I swore I’d never do it, but I did actually roast and peel chestnuts last Christmas. Not over an open-fire, but in the oven, as nature intended. Then I peeled them all until shell shards got jammed under my fingernails and I was all out of curse words.
I’m glad I tried it, though. It makes you appreciate how much hard work goes into shelling nuts. Plus, there are other sensory aspects of the process that are far more pleasurable than the aforementioned shards. The beautiful mahogany shells, for example, and the way the dry-roasting makes the whole house smell of shoes. Not stinky, old shoes. New shoes of the finest Italian leather. Then, of course, there are the sweet chestnut meats inside that can go into stuffings or cakes. But especially cakes.
Even though it feels like we’re on our way out of chestnut season, if it’s not already long gone, I have to mention this particular cake because it makes an elegant but manly dessert. Like if your dad, for example, has a winter-ish birthday. It’s super-easy to pull together, but makes a great impression. You can buy chestnut puree in a can at discerning markets (at Russo’s, it sits on a low shelf across from the eggs and cheese). The brand I bought was straight from France and contained chestnuts and water only, no surprising additives, so the recipe remains gluten-free. It makes for a somewhat expensive shopping list, but you will consider it money well spent when you’re sitting down eating cake instead of peeling a million goddamned chestnuts.
Chocolate Chestnut Torte
Unfortunately, the kids loved it, too.
1 15-oz. can chestnut puree
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
10 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (of the high-end variety), melted and cooled
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Two pinches of salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9- or 10-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
Add chestnut puree and softened butter to a large bowl and, using a mixer, beat until well blended. Separate the eggs using clean hands (crack an egg, pour contents into your hand, and let the whites fall through your fingers into a small bowl until only the yolk remains). One by one, add the yolks to the chestnut-butter mixture. One by one, dump the whites into a separate large bowl. (If the yolk breaks, set that egg aside for an omelet. Get another egg. A broken yolk will render the associated egg whites unwhippable). Set bowl of egg whites aside. Add melted chocolate and vanilla to chestnut-butter mixture along with the yolks, and mix well. Set aside.
With clean, dry beaters, whip the egg whites with the salt. Gradually add in the sugar. Continue whipping until stiff, glossy peaks form (but you don’t want them dry and Styrofoam-looking). Gently mix one third of the egg whites into the chocolate chestnut mixture to lighten. Then, add half of what’s left of the whites to the bowl and fold in until incorporated. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites. The idea is to deflate the egg whites as little as possible. Proper folding technique is important. Here’s a refresher.
Gently pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, until the top looks dry and slightly cracked. Cool in pan for 20 minutes, then remove to wire rack. Serve alone or with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraiche.