Non, Frances, ta pâte est stressée, tu la stresses.
Apparently my pastry is stressed out because of me, not the other way round. Puff pastry is a delicate creature, easily wounded by a fingernail nick or an impatient jab.
Unfortunately the season of Galette des Rois comes right on the heels of Christmas and New Year. Aren’t the French supposed to be depriving themselves after all the festivities? No, without any guilt, on the 6th of January and for most of the month they dive right into these all-butter puff pastry tarts enclosing a rich almond centre, in the hopes of finding the fève (a little token) naming them king or queen for the evening.
Though the powerhouses like Ladurée start preparing their 10,000 galettes in October (and Christmas begins in August, the patisserie calendar is totally screwy) we had to make several hundred of the pastry discs all this week – rolling and cutting, filling them and crimping the edges.
This is where I find myself stressed and thus stressing the pastry – no matter how many times our head baker explains, I cannot get the crimping – chiqueter – just right. Maybe it is a linguistic problem – the subtle difference between push and press that I missed in French which means I am squashing the pastry too hard; maybe it is just hard to translate verbal instructions to the tips of my fingers. I might as well be an elephant trying to use a tin opener. Too firm and the galette will rise unevenly, too weak and it will open in the oven, losing the precious crème d’amande centre.
So, no recipe for a traditional galette des rois. I’d happily never see another sweet one again, though I could go for the savoury galette I made last year with cheese and peppers and olives. Instead of the buttery crackle of the puff pastry, I have another wintery offering – a chestnut and rum mousse.
Normally when the world gets too much, bumps into me hard, I need crunch and bite as a distraction. Crisps and crunchy toast provide white noise to fill my head and block out the hum of stress. But this week I tried something different, something smooth and utterly silent. (For you forget how much the sound or the absence of it plays a part in our culinary enjoyment.) I tried a mousse that demands concentration, not distraction – it demands that you pay attention to its subtle chestnut flavour and spike of rum, that you luxuriate in its sweetness.
Take your time over the preparation as well – though not arduous, it needs a slow hour or so to cook and cool. The mousse begins with a sort of crème anglaise – heating milk and chestnut puree until it bubbles, then whisking half of it into egg yolks to temper them. Then you stir it all over a very low heat in a figure of eight, not forgetting to scrape the sides from time to time. This is an activity excellent for contemplation: let yourself be hypnotised by the repetitive motion. Stop when it is just thick enough to leave a track when you draw your finger over the back of the spoon. Add a splash of rum and some gelatine and let it cool.
Come back when the chestnut custard is at room temperature and carefully fold in some lightly whipped cream. Now you can spoon it into small glasses to eat immediately, or chill it for half an hour before piping with a star tip for extra effect. I love the idea of paper-thin chocolate bowls for a slight snap to counter the muffled quiet of the mousse, however it would be a shame to lose the chestnut flavour to the pushier chocolate. I prefer just the slightest dusting of cocoa to decorate, not enough to taste, just to highlight the swirls of fawn-coloured cream. It tastes like winter, in the best way, like a snowfall that blankets the harsh outside and rounds off its corners, leaving only calm.
I wrote more – and more coherently – about the sound and texture of food and cooking, the way that it is reflected in our language, and about the difficulties of translating language into manual skill for an FT competition. And I am extremely happy with the result. The essay will be online shortly! In the meantime, please enjoy this chestnut mousse, whether as solo comfort or a dinner party offering.
Chestnut and rum mousse
– any extra can be frozen in small glasses or ramekins and defrosted in the fridge 12 hours before eating
– as for the chestnuts, I used the creme de marrons d’Ardeche with its swirly art deco tin found in most French supermarkets
270g sweetened chestnut puree (40% chestnuts)
4 large egg yolks
10g leaf gelatine
2 tbs dark rum
Soak the gelatine in very cold water. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and chestnut puree until the puree has dissolved and the mixture starts to bubble. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and pour over half the hot chestnut milk. Whisk well and return to the pan. On a very low heat, stir the mixture with a flat wooden spoon making sure to scrape the bottom thoroughly: stir figures of eight then go around the sides. You want to avoid scrambling the eggs! (If the mixture is too hot, it will become lumpy, so stop cooking immediately. Decant mixture into a bowl and blend with a hand blender.)
Stir constantly until the liquid thickens to the texture of a thin custard. Draw your finger over the back of the spoon: if it leaves a track then it is probably ready. Drain the gelatine well and stir in, along with the rum. Leave to cool in a large bowl.
Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold it in to the cooled chestnut custard, half at a time. Either pour into small glasses and refrigerate, or if you want to pipe the mousse, leave it in the fridge for an hour or so first. Serve dusted with a very small amount of cocoa, or with thin snappy biscuits for contrast.