May 4, 2009

Autumn leaves...







I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Eva Cassidy – Autumn Leaves
I know it's been a while, but what with the lads of Crue and Padre combining for an irresistible coffee degustation; and Misters O'Doherty, Moran and Kitson gracing our shores with their comedic presence, our ever-dwindling spare time opportunities have been otherwise engaged. Add to that some crazy vocational scheduling and imperative workly deadlines and you'll find that, to be perfectly frank, we of Team Pretty Bake have been feeling a wee bit exhausted of late. But this moment of culinary fatigue has now passed, and a beautiful Sunday was once again well spent, so at long last we can finally bring you a return to the kitchen happenings of Sunday Baking with Team Pretty Bake.

As the change in seasons brings crisp mornings and beautiful cool but sunny days, we thought it only appropriate that the theme for our latest gastronomic adventure be all things autumnal. A few stalwarts were decided upon, and as the quinces poached slowly in the corner, we turned our focus to the quintessential autumn classic, the chestnut.




Now, quips about hairy nuts aside, our intended creation was Patrizia's castagnaccio from the oft resourced Stephanie. An Italian classic, castagnaccio is one of these curious not-quite-sweet, not-quite-savoury cakes which is eaten either with antipasto and an aperitif, or as dessert, depending on your particular persuasion.

Following the sagely advice of our predecessors that non-rancid chestnut flour is difficult to come by (and not to mention also happens to be ludicrously expensive), we followed the more traditional method of using whole chestnuts. Although I have no basis for comparison, I suspect that this approach is thoroughly worth it, but I must advise that these little dears are quite a bit of work. Shelling freshly simmered chestnuts is somewhat therapeutic, for perhaps the first nut or two. After that you begin to loose all feeling in your fingers, the complete removal of the inner hairiness seems tedious and impossible, and while some satisfaction is experienced on finally attaining the required weight, a kitchen minion would have been thoroughly appreciated.

But with our freshly peeled chestnuts finally at the ready we set about constructing our castagnaccio. The chestnuts were first boiled down to a paste - following a mesmerising transformation from the appearance of a festering pot of simmering brains to a silky paste with oyster-mauve hues which looked perfectly edible - and then combined with some honey and walnuts, topped with pine nuts and rosemary and finally baked to produce this…




Patrizia's Castagnaccio


A densely moist cake with heavenly aromas, the castagnaccio was surprisingly delicious. To my mind it is definitely savoury as it was simply killer drizzled with olive oil and topped with salty cured meats and olives. Undeniably different, I can thoroughly recommend attempting a castagnaccio, particularly if you can find someone else to peel your nuts.

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We followed our chestnut feature with one of my favourite autumn treats, rhubarb. Rather than the usual and near impassable crumble affair, we opted for a minor variation in the form of little rhubarb meringue pies. Brown sugar pastry filled with vanilla-flecked stewed rhubarb and topped with Italian meringue – what more can I say but, yum!

Rhubarb – it goes in tarts


Sadly the excuse to invest in a TPB blow torch did not come to fruition this time around, but we did discover our new favourite type of meringue (dare I say the Italians do it best?), and the brown sugar pastry not only had an exceptional hold but was particularly delicious.

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As I alluded to earlier, the final piece to our autumnly trio was Stephanie's quince and browned butter tart. Quinces are somewhat perplexing, if not romantically mysterious. What you start with can be considered golden and voluptuous, but these knobbly, pubescence-covered fruit are astringent and thoroughly inedible raw. What happens though when you take the time to poach them in light sugar syrup (and please do take the time) is quite delightful. As the flesh transforms through pale pink to glorious deep amber and their sublime perfume pervades the kitchen, you'll wonder why you never bothered with quinces before. Of course, poached quinces are simply fabulous, but spread over shortcrust pastry and filled with browned butter custard, well, that's just heavenly.




Quince and Browned Butter Tart


It was nice to be back, to spend time with a dear friend doing something I thoroughly enjoy. And I like this time of year; not only for the fabulous produce being harvested, but the opportunity the cooler weather provides to snuggle up indoors and do all manner of slow cooking until the house is filled with the heady aroma of deliciousness. At least in these new times that is something to look forward to, and I hope you enjoy sharing it with us.

Until next time, dear friends…

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