Old Glory; Chestnut & Chocolate Flan.
My excitement at coming across a nearby sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) was unexpected, and not completely down to the possibility of convenient ‘premium range’ urban foraging. The much-admired specimen was in full leaf carrying clusters of spiky pom-poms. It was full of character, somewhat shaggy in the way English elms used to be before their disappearance. This was an image apparently dug up from the long-term visual memory, but also from my memory of childhood books. Fictional characters lurked just the other side of the trunk; lost and sleepy children with euphonious continental names, princes in pauper’s disguise or even modestly posed pairings of Adam and Eve.
As you can see from the image above the kernels of this tree were forbiddingly slender; perhaps next year I will not feel so defeated and get peeling. I lose more blog-cred by admitting that I made for the cupboard as soon I returned home to dig out a vacuum pack of peeled and cooked chestnuts left over from last winter. For this retrieved horde I found a recipe that combines Old World fodder with New World exoticism. The sweet chestnut tree was to southern Europe what the versatile bamboo is to warmer climate zones. It provided materials for tools, building and appealingly edible starch when the nuts fell. Knowing that there exist selected culinary varieties of sweet chestnut with chunkier nuts made the prospect peeling the slim local offerings seem even more of an unnecessary penance.
Blame it on the Bourbons
Claudia Roden pinpoints this recipe at the juncture of New World luxury import and the native chestnuts that the Spanish middle-class drew on to emulate the dishes of their early 17th century Bourbon court. If the chestnut was originally an expedient that was meant to stretch out the expensive chocolate, then the mixture was an unforeseen success – you only have to sample the raw chestnut and chocolate paste to realise that the combined flavour is greater than the sum of the parts. The complete dish has a wide, sweet, fruity, floral spectrum that is not dull. I am born analyser, so bear with me when, for once, I’ll attempt a coarse Venn diagram of the total flavours, as it appears to me:
(earthy-sweet) sweet chestnut
(sweet-woody-fruity) brandy (fruity orange zest for the non-alcohol alternative)
A 74% cocoa content chocolate bar from a supermarket whose name rhymes with riddle has an earthy taste that is ideal for this. I find this flavour appealing in chocolate and have found it in hard-to-come-by Russian and Polish dark chocolate bars.
I prefer the plain given name of Roden’s recipe, but the moniker ‘Bourbon’ appears hover around the ingredients. The widespread and long-lasting Bourbon dynasty lends a remote glamour to the everyday products such as the chocolate sandwich biscuit. The Bourbons have also lent their name to the vanilla pod I split and scraped. The vanilla orchid was introduced to Île Bourbon, (now Réunion) from Central America by the French (the latter-day history of their Bourbon dynasty is neatly played-out in the historic name changes of this now Indian Ocean island outpost of the European Union). I believe that Bourbon whiskey would be as good as brandy or cognac in this recipe from the number of US chocolate recipes that invite it in. It is claimed by some to be named after Bourbon County, part of the old French colony of Louisiana.
The term ‘flan’ can be confusing. Here it has the meaning of a type of moulded baked custard, but as I type this piece I am undecided whether to add the ‘money-shot’ or not. The recipe is delicious and, when I have not sabotaged it, it has a not unappealing appearance. However in this age of unforgiving digital images it lacks supermodel looks, even if it was strewn with a gratuitous pomegranate seed garnish. In a wicked world of image-conscious dishes some survive on the strength of their flavour.
Claudia Roden’s Chestnut and Chocolate Flan.
100g sugar, 3 tablespoons of water
Make caramel the usual way – one day I’ll get enough nerve to do this reliably. Pour into the mould which Roden states should be about 23cm to 2 cm and at least 6.5cm deep. I use a deeper mould and add an extra egg to the mixture to compensate.
200g peeled chestnuts. Fresh, vacuum-packed, or even frozen and thawed.
Boil in 500ml of milk, probably to get rid of flavour of any remaining bitter peel. Not necessary for vacuum-packed etc.
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, or some gutted pods. 200g sugar.
The flavoured milk: Place both with a fresh 500ml of milk in a saucepan. Stir on a medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the simmering point. Take off the heat. (For a fragrant, alcohol-free version add some orange zest obtained with a potato peeler to infuse in the warm milk at this point.)
150g bitter dark chocolate.
The chestnut and chocolate purée: Break the chocolate into pieces and process finely. Add the chestnuts and blend to a soft paste that will be the stuff that dreams are made of. Now add the flavoured milk (removing the orange zest first, if used).
6 tablespoons of cognac or other brandy.
This quantity may be an editorial error, best to use your judgement. A couple tbsps seems perfect to me.
7 large eggs
Beat the eggs in a large bowls and add the mixture bit by bit until it is all incorporated. I add an extra egg for my deeper mould.
Bake in an improvised bain-marie made from a roasting pan at 160°C/gas mark 3 for 1 to 1¼ hours. Cool, then chill for 2 or 3 hours. If I have seemed to have miscounted the eggs – it does require the use of the fingers of two hands – and the flan does not turn out of the mould in one piece, empty it into a trifle dish and hiding one’s sins with some grated chocolate saves the day, unless in a high-minded fit of noblesse oblige I own up at the table.
Claudia Roden, Spanish Cookery, Michael Joseph 2012.