02 December 2011

Gesztenye Szelet or Chestnut Slices

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...Jack Frost nipping at your nose...  

Yep, I'm a big fan of the chestnut.

I didn't know this about myself until a few years agoIt was mid-December and I was traveling.  One night I was out walking and I smelled something amazing... 

Smoky.  Sweet.  Nutty?

I couldn't figure out what it was exactly but I kept seeing people carrying these white paper pouches.  I finally put two-and-two together and tracked the baggies to their source--a tightly bundled-up man holding a shovel-shaped metal scoop with a long handle huddled over what looked like a trash can lid.  Roasted chestnuts.

So exciting!

Confession.  I have this thing about trying to live out certain movie moments I've seen.  It's this kind of thinking that has led to things like a white-water rafting trip, sitting around a campfire singing to a friend's guitar playing, marching on Washington and even deciding what college to attend (the red brick buildings were just like college campuses in the movies).  Ridiculous?  Maybe, but it keeps things interesting and now I know first-hand that chestnuts roasting on an open fire are worth singing about!

Chewy, sweet, buttery and a little smoky.  Totally unique. Savory sweet.  Yum.

Now, whenever I see chestnut-flavored anything I order it. I became addicted to chestnut crepes (marron) in Paris and marrone gelato in Rome.

For years I searched high and low for chestnuts to roast and I can't tell you the number of failed experiments I've conducted.  Roasting, steaming, scoring, sweating, burning--all failed.  At least it's a little easier to find the whole nuts these days.  I picked up a bag the other day and smartly put them back on the shelf.  Tempting still, but maybe I've learned my limitations?  Trader Joe's carries peeled and steamed chestnuts vacuum-packed around the holidays.  It feels a little like cheating to me, but I'm silly that way.

That brings me to the Gesztenye Szelet or Chestnut Slices, a Hungarian recipe from Rick Rodgers' book, Kaffeehaus.

Basically, this is a chestnut scented sponge cake doused with a rum (or brandy) simple syrup topped with chestnut cream and granished with chocolate shavings.  Chestnut and chocolate?  Count me in.

You probably know by now that I have a knack for taking something simple and making it complicated!  It's part of my charm, right?  This recipe is no exception.  It's supposed to be one of those bake and serve from the same pan desserts but I didn't do that.  I have to admit that I have a certain prejudice toward cakes in a pan.  It's too grandma-ish or church social for me.  Honestly, I just don't think it's pretty or good enough for the beautiful chestnut.  There, I've said it.

Even with my fussiness, this is a simple cake.  Really.  The hardest part was finding unsweetened chestnut puree.  I finally found it at Whole Foods.  I'm hoping that the puree will start showing up in most stores like the whole chestnut has because it's an amazing ingredient that's great in desserts and makes delicious soup too!

What Happened:
Not much to tell here really.  I followed the recipe as written for all the elements.  The cake was a warm sponge like we've done with the Punschtorte and the Lúdlábtorta. Then there was making the soaking syrup with a healthy bit of rum and whipping up some cream with chestnut puree folded in.  No problem.

From the start I knew I didn't want to bake and serve in the same dish, so that's where I deviated from the recipe.  Instead of buttering a 13x9 Pyrex baker, I prepped a comparably sized baking sheet with butter and parchment so that I could remove the cake easily and assemble it my own way even though I hadn't quite figured out what that would be yet.

Ultimately, I assembled the dessert a couple of different ways after I cut the cake to fit my serving dishes:
  1. Cake on bottom, syrup, topped with piped cream and garnished with chocolate
  2. Cake (soaked with syrup) sandwiching chestnut cream and topped with melted chocolate

Things I Would Change:
  • I'd definitely stick with the decision to assemble the slices rather than follow the bake and serve suggestion.
  • The piped cream (either shells or swirls) was the best version of the cake.  Pretty and a good proportion of cream to cake.
  • Adding sliced almonds between the cake and the cream would be a nice surprise.  The slices could use some variation in texture.  The chocolate isn't enough and adding more for crunch would overpower the chestnut.

The Result:
The Chestnut Slices were good, but not mind blowing.  Texture was part of the problem.  The whole dessert was just soft and soft.  I found myself wanting a little crunch--sliced almonds could do the trick.  On the bright side, I loved the chestnut cream.  Chestnut in this form has such a delicate flavor reminiscent of hazelnut, but lighter.  The rum syrup worked nicely with the chestnut flavor in the cake and the cream and it wasn't boozy once it married with the sponge.

I found that the version of the assembly that sandwiched the cream between cake layers didn't work as well because the increased amount of chocolate threw off the balance of flavors.  Chestnut is the star here, but in this configuration the chocolate pushed the chestnut to the background.

The best part of this recipe for me was the chestnut cream.  That flavor has stuck with me and I know I'll think of a way to sneak that in somewhere down the line.

Gesztenye Szelet (Chestnut Slices)
adapted from Kaffeehaus by Rick Rodgers
makes 12 slices

6                      eggs, room temperature
1/3 c + 1 T      sugar
3 T                   canned unsweetened chestnut puree
1 t                    vanilla
pinch               salt
¾ c                  flour

brandy syrup:
¼  c                 water
3 T                   sugar
2 T                   brandy or dark rum

chestnut topping:
1 ½ c              canned unsweetened chestnut puree
1 ½ c              powdered sugar, divided
2 t                   vanilla
2 c                  cream

2 oz                bittersweet chocolate, for garnish

1. Place rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.  Butter a 13 x 9 sheet pan and line the bottom with parchment or wax paper.  Dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

2. Whisk the eggs and sugar together in bowl of a mixer.  Place over a pan of simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water!), whisk until eggs are very hot & sugar is dissolved.  Attach to the mixer and beat with whisk on med-hi to the ribbon stage.  The mixture will be very light and tripled in volume (3 mins). 

3.  Beat in the chestnut puree, vanilla and salt until well distributed. 

4. Sift half the flour over the eggs and gently fold in with a whisk or rubber spatula until the white streaks are gone.  Repeat with the remaining flour.   Pour into the pan, smooth with spatula making sure to fill the corners.

5. Bake until the cake springs back – about 20 minutes.  Let cool 10 minutes then run a knife around the edges to release.  Turn out on a wire rack, peel off parchment and let cool completely.

6.  While the cake bakes make the syrup. Bring water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Stir to dissolve the sugar, let it boil for 1 minute.  Cool completely then stir in the brandy or rum.

7.  To make the topping, beat the chestnut puree with ¼ cup of the powdered sugar and the vanilla in a medium bowl on low with a handheld mixer until smooth.  In a chilled medium bowl, beat the cream with the remaining ¾ cup of powdered sugar until stiff.  Stir in a large dollop of whipped cream into the chestnut puree to lighten then fold in the remainder.

8.  There are several choices for assembly: 
- Leave the cake in the pan, drizzle it with the brandy syrup, spread the chestnut topping over cake and grate chocolate over top.
- Remove the cake from the pan, cut it crosswise into 3 or 4 strips, drizzle with brandy syrup, pipe topping (rosettes or shells) and grate chocolate over top.
- Remove cake from the pan, cut in 2 halves, drizzle with brandy syrup, spread ½ the topping over one half of the cake (sprinkle with chopped almonds or hazelnuts), sandwich with second layer of cake, decoratively pipe the rest of the topping over the cake and top with grated chocolate (and chopped nuts).

Serve chilled.  The cake will keep up to 3 days.

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