Thursday, December 26, 2013

Chestnut soup from Alain Ducasse (Gluten Free)

Chestnuts are another food that has deep childhood associations. My family lived on a dairy farm in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, but we were odd dairy farmers. My father had grown up in Europe, going to a series of Swiss boarding schools, before his mother brought him back to the US where he went to high school at Pomphret, a boarding school dedicated to the education of the sons of the lesser known Boston elite. Then he went to Harvard, and contrived to get thrown out in his senior year for not doing any work in a history seminar. You have to admit, it's a strange background for a dairy farmer.
My mother went to one of the upper class New York day schools, and then to boarding school at Foxcroft, in Middleburg, Va. , where, along with getting a pretty decent education (my mother never failed to blow me away by the depth of her knowledge) she fox hunted on a horse named Nonchelant which belonged to her aunt. Again, a pretty weird background for the wife of a dairy farmer.
World War II had something to do with my father's lifestyle choice, and my mother came along for the ride. So it was that on vacations, we would end up staying with our New York cousins, not exactly country mice, but nonetheless, dazzled by the big city. I have a vivid memory of being somewhere on the West Side, maybe near Lincoln Center, where we used to go to see the Nutcracker, and buying chestnuts from a vendor for the first time. The vendor had a charcoal brazier on a cart. with chestnuts spread across a piece of sheet metal. If people were buying, the chestnuts had time to cook but not burn. They were handed over in a small paper bag which kept our hands warm while we ate the chestnuts. The nuts themselves were creamy, warm and comforting, something like a miniature baked potato.
When I got back to New York as a graduate student, I barely had time to hang out in any of the places that would attract chestnut vendors. When I did run across them, their chestnuts were disappointingly charred. It was like eating a baked potato that had frizzled in a campfire.
But I have always had a soft spot for chestnuts. One November, my husband and I went to Paris, and frequented a bunch of little neighborhood bistros. In one, I ordered a soup whose name I did not recognize, but didn't have the nerve to ask the waiter about. When the soup came, I did ask. It turned out to be chestnut soup. It was delicious.
At Christmas, I looked for some sort of cream soup to start Christmas dinner. All the soup recipes in the NYTH cookbook had either been served or contained the dreaded shellfish. On the Food Republic website, I ran across this recipe and thought "yes" "aha." It was French, it was chestnuts, and hey, the recipe said only 20 minutes prep time. So I bought some chestnuts, which were surprisingly available in DC, ( I think I bought my chestnuts at Whole Foods, but it might have been Magruders.)
Actually I bought quite a few chestnuts. The recipe said 2 1/2 pounds to make soup for four people. We were expecting eight people, so I bought five pounds. On the night of the 23rd, I sat down to start peeling the chestnuts. It was an excruciating task. I had to pierce the annoyingly tough and slippery skin, and then pry the meat out. It wasn't easy and resulted in many nicks and cuts to my hands. After an hour and a half, I had peeled maybe half the chestnuts. As I slumped over my measly collection of peeled chestnuts, Laura blew in. She is a friend of my daughter's now living in our basement, and sort of ministers to us old people , as well as working 55 to 60 hours a week. Laura made me a fresh cup of tea, and looked at what I was doing. "Boil them first," she advised, as she disappeared out the door with the puppy.
So the next day, I threw the rest of the chestnuts into a stewpot and boiled them for an hour. This resulted in rendering the tough, slippery skin somewhat more flexible, so it was actually possible to peel the shell off the nuts, instead of having to pry them off. It did not mean the operation went a lot faster, however. After another hour and a half, I had peeled the last of the chestnuts into the big china bowl and was ready to totter off to bed.
It was clear to me that Alain Ducasse, although he was a world famous chef, or because he was a world famous chef, had not factored peeling the chestnuts into the prep time. He was too busy creating a world image and opening restaurants around the globe, after all.
As far as the cooking went, our friend Tim stepped in and did most of that. I do know that everything had to cook for far longer than 45 minutes. One little throw away line startled me. I could see from the photo, the soup had been run through a blender. However, blenders were not mentioned. It did say, at the beginning to step 7, "Blend the soup thoroughly." It didn't mean mix it up. It meant, run it through the Cuisineart.
According to my husband, the soup was not all that great. Our guests had a wonderful time however. Nothing damped the Christmas spirit.  
My advice is to use frozen chestnuts if you can get them, and to be prepared to doctor the soup with herbs and spices.

Chestnut Soup

2 shallots
3 stalks celery
3 cloves garlic
2 slices bacon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns
2 quarts chicken stock
12 ounces porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper, ground
2 1/2 pounds chestnuts, peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
2. Peel and cut the shallots and celery into  large chunks. Peel the three garlic cloves.
3. Heat a flameproof casserole dish and put in two slices of bacon, 1/8 inch thick. Color well (this means brown deeply) on both sides and then take the slices out and keep them warm.
4. Add the chunks of shallot and celery and the whole garlic cloves to the bacon fast. Stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 1/2 pounds of peeled chestnuts to the casserole dish. Sweat for three minutes, stirring. (this means saute for three minutes.)
5. Take out about 20 chestnuts and set aside. Then add a bay leaf and the peppercorns. Add the chicken stock and put the casserole dish in the oven for 45 minutes. (I would turn the heat up to at least 300 degrees, 350 if you have to, or allot 90 minutes for the chestnuts to cook.)
6. In the meantime, clean the mushrooms. Slice the caps of 2 firm mushrooms into thin slices and keep cold on a plate covered with plastic wrap.  Chop the rest into small dice.
7. Once the chestnuts are soft, run the contents of the casserole dish through a blender or Cuisineart. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep hot. Cut the two slices of bacon into fine lardons and cut the 20 reserved chestnuts into quarters.
8. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan and brown the chestnuts for two minutes. Add the diced mushrooms, salt lightly and cook for an additional two minutes.
9. Add the small lardons, stir and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with mushroom slices and serve nice and hot.

Hard Sauce

When I was a child, we occasionally had plum pudding for Christmas dinner. I think the reason was that my sister liked the idea of plum pudding, with its associations with Dickens and steaming huge puddings being carried into the hall to the joy of the tenantry. Well, in those days, I was the tenantry. It took a long time for me to appreciate how liquor in one form or another could flavor food and add richness to its taste. This did not happen until well after I left home, so as an eight year old, twelve year old or even an eighteen year old, plum pudding fell into the category of "why is this such a big deal?"
But hard sauce, now that was something different. Anyone, especially a person with as big a sweet tooth as I had, could appreciate a sauce that was basically butter mixed with sugar. The base was so good that even a little bit of rum didn't ruin it for me. 
So when it came time for me to be served, I asked for a tiny bit of pudding, and then glopped about half a cup of hard sauce on top of it.
Christmas was somewhat fraught, for reasons I won't go into here, but by the time dinner came around, it rescued itself, and we sat with our guests in their paper hats, courtesy of the British Christmas crackers we always get, and relaxed and had a great time. The Christmas pudding I had made before we went to London turned out just fine, and the hard sauce was like icing on a very good cake.

Hard Sauce

1 cup sweet butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup dark rum, cognac or dry sherry
1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream the butter and confectioners' sugar together very well. Beat in remaining ingredients and chill thoroughly.
Makes about two cups. 

Poppy Seed Cake

The poppy seed cake was intended to be dessert for Christmas Eve lunch. Our family has a series of family meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. intended to accommodate my son and daughter-in-law, who have other commitments. We have lunch on Christmas Eve and read the Christmas story from St. Luke, The Night Before Christmas (during which the reader has to ham it up as much as humanly possible) and Beatrix Potter's A Tailor of Gloucester, when the reader, following the tradition of my father, has to read every piece of print in the book. "Frederick Warne and Company, copyright,  1911, copyright renewed, 1935," the reader solemnly intones.
At 5:00 we go to the family mass at Saint Margaret's Church, finally giving in to the reality that I could not stay awake for midnight mass. On Christmas Day, the yms and our friends come over for Christmas dinner about 4:00. 
This year we flew to London for our daughter's graduation from her Master's Program, and arrived  back on these shores on Sunday, suffering from a bad cold (my husband, Bob) and jet lag (the rest of us.) Monday was spent running around doing last minute errands, mailing packages that I hadn't managed to mail before we left for Britain and visiting the horse.
 On Monday night, I had intended to make the cake, as well as peeling the chestnuts for chestnut soup. The chestnut soup recipe failed to mention that peeling two and a half pounds of chestnuts could take upwards of two hours. After an hour of picking chestnuts out of the shell and stabbing myself at least once, I tottered off to bed.
Tuesday was Christmas Eve. I had to go to the Post Office and did so. I got back about 11:00 am bearing drinks from Starbucks for the assembled multitudes, and started making everything else that would go into Christmas Eve dinner. It was plain that there was no time to make a cake or the soup, no matter how simple it might be to peal chestnuts. Christmas Eve dinner was, by our entertaining standards, spartan. Just main course, two side dishes and that was it. No dessert, no soup, no nothing. Everyone survived with good humor intact. At 4:15 the yms went out the door on their way to church. Bob, my daughter and I stayed home.
So Christmas Eve evening, I made the poppy seed cake and peeled the rest of the chestnuts. The only caveat I have about poppy seed cake is, these are ground poppy seeds. I took two 2.5 ounce jars of unground poppy seeds and tossed them into the Cuisinart. I probably netted upwards of three-quarters of a cup of ground poppy seeds. So I would say, buzz one jar of poppy seeds, measure them and figure how much more you need to get to half a cup. Also, you have to soak the poppy seeds for thirty minutes. As you do that, it's a good time to put the butter on the top of the stove so it softens. (Put it on a saucer. You don't want it to melt.)
This is a great cake. I ended up serving it at Christmas dinner, for those who declined Christmas pudding, or who decided they needed two desserts. The icing is a triumph. It reminded me of the icing on Joanne Bakers'
birthday cakes, sold in the 1950s in Great Barrington, Ma., Joanne's cakes were white with pink, yellow and blue roses on them. There was also a dove that rested near the roses. This icing is smooth, not grainy, fluffy, and altogether icing-like. And just think, home made!

Poppy Seed Cake

1/2 cup ground poppy seeds (grind 1/4 cup of poppy seeds in the Cuisinart. You will probably have enough.)
1 1/2 cups milk
2/3 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 egg whites
4 1/2 tablespoons cake flour
1 cup milk
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. To prepare cake, combine the ground poppy seeds and milk and let stand thirty minutes. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the lemon extract and vanilla.  
3. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder and fold alternately with the milk mixture into the batter.
4. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the mixture. Turn into three greased and floured eight-inch layer pans and bake about twenty minutes or until done. (In my oven it's always longer.)
5. Cool on a rack.
6. Meanswhile prepare frosting by blending the flour and milk together in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring, until thick. Cook two minutes until very thick. (Very thick is like icing in a can.)
7. Cream the butter, in a bowl. Gradually beat in the sugar until mixture is very light and fluffy. Gradually add cooled flour mixture and the vanilla. Beat five minutes longer. Use  to fill and frost the layers. Decorate with the walnuts.
Makes one dozen servings.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Pudding (Gluten Free)

Today, I made the Christmas pudding. This made me feel like some 19th Century housewife, possibly Mrs. Cratchit. I gather, from reading I did as a child, that the Christmas pudding had to be made at least three weeks before Christmas, wrapped in muslin and stored in the cold store. In the 21st Century, we are going to London on Friday to see our daughter graduate from her master's program, so if I wanted to make this traditional dish, I had to get started early.
Christmas pudding is pretty much the same thing as plum pudding, which, by the way, does not contain plums.  It is a steamed, bread and dried fruit based pudding dating from medieval times. In the 18th Century, the British referred to raisins as "plums" which is why we talk about plum pudding.
The pudding has a religious affiliation, with a tradition saying it should be made the 25th Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and that it contains 13 ingredients representing Christ and the 12 apostles. The pudding should be stirred by every member of the family stirring from east to west to celebrate the direction the Magi went to get to the Christ Child.. For your information, Trinity Sunday is a movable feast that occurs anywhere from the middle of May to the middle of June. In 2013 it was May 26.
I am not going to take the calendar off the wall and count Sundays. Certainly, today is Tuesday, not Sunday, so we are not following the ancient rule in this house. Also this pudding has 15 ingredients, which could include The Father and the Holy Spirit, if we wanted to be theological about it.
Dishes with unusual ingredients start with a veritable pilgrimage around the city looking for said ingredients. Since I wanted the pudding to be gluten-free, I had to go to Giant Food in Chevy Chase to buy gluten free bread crumbs. Giant, or at least that Giant, has an excellent selection of gluten free products. Otherwise, in my opinion, it's virtually worthless as a grocery store.
Then, there was the suet. Wagshalls, on Massachusetts Avenue, opposite the American University Law School, has suet. I went there today, with my tires spitting through the wet snow. Wagshall's also has a choice selection of high-end meat and a lady butcher. My husband Bob wants us to have beef tenderloin for Christmas dinner. "Buy it at Wagshall's" he said.
Personally, I think there ought to be a law that if the customer may have to take out a loan to buy a food product, the store has a responsibility to tell the customer how much the food product costs. In this case, it was $33 a pound, more than crab meat. I handed my ATM card over in a somewhat stunned condition and drove home with the tenderloin and the suet.
After taking Watson, the puppy, to frolic in the snow and having lunch, I settled down to make the pudding. There is nothing difficult about it.The hardest part of making this is finding the suet. I suggest a farmer's market in your town, with a farm that sells grassfed, home butchered beef. You just basically throw in all the ingredients, mix them up and put them into a greased pudding basin or 22 ounce can and steam away.
This recipe makes a lot of Christmas pudding, three in fact. We are only having 12 people to dinner on Christmas, not an entire clan, so I cut the recipe in half and made one 1 1/2 pound pudding.
 Since the recipe says to put the basin or cans on a rack, it would probably be a good idea to do so. I don't have a rack that would fit in my stockpot, so I turned over a little baking dish and set the pudding basin on that.
When we get back from London on the 22nd, we will have our Christmas pudding in refrigerator, and we won't have to buy it at Heathrow!

Christmas Pudding

1 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups finely grated or ground beef kidney suet (This is also known as caul fat.)
1 cup soft bread crumbs (I used Aleia's Gluten Free Panko Crumbs, available at
1 cup currants
1 cup raisins
1 cup mixed candied fruit peels
1 cup finely chopped, peeled tart apple (like Granny Smiths)
2 cups flour (I used Bob's Red Mill Rice Flour to make it gluten free.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 eggs lightly beaten
1 cup unsulphured molasses
1 tablespoon baking soda, dissolved in one cup boiling water

1.  Mix together the brown sugar, suet, crumbs, currants, raisins, peels, apple, flour, salt and spices.
2. Beat the eggs and molasses together and add to sweet mixture. Stir in the dissolved baking soda. Spoon into greased one-pound pudding basins or coffee cans. Cover with wax paper and then a cloth or aluminum foil. Set in a steamer or on a rack in a pan with boiling water extending two-thirds of the way up basins or cans.
3. Steam three hours. Cool. store in freezer or refrigerator. Steam to reheat, about forty-five minutes. Serve with hard sauce. Makes three one-pound puddings.