Fergus’s Chestnut Tarts from Dragonfly in Amber
“What on earth is that?” I peered over his shoulder, and gasped when I saw the signature at the foot of the letter. James Stuart, by the grace of God King of England and Scotland.
“Bloody Christ! It worked, then!” Swinging around, I spotted Fergus, crouched on a stool in front of the fire, industriously stuffing pastries into his face. “Good lad,” I said, smiling at him. He grinned back at me, cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s with chestnut tart.
“We got it from the papal messenger,” Jamie explained, coming to the surface long enough to realize I was there. “Fergus took it from the bag while he was eating supper in a tavern. He’ll spend the night there, so we’ll have to put this back before morning. No difficulties there, Fergus?”
The boy swallowed and shook his head. “No, milord. He sleeps alone — not trusting his bedmates not to steal the contents of his bag.” He grinned derisively at this. “The second window on the left, above the stables.” He waved an airy hand, the deft, grubby fingers reaching for another pie. “It is nothing, milord.”
Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber, Chap 13 (Seal Books, 1992)
Fergus is in the house, and I can barely contain myself!
I like some mischief in little boys – and so, our little would-be aristocrat, with his nose upturned and imperious disdain plain on his face, has been a favourite of mine from the start.
But somewhere along the way, the young imp grew into a handsome man with a slick of black hair and a certain je ne sais quoi that has turned my maternal affection into a full blown crush.
Let’s just say I’d be happy to lend Fergus a hand any time of day or night.
As for today’s food, these chestnut tarts are a seasonal, fictional and historical treat all wrapped up in a neat little almond shortcrust. Why not set aside some of the chestnuts destined for your Thanksgiving stuffing to make a batch of these as well?
Heck, some of us may even be able to find locally grown chestnuts. Fergus’s tarts would have been made from European Chestnuts but American Chestnuts, although smaller, are known for their sweeter nut. The only variety I could find in my little corner of the world are Europen Chestnuts grown in Korea. Strange, but true in the often-whacky modern world of food distribution.
One last note before you scroll down to the recipe — it’s scarier than it looks — sure it’s long, but there are relatively few ingredients, and the instructions are straightforward. Give yourself at least 3 hours to complete it from start to finish, or make the pastry the night before to split up the work.
Also check out the “New School” and “Old School” tips listed after the recipe. They’ll help you to make things easier or more authentic, whichever you prefer.
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
Yield: 24 tartlets
A sweet almond crust filled with a rich, savoury chestnut filling. The perfect treat for brothel-born pickpockets, or any other urchins you happen to pick up along the way.
- All-Purpose Flour 1½ Cups (360 ml)
- Powdered Sugar – ⅔ Cups (160 ml)
- Almond Meal (finely ground blanched almonds) – ⅓ Cup
- Salt – ¼ tsp (2 ml)
- Butter, cold & cubed – 6 Tble (90 ml)
- Egg Yolk – 1
Sift flour, powdered sugar, almond meal and salt into a mixing bowl. Add butter and rub cubes between your finger tips to incorporate it into flour mixture. Continue with this method until you have a slightly yellow, evenly coloured mixture the texture of sand. (sabler method)
Add egg yolk and gently mix with your hands until the mixture comes together into a ball. If it appears dry, add 1-2 teaspoons cold water..
Flatten the ball into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. (Pastry can also be frozen for up to 2 months.)
Preheat oven to 350° F.
On a lightly floured board, roll out ½ of the dough to an ⅛” thick. Using a cutter (and working quickly so that the dough doesn’t warm up and become fragile) cut rounds to fit the cups of a mini-muffin pan or individual tart pans. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Cut small squares of parchment or foil to line each of the pastry shells. Fill with uncooked beans or peas (or pastry weights).
Par-bake the shells until they are slightly dry, but still uncoloured, about 8-10 minutes. Cool on a rack.
- Chestnuts – 1 lb (454 g)
- Honey – 3 Tble, divided
- Butter – 1 tsp
- Vanilla Bean – ½ (split lengthwise) (or 1/2 tsp extract)
- Whipping Cream – 2 Cups (500 ml), divided
- Eggs – 2
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Use a sharp knife to make a horizontal slash or “x” along flat side of each chestnut. Cover scored nuts with cold water and bring to a boil over med. high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove 2 nuts from water at a time, and use a sharp knife to peel way shell and bitter inner skin. You should have about 2 cups of peeled chestnuts when you’re done. Quarter 6 of the best looking chestnuts. Melt the butter and stir in 1 teaspoon of honey to melt. Toss quartered chestnuts in this mixture and roast in the oven until golden, about 8-10 minutes. Cool on a plate.
Add remaining chestnuts to to a small saucepan with the vanilla bean and cover with 1¾ cups whipping cream. Bring to a gentle boil over med. heat, then reduce to low and simmer until very tender, about 30 minutes.
Drain chestnuts in a colander lined with cheesecloth or a clean dishcloth. Reserve cream and stir in 2 teaspoons of honey. Chill.
Puree nuts in a food processor with the remaining ¼ cup of whipping cream and 2 tablespoons of honey. With machine running, add the eggs, and continue to process until very smooth.
Put a honey-roasted chestnut piece in the bottom of each tart shell. Fill each shell with chestnut puree, smooth tops and bake until filling is set and crust is a light golden.
Allow to cool 5 minutes before removing the tarts from the pan to cool completely on a rack.
Whip the reserved and chilled cream with a hand-held mixture until soft peaks form. Spoon or pipe cream onto the top of each cooled tart. Serve.
Ith gu leòir! (Eat Plenty)
New School Tips:
- Use frozen tart shells
- Buy canned or frozen chestnuts from an Italian or French specialty store – an expensive option, but chestnuts are a pain to peel.
- Sweet tooth? Add more honey (or sugar) to the filling.
Old School Tips:
- All but 1 of the first batch of chestnuts I bought were rotten. The second batch was about half and half. Choose nuts that are firm and shiny with no signs of mould, and buy a few more than you need, just in case.
- My pâte sucrée recipe uses powdered sugar, which was not around in the 18th C. If you have a lot of experience making pastry, feel free to substitute granulated sugar for the powdered. Proceed with caution, though — you may have to adjust the other ingredients to make it work (and it won’t be as good).
- If you have warm hands, run them under cold water and pat dry before handling pastry.
- A food mill is an excellent non-electric way to puree the chestnuts in place of a food processor. A fork or potato masher will not give you the smooth texture you want.