Tart 1 of 2: Chestnut Savoriness
There seems to be plenty of nostalgia to go around on this blog as of late. Well, prepare yourselves for yet another tale of my younger days. A few weeks back, I noticed the appearance of chestnuts for sale at the Headhouse Market. I hadn’t thought about chestnuts in ages, and the sight of them (and the sticker shock that followed shortly thereafter) reminded me of the many chestnut trees that surround my family’s farmhouse and dairy barn.
My paternal grandfather had a thing for nuts of all kinds. Besides planting the chestnut trees that still stand today, he imparted his interest in gathering nuts to his grandkids by taking us on walks through the surrounding woods to look for hazelnuts, black walnuts and any other variety of native nuts we could get our hands on. Too bad peanuts don’t grow in Pennsylvania because he took great delight in walking around with his pockets full of peanuts still in their shells, handing a few to me each time he stopped in at the barn, and we’d shell them and toss them back into our mouths, leaving a trail of empty shells behind us. While I do generally detest all nuts in baked goods, I still enjoy eating most right out of their shells.
To get back to chestnuts in particular, I would run around in the fall, carefully picking them out of their prickly protection, and use my teeth to tear into their soft shells. Once I got them started with my teeth, I’d peel out the meat inside and blissfully savor its buttery sweet flavor. This do-it-yourself approach to cracking open chestnuts has probably contributed to the poor health of my molars now, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Eventually as I got older, my dad let me use his pocket knife instead. I mimicked my grandfather by walking around with pocketfuls of chestnuts during the months of October and November.
Knowing chestnuts were for sale at Headhouse and that there’s a chance some of you could even forage for them in areas around your homes, I thought I’d gather a big bag of them at my family farm to bring back to Philly to use in some recipes in case any of you were wondering what the heck to do with chestnuts. First off, I think I will always prefer them raw – if you haven’t tasted one, you’re missing out on a real treat. They have a soft texture that lends an almost buttery background to the mild sweetness in the foreground. They really don’t taste much like any other nut that I know.
My family never cooked with chestnuts though. While living in Europe for several months, I got a chance to try a couple cooked versions of chestnuts, my favorite being the simple treat of blackened chestnuts bought from street vendors in London parks. I also remember having them in a tart, so I went in search of a chestnut tart recipe for today’s post. Fittingly, I found what I was looking for on a London-based website, Merchant Gourmet. The recipe did pose a problem though…it needed to be converted to American measurements, a skill I’m still refining. I figured I’d take a shot at it anyway.
The end result was good, but I don’t think I converted the sugar amount properly. The tart wasn’t nearly as sweet as I was anticipating. I increased the sugar a bit in the recipe below, but am wondering if this tart isn’t meant to be all that sweet, even though the ingredients would lead one to believe it is. With a dollop of slightly sweet [real] whipped cream, it’s really quite a pleasant contrast of sweet and savory. The flavor also goes nicely with the sweeter fruit tart I’ll be posting next (Tart 2 of 2). As Thanksgiving menu planning begins in earnest, an assortment of these chestnut and the forthcoming fruit tarts would make a unique and eloquent spread for dessert. It’s also a great way to justify the purchase of some darn cute tart tins, should you need an excuse. Such was the case in my experience at least after a lengthy visit to the local kitchenware store.
CHESTNUT MAPLE TART
Adapted from Merchant Gourmet
1 c. of chestnuts (still in shells)
2 T. maple syrup
1 T. heavy cream
1/3 c. packed brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
3 T. butter
1/8 t. freshly ground nutmeg
8 oz. pie dough*
2 three-inch removable bottom tart tins
whipped cream for serving
*I used Deb at Smitten Kitchen’s pie dough recipe this time around. I might return to my own recipe next time as this wasn’t as flakey as my standby, but it was easier to work with. Visit her lovely blog for details on how to make it. When you have the dough together, divide it in two parts – one to use for this recipe and one freeze for another time. You could also use the store-bought pre-rolled variety if you’re short on time.
Roll out pie dough on a floured surface. Place a three-inch tart tin upside down on the dough. Using a sharp knife, cut around the tin, leaving an extra 1/2 inch of dough. Cut out a second circle of dough. Spray both tart tins with non-stick spray and line them with the dough, pressing it into the fluted edges of the tin. Trim off excess dough. Chill tins in refrigerator while you prepare the chesnuts.
Shell the chestnuts by cutting them in half with a sharp knife and then use your fingers to peel away the shell enough to extract the nut’s meat inside. This process will take a few minutes to complete for all the chestnuts. Roughly chop the shelled chestnuts and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 F and place the chilled tart tins on a baking tray. Lightly prick the dough and then cover tins loosely with foil. Bake at 400 F for 10 minutes and then lower heat to 350 F. Remove foil and continue to bake for another 5 minutes.
Fill each tart with half the chopped chestnuts. Beat the remaining ingredients together and pour over chestnuts, stopping just below the rim of the tart. Do not overfill as the filling does puff up in the oven.
Place filled tarts on a foil lined baking sheet (to protect against overflow) and bake for 25-30 minutes until filling is set up and pastry golden brown. Serve warm or cold with a dollop of whipped cream.