Last week’s visit to a local chestnut farm taught me two mildly important life lessons.
One, never take a toddler to a chestnut farm without shoes. Two, never attempt to peel chestnuts when you are short of time and patience or you might end up tipping the whole lot in the sink, bleeding a little and swearing a lot.
Alice, Tom and I visited David Ogilvie’s ‘Brittle Jacks’ chestnut orchard just as he was beginning this year’s harvest. Down the middle of each row of trees were low piles of burrs waiting to be shelled by a couple of French backpackers who were sitting on upturned milk crates and wearing thick gloves to extract the nuts from each burr. It was a picturesque scene and I quite wanted to join them. If it wasn’t for my poor shoe-less son, hobbling around, ouch-ouch, on the burrs, I might have. And as an aside, I really don’t make a habit of taking Tom to town without footwear, but in this case had mistakenly thought a pair of boots were in the boot.
Anyway…David has been growing chestnuts for over 30 years and is an incredible source of information about this beautiful tree and nut. Anyone can visit the farm by appointment and I highly recommend doing so, he is a great guide and it’s a beautiful spot.
We left with three kilos in the bootless car boot and that night, in a fit of misguided excitement I attempted to make venison and chestnut scaloppine for dinner. As indicated above, on that occasion we had the venison but not the chestnuts.
I have since discovered that peeling chestnuts, for me at least, requires a quiet hour after dinner and time to sit and peel in peace with preferably a nice big glass of red wine to your right. In this scenario, peeling chestnuts can be a pretty good way to spend an early Autumn evening.
Since that night we have tried putting chestnuts in a variety of dishes, these three were our favourites.
If ever you see this on a menu, order it. The mixture of crisp meringue, soft cream and nutty, smooth chestnut puree is delicious and absolute justification for the not inconsequential amount of work that goes in to making it.
For the puree
1 cup milk
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
Preheat oven to 200C. Place a small slit on the middle of each chestnut and pop in the hot oven for about 15 minutes. Check them often as they can overheat and explode in the oven which is annoying and messy. As soon as you remove them from the oven, place in a tea towel and peel one by one. For more comprehensive tips on doing this, visit Chestnuts Australia’s website.
Once you have your peeled chestnuts, place them in a heavy-based saucepan and cover with milk. Add the sugar and vanilla and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the chestnuts are nice and soft. Add a splash more milk as you cook if they look to be drying up at all. Then tip this into a blender and puree until nice and smooth, or use a potato ricer if you have one.
For the meringues
Makes about 9 medium-sized meringues
4 egg whites
240g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 100C (120C for conventional ovens). Line a large tray with baking paper. Beat egg whites still stiff peaks form and then add the caster sugar one tablespoon at a time. Now add the vanilla and keep beating until the mixture is thick and glossy.
Using a large metal spoon, drop spoonfuls of meringue onto baking tray, (I do about two dessertspoons per meringue). Space them about five centimeters apart as they will spread a little as they cook. Smooth the tops with the back of your spoon and cook for 1 ¼ hours or until crisp with a firm base.
To serve, whip some cream until nice and soft and place the meringues on a pretty serving platter. Top with a little cream and then a good spoonful of the chestnut puree, grate over some dark chocolate and serve.
Lesley Russell’s Chestnut Cake
Lesley runs a fantastic cooking school in Orange. She is a great teacher and the classes are always good fun. Have a look at her website for upcoming classes.
200g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
250g cooked chestnut puree*
1 tablespoon lemon zest
150g ground almonds
1 tablespoon SR flour
Grease, flour and paper a 20 cm cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, lemon zest and chestnut puree. Stir in the ground almonds and the flour. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them through the mixture. Spread the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 50 – 60 minutes or until a skewer comes out of the cake clean. Serve with fresh figs, cream or thick yogurt.
*For chestnut puree
Boil chestnuts in the skin for 15 – 20 minutes. Cool slightly and then cut chestnuts in half lengthwise. Scoop out the flesh and puree in a food processor while still warm. For 250g puree, use approx 400g chestnuts.
These are delicious with a glass of bubbles before (or for) dinner.
24 fresh chestnuts, shell removed (serves 6)
12 slices prosciutto
one large bunch fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 220C. Pull most of the rosemary leaves off each stems and cut in half.
Cut each slice of prosciutto in half too and wrap chestnuts in a halved prosciutto slice each. Secure with a rosemary stem. Place on a baking tray and bake for 10 mins or until prosciutto becomes crisp.