fussy chestnut cake

fussy chestnut cake

Apparently, I was in the mood for some fancy-pants baking this past weekend. Like, multiple-day, million-step, fussy-as-can-be baking. As I mentioned in my last post, I’d been fantasizing recently about chestnuts. I just love those little guys so much; they’re sweet, they’re meaty, and I feel like they’re a bit underutilized in the baking world. I mean, sure, one always hears about chestnuts going in turkey stuffing or whatnot, and of course there are always those dudes selling them on the street, but I don’t think I see chestnut desserts quite as often as would be desirable. So I started poking around for something inspiring to do with chestnuts, and lo, I found one over at the Queen of Domesticity‘s place: a chestnut cake filled with chestnut pastry cream, frosted with a bittersweet ganache, and finally topped again with a chocolate-armagnac glaze. Holy moly.

can you say fussy?

fussy eggwhites

Okay, so let me get one thing out there: I’m not the hugest fan of Martha Stewart, but I think she’s awesome at what she does, and generally, her recipes are really quite outstanding. So when I saw a recipe for chestnut cake on her site, I thought, “well, this looks a bit complicated, but certainly worth a try.” We were even planning to go to dinner at Kenan‘s dad’s house on Sunday, which gave me at least somewhat of a reason to get this adventurous on what otherwise would have been a fairly sleepy weekend. So, on Saturday morning, I went off to the grocery store to get supplies for this chestnut cake to end all cakes. First on my shopping list was a jar of whole roasted chestnuts, which rang in at a whopping $13. My original thought had been to get fresh chestnuts and roast and shell them myself, but alas, they were nowhere to be found, at least at my usual grocery haunts. Which left me stuck buying an outrageously expensive thing of nuts. At any rate, I also got a bit of armagnac (a type of brandy similar to cognac but made using a different type of still), milk, cream, eggs, and butter.

And then it was time to get started. First step: make a chestnut puree. This involves simmering some chestnuts, half a vanilla bean and some milk until the chestnuts soak up a lot of the liquid and everything cooks down. Then the mixture is strained and pureed until it comes out to about the consistency of a thick hummus. I tasted a bit of it, and it’s seriously, outrageously delicious. It’s sweet, it’s nutty, and I wanted to spread it on toast. So after that was done, make a pastry cream using the aforementioned chestnut puree: whisk some yolks together with sugar, add corn starch and some chestnut stuff, heat up some milk, temper the yolks with the milk, pour everything back into the pan, heat it until it comes to just under a boil, strain it and then let it hang out in an ice bath until fully cool. When those two things were done and I had cleaned everything up (I think I managed to use every mixing bowl in my possession at least twice), I called it quits for the day.

The following afternoon, I started in on the cake. Ms. Stewart’s recipe requested a nine-inch pan but didn’t specify how deep. Because I knew the cake was supposed to be cup into three layers, I figured she meant a springform with thick sides. But all I had was a ten-inch springform, so I threw caution to the wind and used two regular eight-inch pans and cut each of them into two layers, thus creating a four-layer cake. Take that, fussy recipe. So anyway, first, I sifted together the dry ingredients. Then I scraped out the seeds from half a vanilla bean pod and mixed it with some granulated sugar. Next came the butter, which is whipped with the sugar until it gets pale and fluffy, as per usual. Then the egg yolks, and then the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the rest of the chestnut puree and a bit of milk. Then I whipped five egg whites with some sugar until they formed medium-stiff, glossy peaks, and folded that into the other mess. The batter is pretty thick, as these things go: almost like the batter for a tea cake. Then I baked the suckers until they puffed at the top and turned a golden brown, which took about an hour. While the cakes were baking, I whipped up the armagnac simple syrup, which would be coated on the cake layers later. There was still much more to come, but there wasn’t really much I could do to assemble the cake until we got to Kenan’s dad’s place, so I wrapped everything up and we left for Manhattan.

fun times, eating times

fussy preparation

Over on the Upper East Side, I sliced the cakes into two layers each and coated them with armagnac syrup. Then I stacked the layers up, topping each one with a layer of pastry cream, and then let the whole lot hang out in the fridge for a while. And then we shared an amazing dinner with Kenan’s family, and, after too much wine and far too much food, it was time to do the rest of the cake. I scurried back to the kitchen and got to work on the whipped frosting. I simmered some heavy cream and then poured it over bitter sweet chocolate and whipped it until it got fluffy. Then I spread it over the cake, let it sit for a few minutes and got started on the glaze while the frosting was setting. I simmered more cream, poured it over more chocolate, let it stand to allow the chocolate to melt, mixed the stuff together, added some armagnac, and then drizzled the whole mess over the cake.

The thing look fantastic: a towering mountain of chocolate and chestnuts, all shiny and aromatic and lovely. I was very, very excited to dig into it. And… I was not entirely thrilled. Sure, the taste of chestnut was great, and the frosting and glaze were delicious, but the cake itself was a bit dry. Kenan’s sister pointed out to me that the texture was not unlike angel food cake, which I think is true. I mean, I don’t have any problem with angel food cake, but there was something a bit chewy about this particular cake that I wasn’t too happy about. Don’t get me wrong; it was certainly a good cake, but it wasn’t great, and I really don’t think it was worth so many hours of preparation and so much fuss to prepare. It also didn’t really seem to be worth the money: two sticks of butter, a lot of whole milk, lots of heavy cream, 14 ounces of baking chocolate, a jar of chestnuts, and armagnac. It is, however, very, very impressive, and not too shabby if you’re willing to put all the work into it. But for myself, I think next time I might do something more straightforward, like a chestnut pudding – perhaps using some of the chestnut puree, which is outstanding, in a more standard pudding or custard recipe.

And that was that. Not the best in the whole world, but still worth the try. Have at it, if you’re up to a challenge.

chesnut cake with chocolate-armagnac glaze.

fussy sauce

chestnut cake with chocolate-armagnac glaze.
(adapted from Martha Stewart)

chestnut puree

whole chestnuts, roasted, peeled and skinned 14.8 ounces (a bit less than a pound; one jar)
whole milk 2 1/4 cups, plus more if needed
salt pinch
1/2 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise

chestnut cake

cake flour, plus more for dusting cake pans 2 cups
baking powder 2 teaspoons
salt 3/4 teaspoon

1/2 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise
granulated sugar 1 1/2 cups
unsalted butter, room temperature 1 cup (2 sticks), plus more for greasing
large eggs, separated, at room temperature 4
large egg white, at room temperature 1
chestnut puree 1 cup
whole milk 1/4 cup
armagnac simple syrup
chestnut pastry cream
whipped bittersweet ganache frosting
chocolate-armagnac glaze

chestnut pastry cream

granulated sugar 1/2 cup
large egg yolks 2
salt pinch

corn starch 3 tablespoons
chestnut puree 1 1/2 cups
whole milk 2 1/4 cups

armagnac simple syrup

granulated sugar 1/4 cup
water 1/2 cup
armagnac (or other type of brandy) 2 tablespoons

whipped bittersweet ganache frosting

heavy whipping cream 1 cup
bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine 8 ounces

chocolate-armagnac glaze

heavy whipping cream 3/4 cup
semisweet chocolate, chopped fine 6 ounces
unsalted butter, room temperature 4 tablespoons

armagnac (or other type of brandy) 1 tablespoon

for the chestnut puree: Combine the chestnuts, milk and salt in a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Using the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan and toss in the pod. Bring to just under a boil (you will see bubbles start to form around the edges of the pan) over medium heat, reduce heat to low, and continue to simmer, partially covered, until the chestnuts are very soft and the chestnuts have absorbed all but about 1/2 cup of the liquid, about 20-30 minutes.

Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl, keeping the chestnuts and milk separately and discarding the vanilla bean pod. Place the chestnuts in the bowl of a food processor and puree, adding the reserved milk 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture reaches the consistency of a thick spread. Pour through a large-mesh sieve (I don’t have one, so I skipped it). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

for the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center of the oven. Grease a 9-inch cake pan with thick sides (I used two 8-inch pans; it’s up to you). Line the bottom of the pan (or pans) with parchment paper cut to fit exactly, grease the paper, and dust everything with flour, tapping out the excess. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a medium mixing bowl and set aside.

Add 1 cup of the sugar to the work bowl of a standing mixer (or a large mixing bowl). Using the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod into the bowl. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute, until the seeds are evenly distributed. Add the butter and beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Continuing on medium speed, add the four egg yolks and beat until combined. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, adding the chestnut puree after the first addition and the milk after the second addition. Transfer the batter to a large bowl.

Using a clean bowl and clean whisks, Beat the five egg whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and continue to beat until stiff, glossy peaks form. Stir one-third of the whites into the rest of the batter until just combined. Gently add the rest of the whites to the batter, folding until just combined (it’s okay if the batter is still lumpy). Scrape the batter into the prepared pan (or pans) and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let cool completely on a wire rack. (You can wrap the cake in plastic and refrigerate it for up to 2 days.)

for the pastry cream: Fill a large bowl halfway with ice water and set aside. Whisk together 1/4 cup of the sugar, the egg yolks, and the salt in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk in the corn starch, 1 tablespoon at a time, and then add the chestnut puree.

Over medium heat in a 2-quart heavy-bottomed sauce pan, bring milk and remaining 1/4 cup sugar to a simmer, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Whisking constantly, pour half of the milk mixture into the yolk mixture. Pour the yolk and egg mixture back into the sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly and making sure you scrape the bottom and sides of the pan. Boil for 2 minutes.

Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium medium bowl. Set the bowl in the ice water and allow to cool fully, about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep a skin from forming. When the cream is fully cool, place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the cream to prevent a skin from forming, cover the bowl, and refrigerate until ready to use.

for the armagnac syrup: Bring the sugar and the water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in armagnac. Let cool completely. Syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

to finish the cake: Using a serrated knife, trim the top of the cake to create a flat surface. Slice the cake horizontally into 3 layers (or 2 layers for each cake if you made 2 8-inch cakes). Place the bottom layer on a cake stand or serving platter, sliced side up, and brush generously with syrup. Spread some of the pastry cream over the syrup, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edge. Top with the second layer, brush with more syrup, and add more pastry cream, again leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edge. Top with the remaining cake layer. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

for the ganache: Place the chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer over medium heat. Pour the cream over the chocolate and mix on medium-high speed until fluffy. Spread the frosting over the top and sides of the cake and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

for the glaze: Place the chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer over medium heat. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand for 5 minutes to allow the chocolate to melt. Stir until smooth. Add the butter and argmagnac and stir until smooth. Pour the glaze over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides.

Cake can be assembled and refrigerated up to 4 hours ahead. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.

fussy batter

photos by the incomparable Kenan.

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