Last year was a year of pastry. Of cakes and tortes, of weddings and supper clubs. Of learning how to cook for others, of learning how to put a dish together, of learning what it means to put a dish in front of someone else. It was a year spent in kitchens: church hall kitchens, kitchens we erected in garages, bright, white, professional kitchens.
I whisked sponge after sponge, made litres of custard, bloomed my weight in gelatine, carved grape after grape. I shredded kilos of slow cooked lamb, arranged dozens of salads, stacked tier after tier of wedding cakes.
And somewhere along the way, in my own kitchen, I stopped cooking new stuff. With every new event or recipe column, every exam dish or supperclub, I was developing and perfecting, learning and improving. But when I was cooking for me, I became increasingly timid. I resorted to dishes I knew: comfort food in the most literal sense. Food I could depend on: to be delicious, to work, to not take three times as long as the recipe promised. Ideally a dish I didn’t even have to defer to a recipe for: a dish which was either so ingrained in my memory that I could get on with it, or so simple that it didn’t merit committing to paper. This meant that I returned time and time again to the same ingredients. I am a creature of habit, and need little encouragement to revert to what I knew: old faithfuls of beef shin, aubergine, tinned tomatoes, lamb neck, orzo, halloumi. Reliable, easy, ingredients, that made me feel confident and capable. Happy to grapple with any number of dishes and flavours when it came to recipes or catering, in my personal life, I veered away from the novel.
This needed to change. I needed to get back into the kitchen. I feel my shoulders loosen, and my mind still. My hands – hands that have spent the previous 12 hours frantically checking my phone, tapping keys, checking my phone, touching my face in anxiety, checking my phone – finally, calm. Stirring, dicing, folding, whisking.
And there are so many things I haven’t cooked with: venison, preserved lemons, jaggery, matcha, sweetbreads, evaporated milk… Some of these are because I’m scared – expensive cuts of meat and fish hold the promise of failure, of waste – some because I’ve never even considered it – so many cuisines I know nothing about – some because life is short, and I only began cooking five years ago. So this was my plan: a year where my cooking would be explicitly focused on using ingredients that are new to me. A different ingredient each week. Sometimes these ingredients will be the star of the dish, sometimes they’ll sit in the background. Often, I suspect, the recipes will be heavily based on, or adapted from, pre-existing recipes. In the spirit of this endeavour, I’m going to do my best not to shy away from complicated recipes, or those that sit outside my comfort (food) zone. But the only rule is that they must feature an ingredient I haven’t used before.
So, here we go.
My Year of Ingredients: 1. Chestnuts
There are few smells I love more than that of a hot chestnut. When I was a very baby barrister, I had to return to chambers once I’d finished a case. When you’re grown up, you can do what you like – you’re responsible for your own time and your own work – but while you’re still a pupil, chambers own you, and you have to schlep back from whichever backwater you’ve been sent to.
But Southwark Crown Court I didn’t mind coming back from: walking across the bridge meant walking past the chestnut sellers on the North bank, just before you get to St Paul’s cathedral. And that smell: dark, earthy, sweet and hot – you can smell the heat, caramelising the natural sugars in the nut – that’s what chestnut puree tastes like.
I’ve never cooked with chestnut puree. I’ve had decent intentions to cook with chestnuts: I’ve bought them before, in vac packed bags with expiry dates longer than those of my debit cards. I’ve bought them fresh and unshelled from my local Turkish Food Centre, disappointed and surprised when they run to mould, as if they should have been impermeable, permanent.
But I didn’t want chestnuts, whole and chunky, must and savoury. I wanted that smell, that essence of chestnut that I remembered from my post-court walks. I wanted thick and dense, sweet and rich, folded through chocolate, perfuming a cake.
I had a memory of a picture of a chestnut cake in Nigella Bites. The memory was broken mahogany coloured chunks drizzled with cream. Surely this was what I needed. Nigella Bites holds a certain power over me. It was the firs cookbook I ever owned: long before I had any interest in actual cooking, I would gaze at the photos, committing them to memory. Looking at the recipe for the first time, I realised it was in fact chocolate melted with butter and chestnut puree, refrigerated, almost a chestnut truffle. Which, even for me, the butter evangelist, wasn’t quite what I had in mind. But thankfully, Nigella can still be relied on: her recipe from Kitchen was more up my street, requiring both eggs and an oven, this was clearly going to satisfy the cake craving I’d developed. I played about with the quantities a little, of course I did, and the result was just what I wanted: impossibly smooth and rich, sweet and earthy, with the chestnut puree shining through.
It goes like this:
Chocolate chestnut cake
Makes: 1 8” cake
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 45 minutes
200g dark chocolate
2 tablespoons plain flour
254g chestnut puree
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cocoa powder, for dusting
- Preheat the oven to 190°C. Line the base of an 8” cake tin and butter the sides.
- Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat, not allowing the mixture to boil. Once it is all melted, stir in the chestnut purée, and then the sugar and salt. Leave to cool for a few minutes.
- Beat each of the eggs into the melted mixture, one by one. Fold in the two tablespoons of flour until there are no streaks.
- Pour into the lined cake tin. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the top of the cake is set, and doesn’t wobble when the tin is wiggled. Allow to cool completely – if you can, leave it overnight, it just gets better with time – before demoulding, and dusting with cocoa powder.