FEASTS & FANCIES: Of Chocolate and Chestnuts

My mother didn’t particularly care for food.  She seldom expressed any joy towards it and made sure I was trained to show no more than polite enthusiasm when praising a dish.

One of my early childhood memories is of being taken to audition for a voice-over job for Nutella, soon to be exported to the USSR.  I was supposed to provide the Russian voice for a commercial.

I remember watching on a cinema-size screen a documentary about how Nutella was made.  There were shots of machines stirring huge vats of glossy, creamy chocolate spread, of conveyor belts carrying empty jars that were then filled at regular intervals.  Then I recall a tiring, laborious scene, off-screen, in which a man was asking me in Russian, over and over again, if I liked chocolate.

“Yes, I quite like it”, “It’s not bad” and “It’s nice enough” (in their Russian equivalents) were the most passionate responses he managed to drag out of me.  Not because I didn’t like Nutella – I couldn’t wait to grow up and move out of the family home, so nobody would raise an eyebrow if I devoured it by the tablespoon straight out of the economy-size jar, instead of thinly spread on bread.  Only my mother had taught me that it wasn’t refined or ladylike to express strong emotions about anything, let alone food.  Food was to be appreciated with a je ne sais quoi that was a blend of remoteness and quasi indifference bordering on ennui.  You never ever let on that you were hungry and, above all, you always gave the impression that your interests lay far, far higher than food.

Once, when the school child psychologist asked me, then age seven, what I’d had for dinner the night before, I responded coldly that I could not remember and that, if I might say so, I found his question rather personal. 

And so, as the assistant or casting director or whoever was desperately trying to elicit a bright, Mmm… I love it! response, unquestionably loyal to my mother’s teachings, I maintained my I-can-take-it-or-leave-it, aloof, Grace-Kelly-playing-in-The-Swan poise, aristocratically unaware that I was sabotaging a rare opportunity to generate money for my financially-challenged family.

Predictably, as an adult, I did for a time eat Nutella with a spoon (a teaspoon, admittedly) straight from the jar.  It was my go-to remedy for romantic disappointment, professional frustration and, very often, a reward for just about anything.  That was as far as my sweet tooth went.  Recently, though, I have developed a liking for unsweetened, 100% dark chocolate.  It’s chocolate with attitude, that commands respect.  I tell myself it’s not for the faint hearted.  Like a doppio ristretto or a shot of grappa.   Watch out, I’m a black chocolate eater: I’m tough, me.

Chocolate and chestnuts are perfect allies.  My favourite ice-cream combination is gianduia and marrons glacés, only found, to my knowledge, in my favourite ice-cream parlour, Giolitti’s, in Rome, where it is served with a panache of whipped cream, in a tall glass, which the waiter in a white jacket places on the gleaming marble table.  

Back in Norwich, however, I still like to combine chestnuts and chocolate in various recipes, this being one I improvised yesterday afternoon…

Chocolate & Chestnut Cakes

Your associates for twelve small cakes:

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

❧  200 g pre-cooked chestnuts 

❧ 175 g chestnut flour

❧ 2 eggs

❧ 2 tablespoons date syrup

❧ 50 g buckwheat flour

❧ 200 ml goat’s milk (or full-fat cow’s milk)

❧ 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil + enough to grease cake tin

❧ Grated rind of 1 orange

Whisk the eggs, then stir in the chestnut and buckwheat flours before adding the milk and the date syrup.

Chop the chestnuts and the chocolate coarsely and stir into the mixture.

Add the grated orange rind.

Spoon the mixture into a muffin/Yorkshire pudding tray.  Bake at 200-220ºC for about 20 minutes.  

A few notes: 

I add the buckwheat flour only to make the chestnut flour go further.  Traditionally the food of poor Italian peasants who could not afford wheat, chestnut flour in England is absurdly expensive.  I mix it with buckwheat flour because the latter has a mild, unobtrusive taste, but wheat flour or rice flour would work just as well, though please note that wheat flour will make the consistency much heavier.

I often use olive oil in baking for only one reason: I am too lazy to beat the butter until it’s soft enough, and melting it on the stove would mean an extra saucepan to wash.  Besides, olive oil gives the cake a je ne sais quoi I like.  I used to keep sunflower oil for these purposes, but it kept going rancid, so I decided to stick to the green liquid gold.

Basically, I like cooking to be as effortless as possible.

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3 Responses to FEASTS & FANCIES: Of Chocolate and Chestnuts

  1. Sue Cumusky says:

    Ok I am going to disappoint you by not particularly going overboard about chestnuts, or olive oil but ooohhh I salivated!!! I would have eaten those cakes with pleasure.

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