Three Wonderful Things: Chestnuts, Pierre Herme and a Tart

I can’t remember what year it was (1991, maybe? ), but, although I was in Paris for vacation, it was impossible then not to do a little research for a chestnut story I was doing for The New York Times.  Chestnuts were everywhere!  It wasn’t just the carts on the street corner or the iconic trees in all the squares, there were nuts decorating store windows, turning up on menus and just beginning to be seen in their most elegant and expensive incarnation: marrons glaces, or candied chestnuts.

Marrons glaces are chestnuts that have been serially cooked and soaked in a sugar/glucose syrup until the nut is thoroughly candied and has a thin, crackly, crystaline coating.  Traditionally wrapped in gold foil so that they look like the jewels that they are, they are a treasured holiday luxury. 

Because I was curious about how marrons glaces were made, I telephoned Fauchon for information and was told that I’d have to talk to the pastry chef, M. Herme.  And so I did.  I called and Pierre invited me to come to his “lab” (that’s what French pastry kitchens are called) the following day.  I showed up with my husband, Michael, in tow because I thought I’d just be meeting with the chef for about the amount of time it would take for Michael to have a cup of coffee.  Wrong.

First of all, Pierre, being gracious Pierre, welcomed both of us and wouldn’t hear of Michael taking off.  And then he took us around the kitchen and we talked and talked and talked and tasted and tasted and two hours – count’em – later I discovered that Fauchon did not make their marrons glaces in house (so I never got to see the process) and that I was in love.  Actually, I fell in love 1 hour and 55 minutes before the chestnut discovery:  I was smitten within minutes of meeting Pierre Herme and all these years – and two books together – later, I’m still smitten.

But back to the chestnuts.  When Pierre and I were working on our first book, Desserts by Pierre Herme, we were told that Americans are not as wild about chestnuts as the French or, for that matter, the Italians, and that we should make sure that if we included a chestnut recipe it could win converts.  Well, we included two and they’re both winners.  One is the Christmas Log, a ladyfinger cake rolled around a chestnut, rum and cassis filling and finished with a chestnut buttercream; and the other is the tart, which is filled with a chestnut-Scotch clafoutis (a corss between custard and flan) studded with pears and chestnuts and topped with a phyllo crown that is gorgeous, fun to make and a neat little trick to have in your repertoire to dress up other tarts or even cakes.

CHESTNUT AND PEAR TART

Adapted from Desserts by Pierre Herme

Makes 8 to 10 servings

The crust:

One unbaked 10-inch tart shell (make it from a sweet tart dough)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the tart on a lined baking sheet.  Line the crust with foil or parchment, fill with beans or rice and bake it for just 15 minutes.  Transfer the pan to a rack and allow the crust to cool to room temperature.

The filling:

2 to 3 very ripe medium pears (Comice or Bartlett pears are good here)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

3 tablespoons chestnut puree (stir before measuring)

2/3 cup whole milk

1/3 cup creme fraiche

1 1/2 teaspoons Scotch whisky

1/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

2/3 cup dry bottled chestnuts

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Core and cut the unpeeled pears into small (about 1/3 inch) cubes; you should have about 2 1/2 cups of fruit.  Toss the pears in a bowl with the lemon juice to keep them from darkening and set aside.  (Pierre likes the extra flavor and texture he gets by keeping the skin on the pears.  If the skin on your pears is thick, or if keeping the skin on doesn’t appeal to you, by all means, peel the pears.)

Scrape the chestnut puree into a medium bowl and, using a whisk, stir the puree to loosen it, then blend in the milk and creme fraiche.  One by one, add the whisky, sugar and eggs, stirring until the mixture is smooth.  There’s no reason to be overzealous – you’re aiming to make sure the filling is smooth, not airy.  With your fingers, break the chestnuts into small pieces and scatter them over the bottom of the crust.  Turn the pears into the crust, spreading them evenly over the chestnuts, and then pour in the filling (you might find this easier to do if you put the baking sheet with the tart shell into the oven before you pour in the filling); depending on how much or how little your crust shrank during baking, you may have some filling leftover.

Bake the tart for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a slender knife inserted into the custard comes out clean.  Remove the tart from the oven and, keeping it in the pan on the baking sheet, set it on a rack to cool.  (You can make the phyllo topping while the tart cools or do it later, at your convenience.)

To finish:

3 sheets phyllo

Confectioner’s sugar

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the outer circle of a 10-inch tart pan on a baking sheet.  Working with 1 piece of phyllo at a time, and keeping the other pieces under a damp cloth, scrunch the phyllo to fit it inside the tart ring.  Neatness doesn’t count here, so just get the phyllo, with all its hills and valleys, into the ring and then pat it down lightly.  Repeat with the 2 remaining sheets, piling the sheets one on top of another.  Dust the top of the phyllo crown evenly but not too heavily with confectioner’s sugar and slide the baking sheet into the oven. 

Bake the phyllo for 5 to 7 minutes, or just until the top sheet is shiny and caramelized.  Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the crown cool to room temperature.

To serve, remove the tart from its pan, transfer it to a serving platter and top with the pyllo.

Keeping:  The tart should be served at room temperature – it’s really best kept out of the refrigerator – and eaten the day it is made.

Dorie Greenspan

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