Saturday, January 17, 2009

Piure de Castane cu Frisca

This culinary adevnture began over a month ago. Before Christmas I was in Szeged, Hungary with Mr. and Mrs. Bloch (acquaintances from Lugoj). While there, we went to a cafe, and Mr. Bloch insisted I try the chestnut puree. I'd never heard of such a thing; as far as I was concerned, chestnuts came in two varieties- roasted or unroasted. Boy, was I wrong! Turns out the chestnut universe is much more complicated than I had ever conceived.

Out of puree curiosity (get it?), I ordered a portion of the chestnut dessert. It looked a little like vermicelli covered in whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate. Simply put, it was delicious! Before we left Szeged, we stopped at a store so I could pick up a package of frozen chestnut puree to take home.

The puree sat in my freezer until tonight, when I finally decided to try making the dessert at home. I took the package out to thaw, and bought some heavy cream. I just needed something with which to whip the cream, and something to transform the puree into worm-like strands (viermi, which is in fact how one would describe them in Romanian). A whisk would suffice for the cream, but I knew I'd have to be a little more creative with the 'worms.'

As I've done before in this sort of situation, I went my neighbors to see if they could help me out. My land-lady appeared not to be home, so I went to Vasile, one door over, and asked if he had a pasta press, food mill or potato ricer. He hailed his wife who came out of the kitchen, saying she didn't have anything of the sort. Ok, I thought, 'what about a garlic press?' No such luck. They asked me exactly what I was trying to do, if I was doing something with garlic they'd be happy to let me borrow their grater. I explained I didn't need a grater, I needed some sort of press because I was trying to make castane cu frisca. They looked at me kind of funny, and asked, "then what do you need the garlic press for?" There seemed to be some confusion about whether a garlic press would be suitable to crush a chestnut. I tried to explain that I wasn't trying to crush chestnuts; I had already bought pureed chestnut, and I wanted to make it into worms. This led to a bit more confusion: "wait, what about worms now?!" In retrospect, I suppose 'spaghetti' might have been a better word choice, but at the time all that came to mind was 'worms.' In any case, we all had a good laugh.

Though he couldn't help me with the garlic press, Vasile suggested I run to the pharmacy to pick up a syringe, break off the tip and use that to make 'worms.' Even though plunging my dessert through a medical piston pump sounded intriguing, I decided instead to go ask Doamna Sidei for help. Doamna Sidei is a Ukrainian lady that lives nextdoor, but I rarely speak to her, which is a shame- it turns out she's a really nice lady. I asked her if she had anything I could use. Unfortunately, her pasta press had just broken, but she gladly gave me her garlic press and a whisk.

When I got back to my apartment, I soaked the garlic press in vinegar and washed it off, trying my best to scrub off the years of accumulated garlic smell. I quickly looked up how to whip cream, never having done it before. Seemed simple enough, so I got to work whipping. No one warned me that the cream would splatter everywhere, but I quickly found it out. Once it was sufficiently beaten, I put the cream in the fridge and started making worms. I grabbed the garlic press, gave it a little sniff (seemed passable), broke off little chunks of the puree and started pressing. The resultant substance appeared to be something between vermicelli and dog food, but it tasted pretty good. Since the puree already had sugar added, the only thing I added to it was the whipped cream. I made 5 portions-- for Doamna Sidei, Vasile, his wife, their daughter Betty and myself.

I brought the first cup over to Doamna Sidei along with the utensils she had let me borrow. She was a bit surprised, and promised me she'd try it, but I got the impression she didn't want to eat it in front of me, so I let her be. I then brought the rest of the cups over to Vasile's apartment, saying "I brought some worms for you all!"

Vasile took his cup, looked at it inquisitively, furrowing his brow and shifting his eyes from the cup to me. He slowly raised it up to his nose, and sniffed the contents hesitantly. I waited expectantly, wondering what he'd say. He tried it. I noticed a look of relief on his face, and he said, "it's not bad, but we'll see how I feel in the morning!" I retorted, "yeah, you gotta be careful about eating worms."

After Vasile encouraged them to go ahead, Betty and her mother tried their cups as well. After which, I was offered coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but in this case I accepted and we sat around and talked for a while. My conversations with Vasile are usually very short, taking place in passing on the stairs or in the streets, and the majority of our exchanges tend to be devoted to practicing how to pronounce "well" (Me: 'Ciao Vasile, how are you?' Vasile: "Ciao Mike, I am wale." Vasile is quite keen on practicing his English, limited as it may be). But, my visit this evening allowed us to converse in more depth.

I only intended my visit to last a few minutes, but it ended up lasting a few hours and we talked about everything--from pesticides, to AIDS, to communism, to the gas crisis, to the Masonic order, to whether I'm Jewish, to why the Peace Corps is not a religious organization. In the course of the conversation, I even managed to explain to Vasile that Canada is not in fact part of the United States of America, nor are Mexico or Columbia. He believed that the Americas, as in the entire hemisphere, is the same thing as the USA. I assured him this is not the case, that even if it's called the United States of America, it doesn't mean it's a conglomeration of all the countries from across the continent. He had some trouble understanding the distinction between 'state' and 'country,' which in Romanian almost always mean the same thing. And then there was the matter of Washington DC, "is it a state? no? Is it the collective capital for all the states?" I tried my best to muster a limited explanation of federalism. In the end I think he got the idea, noting how different the American system is from Romania.

Eventually I got home, mentally drained. I haven't felt that exhausted since I my first months in Romania, when even the simplest conversations knocked the wind out of me. But, I was quickly revived by a dollop of fresh whipped cream from the fridge.


Anonymous said...

It seems you "wormed" your way into a nice visit. Did Doanna ever say she tried the dessert?

hjoyferg said...

Hmm.... someone photogs food well. *nod nod wink wink cough* pofta buna *cough*

Anonymous said...

I'm form Romania, but I never tried piure de castane before
just fired chestnuts and boiled chestnuts

Anonymous said...

Growing up in Romania, I had a friend whose mother used to work in a pastry shop (cofetarie). She used to bring me chocolate covered chestnut puree. That's how I found out that some chestnut are eatable and it used to be one of the best deserts I have had. Now, being in US and having access to canned chestnut puree anytime, I am looking for good recipes to use with chestnut puree. Any ideas? Thanks,D

Charlie said...

We are former Peace Corps volunteers (Yap, Micronesia 1977) and now chestnut growers! What a great contribution piure de castane cu frisca will make to our Romanian theme international dinner this weekend.
Thanks for the tip