Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

I love chestnuts, we eat them regularly, in stews, nut roasts, cakes… especially since discovering the vacuum packed french version. I heard something on the radio last week about a man who only liked them in Mont blanc pudding (mostly meringue and cream).  (there was also an idiot on Breakfast TV telling the viewing public how to cook sprouts completely wrong, but that is an associated but trivial detail!) I was about to make Chestnut Yule Log (Delia Smith recipe – chocolate flourless sponge, cream and chestnut puree – magnificent… by the way buy the French unsweetened puree for this and sweeten it yourself, the sweet one is horrid and the standard British unsweetened puree available in supermarkets is watered to within an inch of its life and tastes of NOTHING), and I thought, no, maybe something different this year.

I don’t love christmas cake, or christmas pudding. I will eat them, and for years I alternated making them because both in one year is too much: My Christmas cake was another Delia Smith recipe (actually a wedding cake, but who cares) into which I put dried apricots instead of raisins and dried banana instead of sultanas. Delia is a goddess, her recipes are reliable (my copy of her Book of Cakes is in 4 pieces and covered in spillages but nursed carefully whenever it is needed) but she doesn’t understand about dried fruit. Sultanas and Raisins are BORING.

I tend to make a cake for 12th night these days, as yule log is a pudding not a cake, but does excellently for both, and quite enough to last us to new year when we have  a breather. I have, without Delia’s assistance, experimented with making Panettone (unreliable, perfect one year a travesty the next) and Stollen (works every time), both with apricots and ginger in them. A claims not to like marzipan, but eats my Stollen very happily.

A digression: in the spirit of pick something up from the TV or radio and do something else with it, I also made savoury Chelsea buns this year, à la Paul Hollywood. The first lot was cranberry sauce, feta cheese and walnuts and were too dry. The second lot was walnut pesto, smoked tomato and artichoke heart and were fabulous.

I love ginger. Ale, beer,wine, pickled, stem, crystallised, dried, ginger bread, ginger cake, ginger ice cream.

Can you see where this is going yet?

Like the man on the radio I love a good meringue. and I’m fond of Eton Mess.

So let me introduce you to my latest Christmas innovation, Winter Mess.

you will need

Meringues (home-made if you’ve got the patience, but its a waste of a good meringue, use shop bought instead) – as many as you are happy with.

Marscapone (I don’t know whether it’s better for you than cream, but it’s thicker and more fun, so its unlikely) a standard pot as sold in the shop.

Stem ginger –  a couple of lumps and a generous spoonful of the syrup.

Optional: a spoonful of brandy, this tends to take the body out of your marscapone so only use it if you are going to eat immediately or a pudding isn’t a pudding for you without alcohol in it.

Candied Chestnuts  about 10 and as much syrup as covers them in the jar (ours came from the Turkish Deli on borough market, two years ago – they kept perfectly – they don’t have them on their website so this may be the only year we ever have this!) Marrons Glacés aren’t the same – too gooey – but would do at a pinch, or get a tin of chestnuts and candy them yourself, it has to be worth the effort. If you do that, you want to produce lots of syrup, not crystallising.

Whip the marscapone lightly, stir in the syrups from the ginger and the chestnuts (and the brandy if using it), chop the ginger and chestnuts roughly and stir in, then bash up your meringue into pieces about an inch square any smaller and it will dissolve (this is why it’s not worth making them) and stir that in too. put in the fridge for at least half an hour … then eat in front of the TV.

Very rich, so would probably serve 4 people, unless you are greedy in which case three tops.

If you insist on a cake, this year we had banana and pecan cake (another Delia recipe with Pecans instead of walnuts) rather nice with a spoonful of mess on it.

Hmm there’s something about recipes that makes me come over all dictatorial!

© Cherry Potts 2012

Dark and Stormy

Dark & Stormy
A Halloween piece … Winter, spicy gingerbread, slavery and marriage to an insanely jealous man … another exercise from WOOA, sparked off by not having got around to submitting anything on the Dark & Stormy theme to Liars’ League, and for once I didn’t come up with a story.

I keep dark Muscavado sugar in a supposedly airtight jar. I bought that jar in the mid seventies from the Reject Shop in Tottenham Court Road. The jar is square and has a Victorian engraving of ladies in a teashop on one side, which is what attracted me to it, in a very seventies-Laura-Ashley sort of way, but practical- air-tight unbreakable. On the other side of the jar the picture is of child slaves cutting sugar cane.
I often think about throwing that jar away, I’m not comfortable with that image, and I’m not comfortable with my fourteen-year-old self who bought it. It isn’t that airtight either; when the weather is humid the sugar melds itself into a brick. But it stays on the shelf with equally disturbing coffee and tea caddies and every time I reach it down I am reminded of the true price of sugar.
Every time I make this kind of cake – not often these days, but still, when I do – I think of Demerara and Barbados and plantations, especially if the recipe requires rum.
And while I am trying to hack the gritty dark brown brick into manageable weighable pieces, for some reason I think of pale slender ships scudding across dark green waters, threatened by storm clouds the size of continents. Breaking the sugar-brick requires a heavy knife (though not as heavy as the machete the child-slave wields), a clean cloth, and a rolling pin. The knife is laid edge-to-sugar the cloth goes over, to prevent flying shards ricocheting about the kitchen, and the rolling pin is used to hit the back of the blade.
It makes me think:
Breaking rocks in the hot sun (and sometimes I sing it)
Oscar Wilde in Reading jail
a story from One Thousand and One Nights… in which a jealous sultan believes (wrongly) that his wife is unfaithful, and plans to murder her in her bed. She gets wind of his intentions and when he comes to cut off her head in the night, raising his scimitar and bringing it down on what he believes to be her neck, there is a crack and his mouth is suddenly filled with sweetness. He falls to his knees sobbing in repentance, and she steps from behind a curtain and reveals that the headless body in the bed is a sugar effigy.
I am usually melting sugar and butter and rum and ginger together at this point, and as I stir this thick warm liquid, that looks like tar and smells like Christmas and late summer in the same breath, I think about that woman, watching her husband trying to kill her.
How can she forgive him, how can she trust him? How can he bear to even look at her when she reveals the truth? I wonder if they ate the rest of that sugar wife.
I only make this cake between late September and Twelfth Night. It is a cake for Halloween and inky afternoons where the sky turns from cobalt through Prussian blue and only the blackbirds sing; a cake for eating with the lights on, and the fire lit; and whether the curtains are drawn or not, for rain against the window.
Cakes like this, they take time and thought.
They weigh heavy: occasionally on the stomach, but mostly in the mind. Dark and stormy: the smells of nutmeg and cardamom, cinnamon and mace, cloves and ginger, raise ghosts; but the first bite of still warm crumbling richness is the taste of distance and long journeys, of security, and of home.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2010