Treasure chests

Montebianco, the classic chestnut dessert.
Montebianco, the classic chestnut dessert. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

We have been having a veritable chestnut festival after a recent visit to Tweenhills Chestnut Farm at Hoskinstown. John and Heather Kane have been growing chestnuts since 1997. I brought home two varieties to try: de coppi marone, recommended for roasting, and bouche de betizac, a large easy-to-peel chestnut.

I have prepared and cooked the chestnuts in various ways and we have become quite addicted to them. I plan to put some in the freezer to enjoy during the year.

My first recipe is for a velvety chestnut soup served with crisp croutons. It is excellent for a cold day and would be perfect for entertaining.

The second recipe is for montebianco, a favourite dessert of mine. It resembles a snow-capped mountain originally inspired by Europe's highest peak, Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc on the French side). It was a popular dish in the 1960s, often served at dinner parties and in restaurants. I think the chestnut puree at that time was more likely to be from a can than freshly made, but it was delicious. The dessert is quite wonderful when made from scratch and especially when served with meringues. Tweenhills Chestnuts is selling fresh and roasted chestnuts at the Fyshwick Markets on weekends until late July, or you can buy them online at tweenhillschestnuts.com.au.

The Essential Ingredient in Kingston has frozen chestnuts, vacuum-packed chestnuts, a special tool for scoring chestnuts and pans for roasting them. You can also buy chestnuts in cans from delicatessens.

More chestnut recipes next week, including Marcella Hazan-inspired chestnuts with red wine; and chestnut and chocolate cake.

Chestnut soup.
Chestnut soup. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer, dlampe@bigpond.net.au

Montebianco

Serves 6

You need a potato ricer or food mill for this dessert. Some recipes suggest simply using a piping bag.

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500g peeled chestnuts (750g-800g whole chestnuts)

1½ cups milk

1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla extract

I have been cooking chestnuts in various ways and we’ve become quite addicted to them.

4-5 tbsp sugar (about 80g), to taste

300ml pure cream

icing sugar

Place the peeled chestnuts in a saucepan with the milk to just cover. Split and scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add the seeds and pod to the chestnuts (alternatively add vanilla extract). Simmer for about 30 minutes until the chestnuts are tender. Add a dash more milk if needed and stir often in case it catches.

Add the sugar to taste. Remove the vanilla bean pod and transfer the chestnut mixture to a food processor or food mill and puree. Chill until needed.

To serve, pass the chestnut puree through a potato ricer or food mill into one large mound on a serving plate or into smaller ones on individual plates. It is very rich, so don't be too generous with the servings.

Whip the cream, and sweeten and flavour with icing sugar and vanilla extract if you wish. Spoon the cream on the top of the chestnut ''vermicelli'' mound or mounds to resemble a snow-capped mountain or mountains.

Variations

For chocolate montebianco, add two to four teaspoons of Dutch cocoa and rum to taste to the chestnut puree. Grate dark chocolate over the mountain top. Serve the puree with meringues for a delicious crunch. Sieve the chestnut vermicelli over meringues or meringue nests and top with cream. Or serve the chestnut ''vermicelli'' over vanilla ice-cream.

Chestnut soup

Serves 6

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil and/or butter

1 onion, roughly chopped

1½ tender sticks of celery, sliced

sea salt

450-500g peeled chestnuts

1 medium potato, peeled and quartered

4-5 cups vegetable stock, or use stock powder

1 bouquet garni of parsley, a bay leaf and thyme, tied together

freshly grated nutmeg

freshly ground pepper

¼ cup cream or ½ cup milk

dash of sherry (optional)

chopped parsley or cut chives for garnish

croutons to serve

Heat a large saucepan with the olive oil and/or butter. Add the onion, celery and salt. Cover and cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the chestnuts, potato, four cups of stock (or the stock powder and four cups of water), the bouquet garni, nutmeg and pepper and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the chestnuts and potatoes are quite tender.

Remove the bouquet garni and puree the soup with a stick blender or in a blender. Add more stock if it seems too thick. When ready to serve, gently reheat and stir in the cream or milk and add a dash of sherry if you like. Taste and correct the seasoning. Add a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of parsley or chives to each serving. Hand around the croutons.

Croutons

Remove the crusts from three slices of white or wholemeal bread and cut into small dice. Heat a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and a knob of butter (optional) in a frying pan. Add the bread cubes and fry, tossing in the pan until crisp and golden brown.

Nutting it out

Chestnuts don't have a long shelf life and should always be used very fresh. You can keep them in a sealed container in the crisper in the fridge for two to three weeks, or peel and freeze.

To peel chestnuts, first score them by making a cut through the shell and inner skin in any direction, or making a cross with a small sharp knife.

It's easier to work in small batches, as they need to be peeled while hot.

You can bake, microwave, barbecue, or boil chestnuts. They need 15 to 20 minutes at 200C in the oven, or boiling to become tender, a little longer on a barbecue.

To peel, wrap the cooked chestnuts in a tea towel. Remove the outer shell and inner skin while still warm (they're tricky to peel once cooled).