Gwyneth Jones on chestnuts

I asked Gwyneth what her favorite winter comfort food was and here is her delightful answer!

Chestnuts, I’m obsessed with chestnuts at Christmas. The obsession dates back to childhood, when chestnuts roasted over the coals on a fire-shovel were a winter treat, back in the primitive and labour intensive days when my parents’ house was heated by an Aga (solid fuel range) in the kitchen, and coal/wood fires elsewhere. And marrons glacees were the ultimate in sophistication. . . until I finally tried them, and wondered what the fuss was about. (I’m sure they’re very nourishing, by the way) Now I live in Sussex, I expect to forage a kilo or so of sweet chestnuts in October or November. After that it’s hit or miss. One year I slung them in the freezer wet and still in the shell & they defrosted as mush. Another year I left them in a copper bowl in a corner they went mouldy & the bowl suffered too. The supermarket then provides, boring!

Still, enough times the chestnuts survive, and then it’s the awful day of reckoning. People will tell you (e.g. Elizabeth David, see below) that there is a knack to peeling chestnuts and once you know it you will never look back. They lie. Usually it’s pure masochism, burned fingertips, outbursts of rage.

Then you eat them with sprouts and crispy bacon or put them in the stuffing. But this is one of the best rewards for all the pain:

Chestnut and Chocolate Cake.

shell and skin 1lb (450g) of chestnuts.

Cover them with milk (either skimmed milk or half and half milk & water), and simmer until very soft — about an hour. Drain off the liquid & sieve or mash the chestnuts to a smooth puree. Save the liquid, it’s a beautiful stock base.

Make a syrup with 3 oz (100g) sugar and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Add this to puree, with 2 oz (about 70g) softened butter. When you have these ingredients well mixed leave to stand. Brush a small loaf tin, or other half litre/1 pt rectangular mold, with sweet oil (almond oil or similar), and fill it with the soft “dough”. Set to chill in a refrigerator for 24hrs.

Next day, make a chocolate coating with around 100g dark chocolate, adding a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the melted chocolate, & let the paste cool slightly. Turn the chestnut cake out of the mold, use a smooth-edged knife dipped in water to coat it with chocolate. Leave to chill again before serving.

This recipe is from Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking. You will find the lines about chestnut peeling on p. 265, blotted with my tears.

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