruit left on earth, I’d probably eat fruit pretty rarely. Blame my mother if you like, but prunes only made an appearance in our household when they were needed for, ahem, curative purposes. And I’ll be the first one to admit that bad associations are hard to break.

But I’m the last one to stand in the way of an intrepid culinary experiment to challenge prejudices. In fact, I got pretty excited at the idea of trying to create something fabulous out of something so despised. It wasn’t that easy though. Recipes including prunes are, perhaps not surprisingly, kind of thin on the ground. In fact, I looked through all my dessert books and came up with as many recipes as I could count on one hand. But wait, you’re asking, why not make a savory dish? Sure, prunes pair wonderfully with rich roasted meats and spicy Moroccan tagines, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that putting prunes in a main dish was kind of cheating. It’s easy to hide a lot of weird stuff in savory food – in hot dogs alone we probably consume more animal parts than we could name without an anatomical reference chart. In desserts, however, where simplicity and clean flavors are the order of the day, there’s simply no place for anything questionable to hide.

But back to the recipes. Among my prospective prune desserts I had the choice between prune and Armagnac ice cream, a prune and Armagnac soufflé, prunes soaked in Armagnac, and a prune, custard and – guess what? – Armagnac tart. The last option looked the most appealing, if for no other reason than because it’s a creation of Scotland’s own Gordon Ramsay (Didn’t know he was Scottish? Now you do!) and appears in his fabulous book Just Desserts. But in surveying my recipes I became increasingly flustered by one thing: why do prunes only show up when there’s Armagnac around? It’s as if somebody decided at some point that the only way to salvage the prune’s maligned reputation was to always pair it with a sophisticated liquor. But why not sherry? Why not marsala? Why not plain old cognac? I don’t know, but it doesn’t say much for the wonderful eau-de-vie from Gascony that people think its most appropriate home is smack dab in the middle of a prune dessert.

And so I decided to defy tradition, however delicious it may be, and take the less trodden path. The Scottish path, to be precise, which naturally involved foregoing French spirits in favor of those distilled closer to home. Into the tarts went prunes that had been simmered in wonderfully fragrant Lady Grey tea and then soused in single-malt whiskey; on top was poured a silky custard of some of those whiskied prunes blended with eggs and plenty of double cream. They emerged from the oven golden, fragrant, and tempting, the quivering custard top giving away no secrets of the pruny depths below. The prunes came spilling out, though, as soon as we bit into them, soft and buttery and slightly raisiny, their complex leathery flavor nicely balanced by the citrusy tea and rich, toffee-scented whiskey. Manuel took one bite and exclaimed, "This is my kind of dessert!".

So score one for plune brogging, but am I a prune convert? I don’t really know. I liked the tarts, but there was a little nagging voice at the back of my mind that kept reminding me what I was eating. They were good, but I can’t say they were great. Maybe I just need to work a bit harder on overcoming my prejudices. Then again, I think next time I’ll be just as happy to skip the prunes and devote my full attention to the whiskey.

Whiskied Prune and Custard Tart(s)
Source: adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s Just Desserts
Yield: one large tart, enough for 6-8 prune lovers, or six small ones
Special equipment: one large (11" or 27cm) tart pan with removable bottom, or six individual tart pans

For crust:
your favorite tart crust, or try this recipe here

For filling:
200g pitted prunes (he calls for Agen prunes; I unfortunately couldn’t find any here)
about 200ml weak Lady Grey tea (similar to Earl Gray but contains orange and lemon peel in addition to bergamot)
4 tablespoons whiskey
400ml milk
200ml double or heavy cream
3 strips of lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
75g sugar
2 large egg yolks
2 large eggs 

Put the prunes and tea in a saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for one minute. Set aside to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the prunes, check for remaining stones, and place in a bowl. Stir in the whiskey and leave to macerate.

Roll out the tart dough and fit it into the pan so that it overhangs the edges a bit. Chill for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Cover the dough with foil and fill with dry beans or pie weights. Bake it blind for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully remove foil and beans.

Put the milk and cream in a saucepan with the lemon zest. Heat slowly until the boiling point, then remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla. Let infuse for 30 minutes.

Cut two-thirds of the prunes into small chunks and scatter over the baked crust. Beat the egg yolks and whole eggs together in a bowl. Remove the lemon zest from the creamy milk. Bring back to a boil, then slowly pour on to the beaten eggs, whisking constantly. Set aside. Put the remaining prunes into a food processor and blend to a pulp. With the motor running, slowly pour in the custard through the feed tube, processing until evenly blended. Pass through a sieve into a jug, rubbing with the back of a spoon to press as much through as possible.

Return the tart pan to the oven, pulling the shelf out as far as it’s safe to. Slowly pour in the prune custard over the prune chunks – it should come almost to the top of the pan. Very carefully push the oven shelf back and bake the tart for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard barely wobbles when shaken. Remove from oven. With a sharp knife at an angle, trim the crust level with the top of the pan. Cool to room temperature, then carefully unmold and place on a large plate. Serve with whipped cream, crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream.


Comfort by the Cup



The seasons are changing at full throttle now. Where a few short weeks ago there were green leaves, mild breezes and endless daylight, now there are rapidly-baring branches, icy winds and encroaching darkness. Everywhere I go I have to remember my rain protection and high-collared coat, and every night I come home craving big plates of hearty, calorie-rich food. Although you’d think this should be enough to convince me that we’re spinning headlong into winter, in reality my seasonal clock is much more specific than that. While other people flip the calendar, break out the long johns and park the ice-scraper in the car, I wait for my one failsafe sign that cold weather has arrived for good. For me all the woolen mittens and frozen noses in the world signal the time of year less than a sudden, unignorable, bottom-of-the-belly craving for hot chocolate.

I have always been a sucker for hot chocolate, though as I grow older I find that for all its apparent simplicity, a really good cup can be hard to find. When I was a kid I drank Swiss Miss by the gallon and loved every tooth-aching drop, but as an adult I find powdered mixes just not up to scratch. I’ve also had limited success just combining good chocolate and milk. You certainly can, but it never turns out quite right – too little chocolate and the flavor is frustratingly subtle; too much and it’s just too rich to drink, an afternoon pick-me-up inadvertently becoming an early dinner. And then there’s the consistency. If you’ve ever been to Spain, you’ve probably tried hot chocolate there, which comes as thick as mud and is nearly always eaten like soup. As delicious as that is, if it’s not sippable it’s still not my quintessential cup.

What makes the perfect cup, then? Well, it should carry a heavy hit of chocolate, preferably from both a high-quality bar and a good measure of cocoa for depth. It should be smooth, rich, and silky without the slightest bit of powdery grit. There should be just enough sweetness to take the edge off the bitter chocolate, but not nearly enough to be cloying. There should be a deep milky, creamy flavor without overpowering richness. It also should be quick to whip up, because hot chocolate is meant to satisfy spur-of-the-moment chocolate cravings. This recipe just might have it all. Its basis is a recipe in the highly acclaimed and encyclopedic Secrets of Baking by James Beard award-winner Sherry Yard. What tempted me first was the technique – she builds the recipe around a ganache, which is a brilliantly simple way to assure a complete emulsification and a velvety-smooth texture. Another point in its favor comes from the recipe making a large batch – perfect for storing in the fridge and reheating as the cravings strike. The other great thing about this recipe is that there are customizable elements – if you want it thicker and richer, omit the water and substitute cream for part of the milk. If you want it lighter, you can even dilute it more. The amount of sugar is also up to you – add a few tablespoons when you make it, or let yourself and your guests add it to taste to each steaming, luscious cup.

Is this the perfect hot chocolate? You’ll have to be the judge of that. All I can tell you is that for the moment I’m not in a hurry for the warm weather to return.

Perfect Hot Chocolate
Yield: 6 cups of hot chocolate

7oz (200g) bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup evaporated milk
2 1/2 cups whole milk (or 2 cups milk and 1/2 cup additional cream)
1 1/2 cups water (optional)
1/4 cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
sugar, to taste
freshly whipped cream, to garnish

To make the ganache, chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream and evaporated milk to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Immediately pour the boiling liquid over the chopped chocolate, then let it sit undisturbed for 1 minute. Stir slowly until everything is smooth and blended.

Bring the whole milk and optional water to a boil over medium heat. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the ganache. Let sit for 1 minute, then stir until well combined and velvety smooth. Stir in the vanilla, sweeten with sugar to taste and serve hot, garnished with a spoonful of lightly-sweetened whipped cream.