In Singapore where we sweat while singing, “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire” it’s hard to imagine Jack Frost nipping at our nose, but over in temperate zones, Autumn is making way for Winter and Hwee Hwee Laurence has her chestnut supply all ready for both Asian and Western delights through the year.
When I was small, once in a while, my father would come home with a small paper bag of hot freshly-roasted chestnuts bought from the street vendor in our housing estate. It was a treat we always looked forward to. At that time, I never imagined that my life would one day take such a turn that I would have the chance to see an actual chestnut tree, to pick and roast chestnuts myself.
Autumn is chestnut-picking time in France. While we have a walnut tree in our garden, we never bothered to plant chestnut because we are practically surrounded by chestnut forests. Every year, when chestnuts start to fall, we take a hike in the forests to collect them before the animals, especially wild boar, eat them all. In the 1800-1900’s in France, chestnut-pickers wore a type of boots with fierce-looking spikes on the soles. These chestnut crushing clogs were used to crush the very prickly fruit and to extract the nuts. Today we are more discreet. We use gloves – nevertheless, thick garden gloves.
We usually pick a few baskets of chestnuts, air-dry and deep-freeze them for use throughout the year. They keep very well and thawed chestnuts, when roasted, taste as good as the fresh ones. In winter, our house is heated with wood-burning stoves and in the evenings, roasting chestnuts in a heavy cast iron frying pan on top of the stove creates a cozy and fragrant ambience.
In France, chestnuts are divided into two types. If there are a few seeds in the pod, they are called châtaignes; if there is only one (big) seed, they are called marrons. At Christmas time, marrons glacés or candied chestnuts are a traditional offering.
I personally do not like marrons glacés – I find them too sweet and starchy. But I like using châtaignes in cooking, eg in Chinese black stewed belly pork or roast duck with chestnuts. I also like to use chestnut purée in baking. Since we do not celebrate Christmas in a big way in France (because we get invited to friends’ homes), we tend to cook a normal meal for Christmas Eve but have at least a special seasonal dessert. Here is one that is a great favourite with the kids. It is adapted from Delicious Magazine, UK, whose recipes are supposed to be tried and tested (www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk). I make my own chestnut purée, but in Singapore they should be available in specialty shops.
175g plain chocolate, broken up
6 large eggs, separated
175g caster sugar
Icing sugar to dust
For the filling:
200ml double cream
4 tablespoons sweetened chestnut purée
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line the base and sides of a Swiss roll tin (about 22 x 32cm) with baking paper.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl in a microwave on medium power for 2-3 minutes.
Put the egg yolks and sugar into a large bowl. Using an electric hand whisk, whisk for about 3-4 minutes, until pale, thick and creamy. Whisk in the melted chocolate.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Stir a little into the chocolate mixture to loosen, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites using a large metal spoon, until just combined.
Pour into the lined tin and smooth out to the edges to fill. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until spongy to the touch. Leave to cool for 10 min.
Place a sheet of baking paper on the work surface. Turn the roulade out onto the paper. Peel off the baking paper backing from the roulade, then cover with a clean sheet of baking paper and a damp tea towel. Leave to cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Whip the cream until it just holds its shape. Fold in the chestnut purée and whisk again until thick.
Cut the edges off the roulade, spread with the chestnut cream, then roll up the sponge tightly, using the paper to help you. Do not worry if the crust sticks to the paper a little or if there are cracks – the icing sugar will cover this.
Transfer to a flat serving plate. Dust thickly with sieved icing sugar and decorate with Christmas cake ornaments.