Friday 21 December 2012

Chestnut Crème Cakelets & Distillery District Christmas Market

"Please sir, do you know the Chestnut Man?" This was the question on my lips as I flitted from stall to stall at the Christmas Market in Toronto's rather Dickensian Distillery District. Some market vendors pointed me towards various cobblestoned laneways and courtyards, suggesting I follow my nose to his portable fire. Others talked about him mysteriously, as though he and his chestnuts only appeared when the wind was right. Despite my thorough combing of the entire market (with indulgent stops at the apple fritter hut and Balzac's coffee for 'sustenance'), the Chestnut Man proved elusive. I didn't mind so much, as I soaked up the festive atmosphere and happily clicked away with my camera. I was simply looking to confirm what I'd already discovered - that roasted chestnuts are delicious. This year, I decided that a roasted chestnut-inspired dessert would be my date to Christmas dinner: I wanted something naturally attractive, slightly nutty and subtly sensual. I invited some chestnuts into my kitchen boudoir and we experimented at length together. I had eyes for no other dessert until the chestnuts and I got everything just right. The result? Tender-crumbed cakelets my friends can't stop talking about - with a flavour the Chestnut Man would seek me out for.

Bottom right: Faugier Factory c. 1890 & iconic Faugier packaging
In the mid 1880s, George Gooderham took over the family distillery in this then-industrially-active section of Toronto. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a French confectioner named Clément Faugier ingeniously invented a nutty conserve that rivals the pleasure of Nutella for 'kids from 1 to 92'. His confiserie's best-sellers were marrons glacés - candied chestnuts, whose imperfect specimens and broken pieces he brilliantly transformed into a smooth, spreadable paste to create a breakfast table legacy.

* * *

To make the crème de marrons at home, if you happen to have the requisite 'open fire', or a nice hot oven, feel free to roast your own chestnuts. If you're short on time, pre-roasted chestnuts are available in vacuum packs in the snack section of your local grocery store. The chestnuts get milk-drunk and drowsy in a warm vanilla bean-infused bath, soaking up the flavour, and are then pureed in a food processor until smooth. Don't worry, there's a good bit left for licking off spoons (or one another) and perhaps a breakfast or two - it is typically served on toast, folded into crêpes, stirred into yogurt or spooned on top of ice cream - the options are endless...

A fortuitous trip to Winners introduced a new mini-bundt cake pan into my pantry, and I immediately knew this was the pan for the job. The miniature cakes come out in prettily ridged 'mountains', deliciously reminiscent of a more physical topography.

The cake's batter is the perfect marriage of crumb and moisture: a love story written in chestnut cream and almond flour, brought together by stiffly whipped egg whites and melted butter. An added bonus - the chestnut cakelets are naturally gluten-free (however, they are fully deserving of a place of honour amongst their more floury companions on the shelves of my imaginary French Pâtisserie!).

Every taste tester has talked evocatively, if not erotically about these cakelets. You may find yourself adding them to the list of things you 'really do need' in your letter to Santa Baby.

These gâteaux go perfectly with an afternoon hot chocolate, and also make an ideal edible (cough) gift. In the spirit of full disclosure: I may-or-may-not-have eaten all six the first time I made these - you know - in the name of 'research'.

Also in the name of 'research' (on my Christmas Market hunt for the Chestnut Man) I savored (completely inhaled) hot-from-the-fryer apple fritters, that tasted somewhere between 'delicious' and 'inappropriately good'.

I licked the cinnamon-infused sugar from my lips, to the captive audience of the vendor and the man behind me in line.

I also indulged in a steaming Americano from one of the city's finest coffee shops - Balzac's Coffee. I intended to sip my coffee and get started writing this post, but from my perch in the mezzanine, I much preferred to people-watch instead.

The rest of my afternoon was spent soaking up the festive atmosphere to the musical soundtrack of brightly-garbed carolers and seeking out any clues as to the whereabouts of the Chestnut Man. I eventually found out from someone official that he only comes on weekends, which is a shame, because that's when I'm at work. By this point, however, he had reached legendary status in my mind (given the stories I was told regarding his absence: "Oh him? He's a wily one, that one. Never quite know when he's going to show up." ... "There's a chestnut guy?!" ... "A bit of a gypsy, I hear. Why don't you buy some of my almonds instead?"). I pictured him as some sort of culinary Rumplestiltskin - gruffly tending his fire, roasting chestnuts one could only procure if one guessed his whereabouts correctly.

I actually went so far as to loan my camera to some of my students who happened to be attending the market this weekend. "If you see a guy roasting chestnuts, take as many photos as possible!" I said.

I later found my camera on my desk, having missed them getting in, and eagerly clicked the viewing screen to catch my first glimpse of... nothing but blur. The students told the woman selling chestnuts about my search during the week and she and her coworkers had no notion at all as to why such fantastical stories were circulating. According to them, there is no "Chestnut Man". I, instead, much prefer to play along with the mystery.

A touch of mystery is baked into each of these Chestnut Crème cakelets as well. I am intrigued as to how such a simple and unassuming cake can be so complex and evocative in its flavour: each bite containing a taste of the season, an undeniable sensuality of crumb, and the power to endear (or arouse!) anyone on your Christmas list.


(Naturally Gluten-Free)

OVEN: 325 F

For the Crème de Marrons - Chestnut Cream:

1 CUP roasted and peeled chestnuts
1/4 CUP sugar
1 CUP whole milk
1 vanilla bean, seeds and pod

In a saucepan, combine chestnuts, sugar, and milk. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add the seeds and the pod to the milk mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring often to avoid scorching. Reduce heat to medium-low, and let simmer for 25 minutes, or until the majority of the milk has evaporated.

Remove the saucepan from the heat, straining the chestnuts and reserving the remaining liquid. In a food processor, puree the chestnuts while adding a thin stream of the reserved liquid until the mixture has reached the desired consistency (smooth, spreadable and thick). Let cool to room temperature before using in a recipe or before refrigerating. Will keep in the fridge for about a week.

For the Cakelets:

4 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 CUP sugar
6 TBSP butter, melted
1 TSP vanilla extract
1/4 TSP salt
1 3/4 CUPS almond flour (ground almonds)

1 CUP Crème de Marrons - Chestnut Cream
1 TSP baking powder 
1 TSP lemon zest
confectioner's sugar - for dusting

Separate the eggs. In the bowl with the yolks, add the sugar and combine with an electric mixer until the mixture is smooth and creamy and slightly pale. While continuing to mix, slowly add the melted butter and vanilla extract.

Add the ground almonds, crème de Marrons - chestnut cream, baking powder and lemon zest and stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold 1/3 of the whites into the rest of the batter until incorporated, following with a gentle folding-in of the remaining 2/3. Be careful not to over-mix, but also make sure no white streaks remain.

Lightly grease 6 mini 3" cake moulds, or a large muffin tin. Gently scoop the batter into the moulds, distributing it evenly (I find a retractable ice cream scoop ideal for this job). Using a spatula, carefully smooth the tops. Set in the middle rack of the oven and bake for 20 minutes (or until lightly golden on top, darkly golden on the outside) and a toothpick comes out mostly clean when tested in the centre. The centres will be slightly damp: do not overbake. Allow to cool in pan for about 10 minutes, then cool completely on racks. Sprinkle with some confectioner's sugar to serve.


  1. deliciously done looks wonderful happy holidays

  2. Merry Christmas! Belated, that is... Hope yours was a good one. Judging by your Distillery Christmas Market photos, looks like you were busy doing "research" for holiday recipes! Heehee. You make the most delectable cakes - and each of them looks flawless! I wish I have your Midas touch in baking! I'm sure all your goodies taste awesome, too. Love that this cakelet is gluten-free. Can't go wrong with that...

    By the way, I just made The French Laundry Apple Kuchen, as inspired by your post! :)

    1. Saw your French Laundry post - glad to inspire! Yes, my Christmas was especially 'research'-heavy. You know, testing the effects of really good cheese, assorted combinations of butter, cream and sugar, and (obviously) had to sample more than once for uh, 'quality control'. :)

  3. How wonderful. The market looks fantastic and your little cakelets sound great.

    1. Thanks Caroline! Hope your holidays have been great - wishing you a very happy, food-filled New Year.

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