During the cook-a-thon that was the weekend before Christmas, in which my wife and I got our first real glimpse of just how hard professional chefs have to work, I turned out something of a rarity for me, and thus far, unique to this blog – a dessert. Touring the food blogosphere (hmm, starting to dislike that word almost as much as the word “foodie”), we notice that there are a lot of bakers out there with all kinds of recipes for coconut cake, brownies, muffins, crumbles, brittles and pies, in sharp contrast to our savory-only approach. The reason is that neither my wife nor I are hugely into sweets. I mean, we like them, but the prospect of making a cake and eating the whole things ourselves is off-putting because we know we’ll be sick of it after a couple of slices. For example, a month or so ago, I was craving muffins one Sunday and so I made a dozen cranberry muffins. I ate two that day and recently found the rest of them sporting blue and green hair styles that would have made the Sex Pistols jealous as they moldered away in a cake tin.
So, I must tell you that I am not the world’s best baker, which I hope is of some consolation to the food fans among you who daren’t bake because it seems too daunting a prospect. And, on the few occasions I do get my dander up and decide it’s time to butcher another recipe my mother could have turned out perfectly in her sleep, it is often bread (I refer to my comments about the lack of good bread in America below), and sometimes scones or muffins. Only very, very occasionally, will I try a pie or a tart. In fact, I think the last time I made a pie was about six months ago. It was a French apple tart and I made it with no rolling pin, no spatula and no oven, and the pain of making it has put me off trying another dessert since. (Needless to say, said tart had more in common visually with the face of a particularly zitty teenager than the recipe I was following.) But this past weekend, full of the festive spirit, and perhaps a couple of lunchtime sherries, I decided that since we were up to our elbows in eggs and flour (for the pasta) I might as well make a pie.
Riffing off the recipe for the French apple tart, (but replete with the right tools for the job this time), I skipped the apples and replaced them with a chestnut puree that I’d found at the supermarket in a dusty old can and bought on impulse. I always associate chestnuts with Christmas whether they’re in a stuffing, simply fire-roasted and cracked with a glass of sherry, or used in desserts because to me they impart one of the signature scents of the season. Real bakers, if you’ve bothered reading this far, feel free to smirk, or even guffaw, because all this really was was a pasty crust slathered with pastry cream (similar to a creme anglaise, or to you British readers, just vanilla custard), and then topped with the chestnut puree and finished with a shake of powdered sugar. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the sliced tart, so I’ve made a really weak attempt to recreate it in cross-section in photoshop (see above). Honestly though, in a season when a lot of desserts are heavy, full of seasoned, dried fruits, candied ginger and other spices, this one, if not exactly light given the butter and eggs, is clean-tasting, simple and straight-forward to prepare, and, perhaps most importantly to me, was widely acknowledged to be a success, which increases the chances that I’ll make it again some time. Enjoy!
For the sweet pastry dough:
1/2 cup (4oz) room temperature unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups of all-purpose (plain) flour, sifted
1 whole egg
1/2 cup confectioner’s (icing) sugar
1/8 tsp baking powder
For the pastry cream/custard:
2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean or 2-3 tsp of vanilla essence
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp plain flour, sifted
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
4 egg yolks
For the pastry:
For the pastry cream/custard::