At long last, I offer you the nutmeat in brioche recipe from last year’s Christmas. This is a traditional part of our family Christmas dinner, one of the things I look forward to every year with great anticipation. Having lost the notes I made when we were making it (hence the delay), I turned to my mother for the recipe, and who better to give an account of this wonderful dish? So I will give this post over to her words…
Helen Irving’s Nutmeat in Brioche
For many years we did not eat turkey, and did not have a really delicious alternative for the main Christmas dinner dish. I used to make a soya bean ‘turkey’ – it was molded out of a thick paste made from mashed (cooked) soya beans, ground cashew nuts and bread crumbs, with various flavourings (I can no longer remember what I used). It was small – more like a chicken, but looked almost ‘real’ – with the shape of the body carefully sculpted, including with drumsticks. It was glazed and baked, and I added paper frills on the legs and would carve it at the table. Everyone found it very amusing, but it wasn’t all that tasty, and non-vegetarians didn’t really want to eat it. Then, happily, we came across Anna Thomas’s “The Vegetarian Epicure”. It was one of the first cookery books really to treat vegetarianism as a normal alternative to meat eating (i.e. not specifically a health food fad, or a religious obligation) and to write about the dishes as entertaining, even gourmet alternatives. The book was first published, in America, in 1972. I have the Penguin paperback edition from 1979, and have used it ever since. One of the chapters covers festive season cooking – and in it is the wonderful Nutmeat Pate in Brioche dish. That has been a staple – indeed, a center piece – at Christmas, ever since. Over the years, I have adapted and simplified the nutmeat recipe, so it is somewhat different from the original, but the idea (and the deliciousness) remains the same. I have always followed the brioche recipe, however, with a small adjustment only.
The quantities are approximate, but this is one of those recipes where it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the amounts exactly right, and where a lot of adaption is possible. Basically, it’s a matter of taste! [Cressida: For many years now I have contributed to this dish by tasting the nutmeat at regular intervals, offering suggestions about balance of flavours, and making sure it remains delicious.] Makes two loaves…
85g (3oz) of butter
One small brown onion
Two cloves of garlic (minced)
2 tablespoons cornflour (cornstarch). (Alternatively ordinary white flour will also work.)
One cup of rich vegetable stock (I use Massell stock cubes – highly recommended!)
Half a cup of red wine
Half a cup of brandy
A splodge of Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons fresh thyme (or half a teaspoon dried)
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram (or half a teaspoon dried)
150 grams of gruyere cheese (make sure it’s a rich and tasty type)
2 sticks of uncooked celery, chopped.
2 cups or so of unsalted pecans (this year we used cashews, but pecans make it richer)
2 cups or so of walnuts (or pecans, or a mixture of both)
One tin of chestnut puree. (The tin we used was 439g/15.5oz, but you should use all of whatever size tin you have – just make sure it’s unsweetened!)
One cup of fresh breadcrumbs. (Make these by just placing bread in a blender or food processor. Don’t use packet breadcrumbs as the taste is too strong.)
Dice the onion, and melt the butter in a medium saucepan, making sure not to let it burn. When the butter is melted, add the onion and minced garlic, and cook for a few minutes until soft (don’t let it brown). Add the flour and stir for a minute or so off the heat. Return the pot to the heat, add the vegetable stock, and stir/whisk briskly over the heat until it thickens. Once it is very thick, add the red wine, brandy, Worcestershire sauce, herbs, grated gruyere, celery, and a pinch of salt and ground pepper. Stir together over the heat – it should make a very strong, very rich, thick sauce. Taste it, and adjust the seasoning to taste. Take off the heat.
Put all the other ingredients, except breadcrumbs, in a food processor, add the sauce and grind together until a ‘pâté’ consistency is achieved. Some people like it very smooth (I do); others like to have a bit of texture, leaving the nuts still in small pieces. Then add the breadcrumbs – you may need to add more, to make the mixture thick enough, but I try to minimize these, because it dilutes the lovely rich flavour. If you want it really rich, you can leave out the breadcrumbs altogether. Set this aside (it can be made well in advance).
500g (1lb) of plain flour
1 tsp sugar
1 sachet dried yeast. (We use Tandaco dried yeast – this is the equivalent of 7g or 2 teaspoons of yeast.)
2 tsp salt
4 oz softened butter (chop into small cubes to make it easier to work into the dough)
1 cup warm milk
10 egg yolks
Extra beaten egg for glazing
Put 3/4 of the flour in a large bowl and make a ‘well’ in the center. Add the sugar, yeast, salt, butter, milk, egg yolks to the center of the well. (If you use fresh yeast, stir it separately into a bowl with the warm milk and sugar, and wait for it to froth, before adding.) Mix it all together well (first with a spoon – it will get easier to do it with your hands). Turn the dough out onto a board/bench top lightly dusted with flour and start kneading, adding the extra flour as you go, to make a firm, but soft – and very eggy/buttery! – bread dough. If you are familiar with bread making, you will know the point at which the kneading is done – it takes about 10 minutes minimum. What you look for is a lovely, elastic resistance, like a baby’s bottom! [I did tell you this is how my mother likes to describe bread dough.]
Clean the bowl you mixed the dough in, and butter the inside of it well. Put the ball of dough back into the bowl and flip it over, so it is lightly coated with butter. Set aside in a warm place, covered with a light cloth or tea towel. Allow the dough at least an hour to rise. Meanwhile, heat the oven, medium-hot.
When the dough has at least doubled in size, roll it out, so it is about half an inch thick, and cut it into two large rectangles (I usually make one smaller than the other) – for two loaves. Divide the nutmeat, and spread it in the center of each, with a ‘margin’ of about an inch on each side. Fold the dough over lengthwise, and seal the edges with wet fingers, or (better) by brushing a little beaten egg on them. Place in a very well buttered bread loaf tin (you should shake a bit of flour around on the buttered sides, too), with the ‘seam’ on the bottom. Trim the end edges, and fold them under. Glaze the top with beaten egg; and add decorations, if you like, cut from the dough leftover from the trimming. (I put cut out stars on mine).
You can let the loaf dough rise again for a little while, if you want the brioche to be softer; or you can put the loaves straight in the oven, low down. Cook for around 20 minutes – keep an eye on things, because the loaves can brown very quickly. Allow to cool down in the tins to just warm, before taking out, and serving. I make my loaves the day before Christmas, and warm them up just a little in the oven before serving on the day – I find that the nutmeat has settled, and is a little firmer that way, and also it flavours the brioche a bit more. The loaves are always delicate, and need to be sliced and serve with care, but the result is delicious!
Any leftovers can be kept and eaten for days afterwards. It makes particularly good post-Christmas picnic food.