Birthday Cake for the Patient Person

My husband doesn’t  really remember when he first had chestnut cake as a birthday cake, but I remember when I first tasted it. It was late January in 1985. John and I weren’t yet married, but we would be that spring. As we scrambled to plan our small wedding, I was working in the sales office at Creative Gourmets, a catering firm in Boston, helping our sales staff plan the weddings of others. Besides typing contracts and answering telephones, I was occasionally called upon to act as taste tester when the head chef and pastry chef would carry down to my windowless office samples of some of the foods they were creating for the special events menus I typed day in and day out. I was only too happy to take a break from my rote work and taste their delicious treats.

One afternoon, Regina – our pastry chef – brought me a wedge of cake and its dark chocolate frosting caught my eye. The cake itself, a single golden layer, looked rather plain and not really worthy of the glossy ganache. One taste, however, and I understood that chestnut cake didn’t need to be showy or tall or multi-layered or ostentatious because it was so delicious as it was: delicately sweet, tender, and rich without being heavy. The cake was simple and it also wasn’t. It was in fact the most intriguing cake I had ever eaten.

When I told Regina I thought the cake would make a great birthday cake for my soon-to-be-husband, she said she would make one for me on her own time. All I had to do was bring her a can of chestnuts.

“Canned whole chestnuts, not the puree or the cream,” she added.

I found what she needed, and a couple of weeks later presented the finished cake to the birthday boy. And just as I had, he fell in love with this cake.

He loved the cake so much that he asked every few years if I would make it for his birthday. I never asked Regina for her recipe, however, a mistake that haunts me every time puts in his birthday request. For years I scoured cookbooks and magazines to find other chestnut cake recipes, I tried coming up with my own version, I made several cakes with varying degrees of success. Even with the best ones, I was underwhelmed. Nothing tasted as good as Regina’s.

Until this year. I tried again to come up with my own recipe, and this year’s cake came the closest to what I remembered and liked best about the original – its true nut flavor, its tender and buttery crumb. As I experimented, I simply thought of the cake as a classic torte, using only ground nuts and no flour along with the butter, and separating a lot of eggs in order to lighten the batter with frothy egg whites. This is not Regina’s cake but it is darn close, and tasty in its own right.

And I think we all agree it was worth the wait.

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Golden Chestnut Cake

  • 2 cups peeled whole chestnuts, either from a plastic vacuum pack, or from a jar or can
  • 1⁄4 cup rum
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup hazelnut flour or almond meal
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 3⁄4 cup sugar, divided use
  • 6 eggs, separated

Place the chestnuts, rum, sugar and water together in a small saucepan. Gradually heat the liquid until it begins to simmer. Take the pan off the heat, cover it, and set the chestnuts aside to soak in the liquid for about a half-hour. Drain the chestnuts from the liquid and pat them dry with paper towel. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch springform pan with non-stick spray. Line the bottom with a parchment circle cut to fit. Set the pan on a baking sheet and set this aside.

Place the chestnuts in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until you have small uniform nut pieces, neither too chunky nor a nut paste.

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Turn the chestnuts into a medium bowl. Toss these with the hazelnut flour to evenly distribute. Set the bowl aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter together with 1⁄2 cup of the sugar on medium-high speed until the mixture is creamy and fluffy and becomes very pale in color. With the mixer running, add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. When all the yolks have been incorporated, gently fold the nut mixture into the batter.

In a clean bowl and with clean beaters or whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed until foamy. Gradually begin to add to this the remaining 1⁄4 cup sugar in a slow stream and continue to beat the egg whites until they are glossy and stiff peaks form.

Fold one-fourth of the egg whites into the nut batter to lighten it, then add the remaining egg whites. Fold gently but thoroughly to blend. Gently spoon the batter into the prepared pan and place the baking sheet into the center of the preheated oven.

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Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely before removing it from the pan. To do so, slightly loosen the pan’s lock on the side. Run a thin knife between the cake and the inside of the pan, and then unlock the pan all the way. Invert the cake onto another cooling rack and remove the pan’s bottom and the parchment circle. Slide the cake onto a serving plate, bottom side up. The cake is now ready for glazing.

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Chocolate Ganache

  • 1⁄2 cup heavy cream
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Place the cream in a small saucepan set over high heat. Bring the cream to a boil. Place the chopped chocolate in a small bowl. As soon as the cream begins to boil, remove the pan from the heat and pour the cream over the chopped chocolate. Stir until all the chocolate has melted and the ganache is smooth and glossy. Allow to cool at room temperature just a bit.

To ice the cake, pour the ganache in the center of the chestnut cake layer. Using a thin spatula, push the ganache outwards to the edge of the layer and let it drip over.

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Let the ganache set a bit before cutting and serving the cake.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward