Can you feel it? The chill in the air, the leaves crunching under your feet and the sense that everything is ready to go to sleep. Autumn is my absolute favourite time of the year. Snuggly jerseys, copious cups of tea, ridiculous amounts of butter and fluffy socks. There’s also the promise of the Newlands forest floor being covered in mushrooms ready to be plucked – which is, to be honest, my only form of winter exercise. But while I was a tad too early for porcini, on my last forage I stumbled upon chestnuts – loads and loads of chestnuts.
They instantly reminded me of my trip of Italy a few years ago, where standing on a street corner in Venice, freezing cold, I scoffed two paper bags of chestnuts that had been toasted right in front of me over a fire made in a tin can. Casual for Italians, a revelation to me – mostly because my first taste of chestnuts as a child, had been a disaster. My dad had come home one day with an entire bag of prickly green balls and announced triumphantly that we would be toasting them! While much excitement ensued, our enthusiasm didn’t make up for the apparent lack of knowledge of just how to cook them – my mom threw them into the oven with the hard brown shell still on and so we all bit into teeth-breakingly hard nuts. If only Google was around then!
After that trip to Italy, where I realised that the shell had to be scored with a kiss (an X) before roasting so that the chestnuts split open while roasting, releasing the creamy, sweet nut inside – I was hooked! After roasting you can turn them into a puree which is amazing on pavlovas, in between cakes, cookies or in this deliciously creamy ice cream. I’ve paired it with my favourite Autumn dessert, pancakes, that have been fried in brown butter to make the edges go all crispy (the best bit!). If you can’t find fresh chestnuts, use the tinned chestnut puree which you can find at most delis or online here. Otherwise, simply swop it out for any nut butter – think pecan, almond or cashew. And don’t skip the spiced caramelised nuts – they absolutely make the dish!
BROWN BUTTER PANCAKES WITH CHESTNUT ICE CREAM AND SPICED PECANS
125g cake flour
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
3 cups (750ml) cream
1 cup (250ml) milk
1/2 cup (125ml) icing sugar, sifted
100g tinned sweetened chestnut puree
100g pecan nuts
1/4 cup (60ml) brown sugar
1 tsp (5ml) ground cinnamon
To make the pancakes, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, swirling every now and then, until the butter froths and starts turning brown. It is ready when it smells like toasted nuts. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Place the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs and milk and whisk into the dry ingredients. Add 2 tablespoons of the brown butter. Allow the batter to stand for 30 minutes. Heat a non-stick frying pan and brush with the brown butter, pour a 1/4 cup of batter into the hot pan and swirl to coat. When the edges begin to lift, flip over and cook the other side until brown. Repeat with the remaining batter and brown butter.
To make the ice cream, whisk the cream, milk, sugar and chestnut puree together in a large jug. Divide the mixture into two large ziplock bags and seal well. Lay the bags flat and freeze until firm. Break the frozen cream mixture into junks and place it in a blender of food processor – process until the mixture forms a soft serve consistency. Quickly pour into a freezer proof container and freeze until firm.
To make the nuts, place the sugar in a small saucepan or frying pan with 1 tbsp water and heat until golden and caramelised. Add the pecan nuts and stir to coat. Add the cinnamon and keep stirring until the sugar starts crystallizing (you can speed the process up by adding a teaspoonful of brown sugar), once the nuts are coated well, spread onto a lined baking sheet to cool.
Serve the pancakes with a scoop of chestnut ice cream and a sprinkling of the spiced nuts.
TIP Make your own sweetened chestnut puree by roasting 200g shell-on chestnuts; to do this, score an ‘X’ into the flat side of the chestnut and place them on a baking sheet in an oven preheated to 240C for 10 minutes. Allow to cool then peel off the hard shell. Place the chestnuts into a saucepan with 2 cups milk, 1 tsp vanilla (if desired) and simmer until the chestnuts are soft. Add 1/2 cup more milk, 1/4 cup sugar and stir to dissolve. Place the mixture into a food processor and blend until smooth. Strain through a sieve and bottle in sterilized jars to store.