There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time,
for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.
– Charles Dickens
Hanukkah has come upon us in a rush, almost unexpectedly. Surrounded by the remains of our renovations, pampering a sick dog, befuddled and amazed by the busy-bee energy of our normally slow-as-molasses son, time has slipped by at an almost unreal pace and we are astonished when we realize that it has only been a month since our move. Four, maybe five short weeks. It feels like we have been here forever emptying cartons, stepping over heaps of tools, tripping over coils of wire, making so many trips to the dump it has my head in a spin! And now Hanukkah has arrived and I am just not ready.
Son and I go hunting for Hanukkah gifts as the afternoon light wanes, just before rushing home to light the first candle. Late, as usual. We join the jungle of bodies, the swell of humanity clutching bags and boxes, children crying, parents hustling youngsters in and out of shops trying to retain some semblance of dignity and holiday cheer. Son hurries me, skirting the gawkers, reminding me of what we are there for and urging me onward only wanting to be home. But I am caught up in the festive air of the city, bedazzled by the neons, the garlands, the flurry of Santa hats bobbing up and down the streets. The brisk chill invigorates and the Hanukkah spirit is upon me and all I want to do is drift, weightless, carried along on the sights and sounds and smells of Christmas.
I’m just a little sentimental this time of year as the skies deepen to a dull slate gray, misty and mysterious. We venture out at night, brilliant bulbs in green, red, blue and white piercing the blackness, flickering, floating, fairy lights leading us towards the center of town. Noise and laughter rise and swirl around us like snow as we are swept along in the bustling crowd, pushed and pulled in between the brightly lit wooden stalls of the Christmas market. The smells of popcorn and churros mingle with the heady, spicy scent of mulled wine, the salty, smoky fragrance of sausages coming from the booth hawking some far-off regional delicacies, making us yearn to approach, lulled like fairytale children, spellbound, being pulled towards a candy-covered fantasy of sweets and the warmth of a blazing hearth. Images of my mom far away, thoughts of my brother rush in to fill up the spaces in my head between plans for our own festivities and the jollity and mirth, the lightness and wellbeing now mingled with emptiness, tainted by sadness. My son tugs on my sleeve, gives me a gentle nudge in the back and I turn my attention to the stands of books and the bins of dvds.
The holidays back home, the holidays of my childhood, weren’t swathed in snow or faded into a misty Winter Wonderland; no children bundled up in thick, puffs of coat, stuffing hands into mittens, tucking ever-dancing feet into boots, tugging knitted bonnets on heads. Bright bulbs flashed against crystal clear skies, luminaries flickered up and down neighborhood streets against a backdrop of deep, lush green grass. Mornings were indeed punctuated by entertaining stalagmites sprouting up from neighbors’ garden sprinklers; Santas galore were perched upon rooftops dressed in flowered cotton shirts, shorts and flip flops, ready for the balmy Florida season. By afternoon, the morning’s jackets were peeled off and we were down to warm weather outfits as we piled into the station wagon to go Hanukkah shopping with mom. We had the only house on the block, in the neighborhood, bare of decorations, the only wreathless front door. No strings of lights hung from the eaves, no garlands graced the front window. My parents were discreet, practical and sober when it came to holidays. A lone Menorah stood in the livingroom, one gift per night, a gift we had most likely chosen ourselves, was handed to each of us before we gathered around the table for a game of dreidl, peanuts or M & M’s our tokens of choice. And we were happy that way, happy being together, laughing, singing, playing with our toys. For eight nights, brightened by the candles’ flames.
Chestnuts are delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks,
and able to make women well-complexioned.
– John Evelyn, 1620 – 1706
No chestnuts found their way into our kitchen, nor graced our holiday table. Foreign, they were, to us Floridians who spent the winter eating citrus morning, noon and night. Pies in pumpkin, apple and cherry were reserved for Thanksgiving as was bird and sticky sweet marshmallow sweet potato casserole. A plate of latkes was our Hanukkah treat along with a tiny bag of Hanukkah gelt, thick chocolate coins wrapped in glittering, shiny gold foil, counted out, made to last eight days. These simple traditions have found their way into my own home as we, husband, two sons and I, gather round the old family Menorah, the same from my childhood, lighting the candles for eight nights, exchanging gifts and enjoying our time together.
No, no special holidays meals for Hanukkah, yet this time of year I love to bake and cook with those special seasonal ingredients that, for me, are forever linked to a joyous, sprightly winter: pumpkins and apples, oranges and chestnuts. And when I can add chocolate to the mix, well, don’t I just do it. After my recent escapade into decadence the result of which, a Chocolate Chestnut Fondant, was received with merriment, gobbled down by one and all, I decided to try yet another chocolate chestnut delicacy with the rest of the can of Crème de Marrons. This Chocolate Chestnut Cloud Cake gets its airiness from thick, creamy meringue which is folded ever so gently into chocolate and butter, flavored by chestnut cream and a festive splash of Cointreau, my tipple of choice this season. I first baked one single fluted cake and then repeated the recipe baking individual portions, mini Bundts and tiny cakes. And the holidays call for something more, a bit special, so each cake was drizzled with Chocolate Orange Ganache.
These wonderfully festive treats are perfect for December’s Monthly Mingle, created by my Zesty Sister and fellow Plate to Page instructor Meeta. This month’s host, my talented friend Simone of Junglefrog Cooking, asked us to bake Christmas Cakes and that is just what this Chocolate Chestnut Cloud Cake is!
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT CLOUD CAKE with Chocolate Orange Ganache
Adapted from Crème de Marrons les 30 recettes culte by Sandra Mahut
5.3 oz (150 g) dark chocolate 70% cacao, broken into pieces
9 Tbs (135 g) unsalted butter
3 rounded/heaping Tbs (150 g) chestnut cream (crème de marrons Clément Faugier)
3 Tbs (30 g) flour
3 Tbs (20 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
5 large eggs, separated
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs Cointreau, optional
Orange Chocolate Ganache (this recipe can easily be halved):
3.5 oz (100 g) Lindt Excellence Orange Intense or equivalent orange-scented dark chocolate
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
Or confectioner’s/powdered sugar and unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325-335°F (170°C). Butter and flour either a medium-sized Bundt or fluted tube pan or about 18 – 20 individual cupcake or mini-Bundt molds.
Place the butter and the broken chocolate into a medium-sized Pyrex or heatproof bowl. Melt gently either in a bain-marie, over a pot of gently simmering water or in the microwave; barely 1 minute on high heat in the microwave should melt the butter completely and more than partially, but not completely, melt the chocolate. Remove from the heat/microwave and stir or whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture well blended and smooth. Add the 3 heaping tablespoons of chestnut cream/crème de marrons and whisk to blend.
Measure the flour and the cocoa powder together into a small bowl and then sift the two onto the chocolate/butter/chestnut mixture. Whisk to blend until smooth. Whisk in the Cointreau, if using.
Separate the eggs, placing the 5 clean whites into a large, very clean bowl ideal for whipping meringue – I prefer plastic. If you like, add a drop of lemon juice and a few grains of salt to help stabilize the whites. Using an electric mixer, beat the whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high; beat for about 2 minutes until the whites are no longer foamy, are white and opaque and soft peaks hold. Begin gradually beating in the sugar, about a teaspoon at a time while continuing to beat on high speed. This should take another couple of minutes. Continue to beat until all of the sugar is incorporated and the meringue is very thick. The entire process should take about 5 minutes.
Beat the egg yolks into the meringue one at a time, beating on medium or high speed, beating in each yolk just to combine.
Using a spatula, fold the yolky meringue into the chocolate batter, adding and folding in a quarter of the meringue at a time. Do not overmix.
Spoon into the molds and bake for not more than 30 minutes (if making one large cake, this could bake up to double the time depending on the pan and the oven). When done, the top should be set, dull (no longer shiny) and lightly crispy. The cake should spring back when gently pressed and a tester inserted in the cake should come out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan until completely cool before gently loosening and turning out.
Prepare the ganache while waiting for the cakes to cool by chopping the chocolate and placing in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream just to the boil and pour over the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache well blended, smooth and creamy. Leave to thicken at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until drizzling consistency. If you like, allow to get very thick and then thin with a bit of Cointreau. Spoon onto individual cakes or slices as serving. Top with sugar pearls or other festive sugar decorations.