One of my clients, an elegant elderly woman, has an insatiable sweet tooth. Seriously— how she has survived as long without developing diabetes should make her a medical curiosity. Because her disposition is as sweet as her tooth, I made her something special for the holidays: marrons glacés. I knew she would like them because of her fondness for all things sweet and French.
Making marrons glacés is a labor of love. It's a four day process that requires an investment of time and careful attention— though not the kind that one would lavish on creating one of the Great Gateaux. The bulk of the labor is in peeling the pellicle from the chestnuts— a tedious task that I have yet to find a shortcut for. I did experiment with microwaving them in 10-second intervals, with mixed results. While some of the nuts peeled easily and cleanly, one out of five turned out hard and dry. But once they're peeled, the rest of the process requires little time and effort. Twice a day, a sugar and glucose syrup is brought to an increasingly higher temperature and viscosity, then poured over the chestnuts for a twelve hour soak. The process is repeated six times, followed by a drying period. Impregnated with sugar, the chestnuts become a denser, silkier version of themselves.
As I'd hoped, Ms. Sweet Tooth loved them. She ate her way through the box while recounting stories of childhood holidays in Paris, where her mother treated her to the candied chestnuts. Curiously, she stopped in mid-sentence, her attention clearly swept away by another memory, turned to me with wide eyes and whispered "Can you make Nesselrode pie?"
Not knowing what else to say, I told her the truth: I had no idea what Nesselrode pie was.
Apparently, I wasn't alone— the internet is full of people who were as much in the dark as I was. And some of those who knew what it was confessed that they had never laid eyes on one. And yet others waxed about it in mythical proportions. Was Nesselrode pie the unicorn of desserts?
Further searching led to several articles in the New York Times. One, from 1988, stated the following: "While for years it was a popular American Christmas dessert, Nesselrode pie left our collective culinary consciousness about 30 years ago and has hardly been heard from since." Another, on thefoodmaven.com, Arthur Schwartz claims "It's extinct now— no restaurant serves it, no bakery makes it— but this old New York dessert still lives vividly in the taste memories of many."
So, Nesselrode pie isn't a unicorn after all. It's more of a Javan tiger. But what exactly is it?
In the 1988 edition of "Larousse Gastronomique", Nesselrode is described as "The name given to various cooked dishes and pastries, all containing chestnut purée, dedicated to Count Nesselrode, the 19th century Russian diplomat who negotiated the Treaty of Paris after the Crimean War." It goes on to describe a salted chestnut purée, served with sauteed sweetbreads or roebuck steaks or used to fill profiteroles that are served with game consomme. Larousse makes no mention of Nesselrode pie, but says of its predecessor Nesselrode pudding "It consists of custard cream mixed with chestnut puree, crystallized fruit, currants, sultanas, and whipped cream." This edition of Larousse doesn't mention that original versions of the recipe include maraschino liqueur and were served frozen.
By most accounts, Nesselrode pudding was created by Count Nesselrode's chef, Monsieur Mouy, although that claim was contradicted by Eliza Acton and Mrs. Beeton, who both give credit to the French chef Antonin Careme in the recipes that are published in their books. In fact, Careme himself accused Mouy of copying his chestnut pudding and was outraged that he named it after a [non-French] foreigner. The feud was put to rest when E. S. Dallas published Mouy's recipe in "Kettner's Book of the Table" in 1877, pronouncing it "the most perfect of iced puddings."
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, Nesselrode pudding was a fashionable holiday dessert in Europe and then in New York. As was popular at the time, iced puddings, or coupes, were molded into fanciful shapes by skilled pastry chefs. The pudding did not freeze hard because of the liqueuer, challenging Victorian pastry chefs to devise ways to prevent them from melting on the table. In "The Royal Pastry and Confectionery Book" (London:1874), Jules Gouffé illustrated a meringue cloche modeled after a thatched beehive that he designed to slip over an iced pudding to act as an insulator.
Because of the skill needed to make and serve an iced dessert, Nesselrode pudding was exclusively available in restaurants and hotels that catered to the upper classes or in private homes that employed a capable staff. It was just a matter of time before a creative and enterprising baker adapted the challenging iced version into a more approachable pie.
Enter Mrs. Hortense Spier, credited with serving the original pie at her restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City. The restaurant closed before World War II, but Mrs. Spier continued to make the pie for many of the city's leading restaurants including Lindy's and Longchamps. According to Bernard Gwertzman in a NYT article, "My memory [of Mrs' Spier's pie] is of a lot of whipped cream, chocolate shavings on top, candied fruits in the custard of the pie, and a rum flavor throughout. The original Nesselrode had chestnut puree; later recipes omit this ingredient." Sounds delicious, doesn't it? So, what happened?
Like all things popular and trendy, Nesselrode pie ran it's course. As the neighborhoods surrounding the restaurants where the pies were served changed, so too did the tastes of the residents. Unceremoniously, Nesselrode pie faded from our tables and now lives in the realm of forgotten dessserts alongside Baked Alaska and Charlotte Russe. I'm told that they're holding a place for Molten Chocolate Cake.
So now that I know more than I ever thought I'd care to know about Nesselrode pie, I could answer Ms. Sweet Tooth's question; "Yes, I can make Nesselrode pie". And I did.
But I did one better. I made my version of Nesselrode— with marrons glacés, and candied buddha's hand citron, and real maraschino cherries (sour cherries macerated in simple syrup, cherry juice, maraschino liqueur, and some toasted cherry kernels tossed in for a boost of benzaldehyde).
For Ms. Sweet Tooth, I made a traditional pie, based on the the description of Mrs. Spier's, with a creme bavaroise base in a pastry crust, studded with the candied chestnuts and citron and the maraschinos, crowned with whipped cream and a dusting of chocolate shavings. She was very grateful.
For myself— well, I just played around with the components in a modern design.
And— I made Monsieur Mouy''s recipe for Nesselrode pudding* (it's actually just a very decadent ice cream), mainly because I wanted to taste its origin, but also because It provided me with an excuse to dig out my vintage jello molds. Abandoned and forsaken— the Nesselrode, just like the molds— were begging to be unearthed. Dusted off and polished up, they look shiny again.*Monsieur Mouy's (Mony) original recipe can be viewed in Kettner's Book of the Table. Scroll to page 312 for Nesselrode Pudding. (note: 1 gill= 142g/5oz)
Caremes recipe (from Mrs. Beeton) can be found here. Scroll halfway down the page for Nesselrode Pudding.
Download recipe: candied buddha's hand citron
Download recipe: marrons glaces
Download recipe: real maraschino cherries
Download recipe: nesselrode pie