I love the holidays. Halloween comes and goes swathed in orange and black, tiny fondant jack-o’-lanterns and chocolate skeletons dancing across supermarket shelves and shop windows. Thanksgiving arrives sharp on its heels in a burst of cooking energy; a cornucopia of seasonal fruits and vegetables just making their reluctant appearance on market stalls give themselves up to casseroles, cakes and side dishes; table tops strewn with crisp fall leaves in burnished gold and sepia and red the color of the evening sky where tiny Pilgrims stand in wooden severity. Then swoosh we are swept away in a Winter Wonderland of sparkle and brightness, swags of tiny colored lights and the twinkle of stars against inky black; the crinkle of shiny paper and the romance of plump bows lure and entice, flames dance in windows amid festive songs and Champagne cheer.
It is funny that I should love this season so much when we don’t really celebrate the holidays. Halloween inspires impatient sneers and stirs up violent discussions of a cross-cultural takeover; Thanksgiving is simply forgotten, faded into hazy dreams of one single long-ago celebration. Christmas is seen by some to be a bewildering cross between a burden of familial expectations, consumer madness, religious indifference muddied with doubts and the joy of gift giving, while Hanukkah… yes Hanukkah in the warm glow of candlelight, the vibrant sizzle of latkes and the gentle hum and rhythm of filial and brotherly love, we are each swept away with enthusiasm. The spirit pervades and carries us along for five, maybe six of the eight days of festivities until someone voices skepticism, begins wondering aloud at the insanity of giving so many gifts so many nights in a row and the other three feel the holiday teetering on the precipice, the fragility of mood and sensibility looming, hoping that qualms and dubiousness will whither away in the utter beauty of one more candle’s blaze.
But happily we rush into Christmas and New Year’s Eve when the Champagne flows and the food is abundant, even if just for the two or the four of us. The ambiance returns, albeit quietly, to mirth and good cheer. Outright bellyaches and grousing fade into nuanced grumblings as we debate the degree of hoopla and revelry; we analyze how our year went, trade barbs and opinions on how everyone behaved, making our own list in much the way Santa does, judging degrees of naughtiness and whether this one or that deserves a gift or two. Strolling hand in hand through the glittering city, my every “Oooh! Pretty!” is met with icy silence, every “Ahhh! Look! I love that!” is matched with a sharp “No!” Each “Beautiful! Can we?” is parodied with a “But you’re Jewish!” Our budget is deliberated, desires contested, activities negotiated and we somehow, each and every year, meet in the middle, arrive at a compromise on shopping, decoration and meal. And enjoy ourselves heartily.
Now please don’t get me wrong and think that I am accusing anyone of being a Grinch. No snarling “I must stop this whole thing!" nor a Scrooge-like “Bah, Humbug!” in sight, but simply a low simmering discontent, enough to keep the over-planning at bay. But I will be fair. I will admit that if we were surrounded by family and friends, if holidays meant ringing doorbells and crowded rooms, if a dozen or so smiling faces gathered around our laden table, forks dancing happily above plates, the tinkle of busy cutlery and the clicking of wine glasses in toast after merry toast, well, maybe some of us would be singing a different tune.
Yet I love the holidays; the spirit invades, the jingle of bells excites, the tinny notes of piped-in carols thrills as I bounce down the city streets singing along with old, forgotten tunes and praying for snow. Although there is no Thanksgiving celebration, no holiday meal per se, I adore the sweet fresh smell of pumpkin, the weight and heft of knobbly sweet potatoes, the earthy mystery, the hideous beauty of mushrooms, from creamy white to delicate fawn to elegant woodsy browns lined up in wooden crates, gnarly or smooth, deep chocolate-colored figs nestled snugly side by side, together expressing autumn’s amusement and vibrancy, inviting us to laugh and shop and cook. Whole rabbits and geese still bedecked in feathers and pelt, pyramids of chestnuts and garlands of greenery have the power to woo and I am left breathless, excited, lighthearted and completely, irrevocably in the mood.
One Thanksgiving past springs to mind now every year as the weather turns damper and chillier, afternoons quickly fall dark and the scent of pie fills the air, a Brooklyn Thanksgiving, a true feast in that old fourth-floor walkup. Michael and I cooked and baked for two straight days in joy and glee, a perfect dance: he turned my homemade cornbread into delectable stuffing; my Challah was placed proudly next to his whole wheat bread, both labors of love; pumpkin and sweet potato pies and chocolate cake, sweet potatoes and green beans and bottles of wine and we shared our very own Thanksgiving now tucked away into the brightest corner of my memories, that special secret garden reserved solely for my brother.
The others, those of my childhood have long been lost, scattered forever like the thousand million tiny petals of fuzz blown off of the head of a dandelion with a poof, snatched up and carried off by the wind. And never has one single Thanksgiving meal been served to my family in Europe and to tell the truth, it is never really missed. All alone, surrounded by no family or friends, we make our own celebrations, prepare festive meals just how and when we like. But I never hesitate to search out special recipes for seasonal treats, pumpkin and sweet potato pies, apple cakes and stollen, gingerbread macarons and the like. All autumn and winter long.
A fondant to some is that sugary sweet icing rolled out and delicately layered over wedding cakes or cookies. To the French, a fondant is an ethereal cake-like delicacy, meltingly smooth on the tongue, its immediate burst of richness fading away leaving a delicate essence, a flavor that lingers. This Fondant au Chocolat et Marrons, Chocolate and Chestnut Fondant, inspired by an image, a recipe seen in a cookbook, is less cake than truffle, so dense yet surprisingly delicate. A deep chocolate flavor with a hint of chestnut, the fondant is just perfect as it is, better than any gooey, decadent brownie could ever hope to be. Yet with that very first mouthful I knew that I had to make this again adding a couple of tablespoons of Cointreau, Grand Marnier or even rum for a sensational complex new layer of flavor and the kick of alcohol. And I’ll make it a third time using all salted butter for that glorious salty zing I love with chocolate. Astonishingly simple to make, four easy ingredients, this Chocolate Chestnut Fondant makes for one dramatic, spectacular holiday dessert.
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT FONDANT
Adapted from Albums Larousse Nutella, lait concentré, crème de marrons… by Corinne Jausserand
7 oz (200 g) dark chocolate – I used half bittersweet Lindt Doux 70% + half swemisweet Nestlé Dessert
11 Tbs (160 g) butter – I used half unsalted + half salted butter
3 large eggs
17.6 oz (500 g) Crème de Marron (sweetened chestnut cream)
1 gently rounded Tbs flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter the bottom and sides of an 8 or 9-inch baking dish.
Break the chocolate into smallish chunks and place in a heatproof or Pyrex bowl with the butter. Melt in the microwave on high for about 1 ½ minutes. Remove from the oven and stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture blended and smooth. Return to the microwave for quick zaps if need be. (I always remove melting chocolate and butter from the heat, whether microwave or bain-marie, before one or the other (or both) are completely melted in order to avoid burning the chocolate or overheating…. The heat of that already melted will help melt the remaining chunks while beginning the cooling down process.)
Allow the butter and chocolate to cool to room temperature or at least tepid.
Place the eggs in a medium to large mixing bowl and whisk or beat well until blended. Whisk in the chestnut cream. Gradually pour in the butter/chocolate while continuing to whisk, being careful not to splatter. Whisk in the flour.
Pour into the buttered baking dish and bake for about 30 minutes, depending upon the size and shape of your baking dish as well as your oven. The fondant should be puffed, set in the center and cracking a bit. The surface will look matt, almost like the surface of brownies.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature before serving. This is a very rich dessert and is best served in thin slices. And those who wish will be free to request seconds!
For a truly elegant dessert, serve the Chocolate Chestnut Fondant with a crème anglaise of unsweetened or very lightly sweetened whipped cream.