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Issue #114: A Swarthy Summer Dessert
I'm a Big Fan of Claudia Roden's Chocolate Chestnut Flan
As much as I want to deny it, the evenings are already getting longer, the air cooler. Summer is on the wane. Last weekend at the lake house we were eating dinner outside with some friends and we all needed jackets. I didn’t have one. To compensate, this is perhaps the most exciting, bountiful time of year at the greenmarket. Harvest season. Stay out of the produce section of your grocery store and go shop from local farmers.
This week on my podcast What’s Burning, I talk to Jewish cookbook author and fellow Substacker Leah Koenig about many things, including what it’s like to be a master of an old-fashioned (though still very popular) medium (i.e., cookbooks) in the era of TikTok. You’ll want to listen and you should subscribe to The Jewish Table, too. —Mitchell
Although my husband Nate likes to remind me that it is always chocolate season, sometimes I think of chocolate desserts as wintrier than others. Admittedly, I’m more of a fruit person—when it comes to sweets, I mean. In the height of summer, when so many different fruits are in season, it seems a little discordant to me to bake something chocolate.
And yet, because marriage is about caring for and sometimes catering to another’s needs, I do sometimes bake chocolate sweets in summer. In fact, already a few times this summer I’ve turned to this easy, beautiful, deeply flavorful, and not too rich chocolate chestnut flan. To put a summer stamp on it, I serve it with a compote of fresh cherries or blueberries.
I first saw the recipe while paging through The Food of Spain cookbook by the beloved Claudia Roden. (Listen here to an interview I did with Claudia for Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel.) I had just returned from Valencia and we were staying with our friends in Maine, who had her book on their coffee table. Although I was in a paella state of mind at the time (see Issue #108) , this recipe caught my eye. And because our friends had a jar of roasted chestnuts in their pantry, I set to it.
I’ll admit that I’m not usually a huge fan of flan, by which I mean the type that’s a sweet, dense, milky custard baked in a caramel-lined pan that’s inverted before serving. Often made with a generous amount of condensed milk, it can be cloying. There are other types of flan I love, however, like the one French bakers make to use up excess egg yolks. Baked in pastry, flan à la française is more like a vanilla custard tart, though it can be unpleasantly rubbery if not done right.
Related to both—and perhaps also to the famous caramel-inverted chocolate budino of Piemonte, which I also don’t love—Roden’s chocolate chestnut flan is unlike either. The chestnuts actually lighten the texture without diminishing its richness. And the combination of bittersweet chocolate and the bitterness of the caramel alleviate any saccharine overtures. Add the pronounced flavor of brandy and you’ve got a simple, elegant, very grown-up dessert. Recently, a friend who has had a long career creating some of the most popular cookbooks on the market, said it was one of the most delicious desserts she had ever tasted.
A Word About Ingredients
Anything with the word “chestnut” in it appeals to me. If you are like me (or, evidently, our friends in Maine) and you pick up packages of roasted chestnuts whenever you see them—just in case because you never know—you will always be ready to make this dessert. In roasted chestnut season, which is around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when they appear on carts on the streets of Manhattan, you can use those. Or you can start with fresh chestnuts and roast them yourself.
Just the other day, while shopping at Kalustyan’s—the everything ingredient shop in my neighborhood—I saw 3 ½-ounce vacuum-sealed packets of roasted chestnuts on sale for $2.99, so I bought a bunch expressly to be able to make this flan whenever I want. One pouch is the perfect amount to make a half recipe of this flan, which I did the very next day, using a 6-inch square baking pan.
That first time I made this flan I used ordinary semisweet grocery-store chocolate chips and the result was delicious enough for me to want to make it again. For subsequent flans I’ve used better quality chocolate, in the 70% Valhrona category, and the results are even more moreish. Use whatever you have and/or your budget allows.
RECIPE: Chocolate Chestnut Flan
For the caramel
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
For the flan
7 ounces (200 g) peeled chestnuts, fresh, defrosted, or vacuum-packed
4 ½ cups whole milk, divided
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces (140 g) bittersweet (55% to 70%) chocolate, chopped
7 large eggs
6 tablespoons brandy or Cognac
Fresh fruit, sweetened whipped cream, and/or seasonal fruit sauce, for serving (see below)
Set aside a 9-inch round metal baking pan with 2-inch straight sides and a larger pan into which it fits, with just a little extra room to make a water bath. (Note, a half recipe serves 5 or 6 and fits nicely in a 6-inch square baking pan.)
To prepare the caramel, combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottom pan and set over high heat. Swirl the pan as it heats to dissolve the sugar. As the sugar syrup begins to boil, pay close attention. It will start to darken in color around the edges. Swirl the pan from time to time so the caramelization develops evenly. Once the syrup becomes an even, dark amber color, pay close attention; it can go from caramel to burnt very quickly. You want it a little darker than golden. As soon as a little smoke begins to waft off the surface, pour the caramel into the smaller 9-inch baking pan. Be careful, the caramel is searingly hot. Working quickly, use oven mitts or a dish towel to pick up the pan and swirl the caramel to cover the bottom. Tip and tilt the pan so the caramel also goes at least ½-inch up the side. It hardens quickly so you don’t have a lot of time. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.
In a small saucepan, combine the chestnuts with 2 ¼ cups of the milk to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until the chestnuts soften. Drain and discard the milk. Set the chestnuts aside. Wipe out the pan and in it combine the remaining 2 ¼ cups milk with the 1 cup of sugar. Set over low heat and bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Place the chopped chocolate in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Pulse to grind the chocolate finely. Add the drained chestnuts and pulse to create a soft paste. With the machine running, slowly add the warm milk and sugar mixture through the feed tube and process until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth and blended. Add the eggs and the brandy and process until smooth.
Pour this mixture into the caramel-lined pan. Place the pan inside the larger baking dish and fill the larger pan with boiling water at least half-way up the sides of the smaller pan. Carefully, without sloshing, transfer the whole thing to the preheated oven and bake for 1 to 1 ¼ hours, or until the flan has set firm. Remove from the oven, again being careful not to slosh the water around. Remove the inner baking dish from the water and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic and chill in the refrigerator at least 3 hours or overnight.
Before serving, run a small paring knife around the edge of the flan to loosen. Invert a round serving platter with some depth to capture the caramel on top of the flan and invert. If the flan doesn’t come out immediately, tap very lightly on the counter. You should hear a slight sucking sound and a thud. The caramel will pool around the base of the flan. Serve with sweetened whipped cream and/or a seasonal fruit sauce.
Quick Caramel Fruit Sauce
My go-to fruit sauce is simply a dark caramel into which I stir summer fruit. Follow the recipe and technique for making the caramel for the flan, above. Just as it achieves the right color, add a pint of blueberries, raspberries, sliced peaches or plums, diced rhubarb, or pitted cherries. At first, the caramel with splatter and then harden. Keep stirring. As the fruit gives up its juice, the hardened caramel will dissolve, and teh sauce will thin to the correct consistency. Remove from the heat. You can stir in some vanilla, cinnamon, or other seasoning if you’d like. It will thicken somewhat as it cools.
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