It has been a month of mixed emotions. September coming to an end and October beginning, bringing with it falling leaves and damp paving stones, musty smokey air and fresh mornings, we are truly in autumn now and although the loss of summer leaves a sadness, I can’t deny my love of this new season. Whenever I’m asked which season is my favourite there’s always a moment of pondering, as each new “era” brings something exciting and special. But I do love the transitional seasons most of all – the spring: when you’ve come through the barren cold of winter with its Christmassy excitement and cosy fires and have long dreamy summers ahead with lush grass and seaside walks, and in the meantime the flowers are coming back to life, the birds are returning and the prospect of Easter is eternally exciting. And autumn: with bonfires and woodland wanders, soups and toasted marshmallows and the necessary donning of extra layers which also mean you can eat more and no one knows … always a good thing.
But the step from summer to autumn hasn’t been the only change for me. My parents and I moved house recently, from a remote Cornish seaside spot to a busy Devonian town; from quiet, settled, solitude to fervent, active, bustling busyness. And I’m not sad to leave because this marks a new – and hopefully exciting – chapter for us all, but Clemmie and I will miss the sea.
Any of you following my blog or Twitter will know that I am a fervent forager, that I delight in not only finding food for free but in saving it from otherwise certain rot, that no matter how many apples/pears/chestnuts I have I can’t say ‘no’ to a few more. And on top of this, with the move (and downsizing the freezer) I’ve been having to get through runner beans, a large crop of prematurely harvested onions, and a multitude of hard little cooking pears from our rambunctious tree at the old house. It’s been a challenge and there never seem to be enough jars but I love a culinary combat and this one has been between me and the perishables.
So when the parents went off to France last week for a much needed break I had free run of the kitchen to get to work. I could stink it out with as much vinegar in the chutneys and burnt sugar from the jams as I liked; I could spread my peelings and shellings and corings all over the place with no-one looking on with dismayed disapproval. And on our new and exciting exploratory walks Clemmie and I also came back with more delights to tackle: sweet chestnuts. Beautiful, shiny little brown nuggets that reveal the most creamy flesh beneath – delicious on their own but super in many baked goods too. And when you’ve got pears that need using up there’s no way you’re not going to try and combine the two somehow. So that’s what I did.
Oh, and the parents brought back a few more chestnuts from France. I think they only did it to trump mine because they were HUGE, but I’m proud to say I found some equally big ones the next day. Smug.
Chestnuts in a dish are not usually noticeable for their flavour so the addition of almond or vanilla, cinnamon or orange is necessary. But don’t consider it a waste of good chestnuts to put them somewhere where you can no longer taste them – they add to the texture with their soft, smoothness and there is a slightly perceptible nuttiness below the surface. And if, like me, you’ve collected more than you know what to do with you’ll be glad of any excuse to use them up. Just make sure you save a few to roast on the fire when the cold really kicks in.
This is a twist on an almond frangipane. The chestnut paste sinks to the bottom to create a thick, delectable filling whilst a thin custardy layer sets on top in which the pears sit. It’s simply perfect.
For the pastry
175g brown four (or 1/2 wholemeal, 1/2 white)
50g icing sugar
100g butter, slightly softened
For the filling
Approx. 5 small, firm pears (450-500g total) – mine were cooking pears. You can use dessert pears.
75g granulated sugar
Approx. 350g unpeeled/225g peeled chestnuts
50g wholemeal flour
250g butter, softened
250g caster sugar (or 1/2 caster, 1/2 light brown)
1 tsp almond OR vanilla extract
Have an 28cm/11 inch loose-based shallow tart tin ready.
Begin by making the pastry. Place the flour(s) in a bowl with the sugar and a pinch of salt. Add the butter and rub it in using your fingertips until the dough clumps together. Add a dash of cold water and bring the mixture together into a ball.
Flour your work surface and pastry ball and roll out to a fairly thin round, larger than the diameter of the tin. Flour the rolling pin well and loosely roll the pastry up around the pin. Lift it over the tart tin and unroll the pastry over the tin, allowing a bit of “give” so that it falls into the base and hangs over the edges too. Once the pastry is off the rolling pin carefully push it in to fit the shape of the tin and up the sides. Leave a slight overhang and press this down on the outside of the tin.
Line the pastry with baking paper and fill with baking beans. Bake in an oven preheated to 180C degrees fan (200C degrees conventional oven) for 12 minutes, remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 4 minutes. Set aside.
Turn the oven down to 160C degrees fan (180C degrees conventional).
Meanwhile prepare the pears.
Peel the pears, cut into quarters and core them. Place them in a pan with water just to cover. Add the sugar and bring to the boil on the stove. Place the lid on the pan and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes until softened. Test using a sharp knife, which should pierce the flesh easily when they are cooked enough (if using softer pears, or dessert pears, they may only need 5-10 minutes).
Remove the pears from the water and leave to cool before slicing them at a slight angle (see picture).
Next prepare the filling.
Mark a cross in the shell of each chestnut and place about 10 in a microwaveable pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover and microwave for about 2-3 minutes until the water is boiling and the crosses on the chestnuts are beginning to peel back. Leave the nuts in the water as they are easiest to peel when hot, and take one out at a time. Peel off the shell and as much of the film-like skin beneath as possible, but leaving some of this on is fine. Once you’ve finished the first 10 chestnuts, repeat the process with another 10 and so on until all are cooked. This can also be done in a pan on the stove.
Place the peeled chestnuts in a food processor and blend until they are as fine as possible. They may not become very fine and will begin to clump together. At this point add the wholemeal flour. This helps to dry the mixture and enables you to grind it down more finely. Grind for another 30-60 seconds until a finer mixture is achieved, but you may not be able to make a flour-like texture. Remove this to a bowl.
In the same food processor, blend the butter and sugar until smooth and well combined. Add the eggs and blend again. Scrape down the sides and tip in the ground chestnuts and the almond/vanilla extract. Blend for a good minute as this makes the mixture much smoother and very creamy.
Tip the chestnut filling into the pastry case and place the pears on top. I originally fanned them out (see picture) but then dotted more all over to make it extra pear-y. This worked well as the pattern was lost anyway when the pears sank a bit in cooking.
Carefully place the tart back into the oven and bake for about 50 minutes. Until just set and golden brown on top. Check on it after 30 minutes, turn it around if needed, check for the wobble and adjust the temperature if it seems to be cooking too quickly.
Leave to cool until just warm before dusting with icing sugar and serving. It’s delicious with a dollop of crème fraîche.