I’m a queen of lists. I’ve been scribbling lists ever since I can remember; nicely organized, in bulleted points, on colored post-it notes that I used to slap on every surface around: on the computer monitor, on the fridge, on the front door. Yellow notes were for the things I planned to get from the store, green ones for the things I needed to do. I was proud of my multi-tasking abilities (Doing five things at once and thinking about five more? Yep, I can! High five!) and I was convinced I was being proactive and effective.
I’m sure I’m not the only one: We live in a chaotic world, overstimulated in an era of an informational overload. Lists are our anchors of sorts – they give us an illusion of being in control and make us feel productive. They help us remember things, and no matter how long they are, they’re usually finite, which means that line by line we are moving forward and when we’re done, we can pat ourselves on the back and put our feet up. They’re helpful helpers, helpfully helping us move through life more smoothly.
Or so I thought.
But oddly over time I actually developed love – hate relationship with my lists. I was still compelled to write them, so every morning I’d sit down and jolt on paper what needed to be done: Mop the floors. Call the dentist. Wash the bedding. Get groceries and stop at the library. And when I looked around, things just kept flowing, from my mind to the pen and onto the paper: this and that – oh wait, I’ve forgotten about this – just one more thing! In the end I’d always put down way too much, piling on myself more than what was possible to accomplish in a day or what I was able to handle. As a result, I was stressed right from the get-go, even before I started with anything. The long list made me feel like a failure: How come there is so much to do? How could I let things slide so much that now I don’t even know where to start? Plus, just because I wrote things down it didn’t necessarily mean they got done. We all know life has a way of getting in the way, and when the evening rolled around and I realized I’ve spent the entire day doing things that had nothing to do with my list, I wasn’t a happy camper. Seeing all those lines I haven’t managed to cross made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, too. But maybe most importantly, even when I succeeded in checking off the mountain of tasks, the stuff that got done were largely things I was doing in response to other people’s wants and needs, and at the end of the day I was left with no time nor energy pursuing what I myself wanted to do.
Somehow, somewhere the helpful list stopped being a helper and became more of a curse. And something needed to be done. And so, albeit reluctantly, I’ve ditched the notes that used to look at me reproachfully like colorful exclamation marks from every corner and I never looked back. I’ve also realized I don’t want to be a slave to a constant beeping flow of incoming e-mails, messages, and Facebook notifications anymore, and decided to outsmart my phone and unplug when the onrush gets to be too much. Instead of making those blasted lists I now go for a walk first thing in the morning before tackling everything that needs to be done. These days I do only what my mind reminds me to do, and if I forget something, I tell myself it probably wasn’t all that important in the first place. And even though I’m still tempted to dust while talking on the phone, I’m learning to focus just on the one thing in front of me. I think it’s called something like living in the moment 🙂 It’s not easy for me, that’s for sure, but I’m slowly getting better. The only list I’m allowing myself to write is a list of ingredients for my weekly baking session, and I think all the people in my household are happier for it.
Coincidentally, the list for this week’s cake is rather extensive. In the spotlight of this elaborate festive cake are chestnuts – the wintery treat of my childhood. We used to buy roasted chestnuts from a street stand, and then walk through the squeaky snow picking out hot, sweet, and tender fragrant chestnuts from a paper cone. Chestnut season is almost over, but thankfully you should be able to find peeled roasted chestnuts in a specialty grocery stores year round. Better yet, get the ready-made sweetened chestnut puree – that way despite the long list of ingredients the cake is quite easy to make. The original recipe calls for a 9-inch square pan, but I didn’t want to bother with cutting the square cake into three layers so I made the cake in a half-sheet pan and then cut it lengthwise into three long strips. The cake layers are generously soaked in Crème de Cocoa and covered in milk-chocolate ganache, and because you can never have too much chocolate in your life, the cake is finished with bittersweet chocolate glaze. I had fun dusting the chestnuts in golden pearl dust; that simple extra touch made the cake look very festive and worthy of any wintertime celebration. I hope you won’t let the long list keep you from giving it a try!
Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake
(adapted from Bon Appétit 1/2005)
- 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) cake flour
(please see Note on how to make cake flour at home)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup (226 g, 8 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 ¼ cup golden brown sugar, divided
- 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 cup sweetened chestnut puree
(use store-bought puree or see Note on how to make homemade chestnut puree from fresh roasted chestnuts)
- ¼ cup half-and-half (or whole milk)
Milk Chocolate Ganache:
- 6 tablespoons white granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 370 g (13 oz.) high-quality milk chocolate, broken up
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup white granulated sugar
- 225 g (8 oz.) bittersweet dark chocolate, broken up
+ ¼ cup Crème de Cocoa liqueur for brushing the cake layers
– 24 whole roasted chestnuts (or jarred); 12 chopped up and 12 left whole for decoration
– Wilton Pearl Dust in golden color (optional)
- To make the cake, butter and flour the sides of a half baking sheet (46 x 33 cm, 18 x 13 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
- Sift cake flour and baking powder. Beat butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract, and one by one mix in the egg yolks.
- Add in 1 cup of sweetened chestnut spread and milk and combine.
- Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add in the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar and whip the mixture until firm peaks form. With a spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the cake batter in three additions.
- Spread the batter into the lined pan and bake until the cake is golden in color, springs back to the touch, and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert the cake onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment paper and let the cake cool completely.
- To make the Milk Chocolate Ganache Frosting: Place the milk chocolate into a glass bowl. Combine sugar and water in a deeper non-stick pan. Add in the cinnamon stick. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes. Don’t stir, just gently swirl the pan from time to time, but watch the sugar closely so that it doesn’t burn. When the sugar turns nice golden color, add in the cream and salt. (The mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will crystallize.) Stir the caramel in the hot cream over low heat until it dissolves again. Remove the cinnamon stick.
- Pour the hot caramel cream over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature stirring occasionally – about 1 hour.
- Using electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy. By tablespoons, add in the cooled chocolate ganache and combine.
- Assembling the cake: Cut the cooled cake lengthwise into three equal strips. Place the first strip onto a flat surface and sprinkle it generously with Crème de Cocoa. Spread it with 1/3 of the ganache frosting and sprinkle with half of the chopped chestnuts. Cover with the second cake layer, brush with the liqueur, and spread with 1/3 of the chocolate ganache and the rest of the chestnuts. Place the third cake strip on the chestnuts, brush it with the liqueur and spread it with the rest of the ganache. Press lightly, and place the cake into the refrigerator to firm up, at least 2 hours.
- Make the glaze: Place the bittersweet dark chocolate in a bowl. Bring cream, sugar, and water to boil. Pour the mixture over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let the gaze cool until it thickens but is still pourable, about 1 hour. Pour glaze atop cake, covering the sides as well. Return the cake into the refrigerator to firm up.
- Decorate the cake with golden chestnuts if desired: Brush the chestnuts with a little Crème de Cocoa and sprinkle them with Wilton Pearl Dust. (I used a paintbrush.) Let the chestnuts dry before putting them on the cake.
- The cake can be made up to 24 hours in advance; store in the refrigerator, covered. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
To make the cake flour, measure 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and then remove 2 tablespoons and substitute them with cornstarch. (For this recipe, you’ll need 2 cups all-purpose flour with 4 tablespoons removed and subbed with cornstarch.)
To make homemade chestnut puree, combine 170 g (6 oz.) of fresh roasted chestnuts, 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until most of the water evaporates. Strain the chestnuts, reserving the sugar syrup. Process the chestnuts in a food processor, adding the sugar syrup as needed to achieve desired consistency. These quantities should make about 1 cup; let the puree cool before proceeding with the recipe.