Montebianco—which most English speakers know by its French name Mont-blanc even if the dish originated in Italy—is an elegant dessert often served for Christmas, but, to my mind, it is a perfect conclusion to any festive occasion in the late autumn or winter. Named after the highest peak of the Alps straddling the border between France and Italy, Montebianco is simply a mound of puréed chestnut perfumed with cocoa and other flavorings and topped with whipped cream, a veritable mountain of sweet deliciousness. And it’s rather easy to make once you’ve prepared the chestnuts, so if you buy prepared chestnuts at the supermarket, you can whip this up in no time.
Makes enough for one large Montebianco or six individual servings
For the chestnut and chocolate ‘mountain’:
- 2 large jars of pre-cooked and peeled chestnuts, about 800g/28 oz (see Notes)
- 75g (2-1/2 oz) granulated sugar, or more or less to taste
- Milk, enough to cover the chestnuts
- 3-4 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
- A few drops of vanilla extract
- A splash to two or rum (or the liqueur of your choice)
For the whipped cream ‘snow’:
- 500 ml (2 cups) whipping cream
- 2-3 Tbs confectioner’s sugar
Place the chestnuts and sugar in a saucepan and add enough milk to cover. Simmer until the chestnuts are quite tender and the milk fully absorbed by the chestnuts. Purée the chestnuts in a food processor or pass them through a food mill. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Add the cocoa, vanilla and rum to the chestnut purée. Mix everything well with spatula until perfectly smooth and homogeneous, with a texture and feel akin to bread dough. (If you find it is a little too stiff, you can add a bit more rum to loosen it up.) Let this mixture rest in the fridge for at least an hour, as long as overnight.
Now it’s time to make your ‘mountain’: Get a food mill or potato ricer, add the chestnut mixture (or as much as it will hold in one go) and turn or squeeze the handle until the mixture comes out the other end in strands. Let the stands fall onto a serving plate or, if making individual servings, the dessert bowl. As you proceed, the stands will pile up and form a mound resembling a mountain. Let that sit while you proceed to the next step. (You can also make the dish this far several hours ahead of time.)
Now make your ‘snow’ by whipping the cream with the confectioner’s sugar until it forms soft peaks. Don’t let the cream get too stiff.
Finally, finish off your dish by pouring the whipped cream over the chestnut and chocolate mountain. The cream should trickle down the sides, making an effect that looks like a snow-topped mountain. Serve immediately, or when you’re ready to eat.
The amount of sugar given here is just a suggestion; you may like your desserts more or less sweet. And some people (including Lidia Bastianich) forego the cocoa, to better appreciate the pure chestnut flavor. Speaking of which, for whatever reason, although Italian recipes invariably call for unsweetened cocoa powder, I’ve noticed that most English-language recipes call for melted bittersweet chocolate. Not sure why that is, but feel free to substitute if you like, although the cocoa just seems a lot easier. As for the rum, you can omit it if you abstain from alcohol—or opt for another liqueur if you prefer.
One thing you must never omit is the whipped cream; besides the aesthetics that are so essential to the dish, you need the cream—and lots of it— to add some lightness to the dish, without which it would be just a bit too ponderous. Ditto for passing the purée through a food mill or potato ricer; it’s an essential step to lighten the purée. (And if you don’t own either, you really should!)
If using fresh chestnuts in their shells, up the amount to 1.2 kilo (2 lbs 7 oz) and follow the instructions on How to Roast Chestnuts. While the chestnuts are still hot, remove their shells and the thin inner skin that clings to the chestnut meat. Don’t worry to much about keeping the chestnuts intact, as they will be puréed anyway later.
But even if purists may scoff, I heartily recommend using store-bought peeled and cooked chestnuts for this dish. It makes the job so much easier. Here in the US, they are usually imported from France and sold in glass jars as marrons entiers.
And if you really want to make life easy on yourself, you can also buy chestnut purée for your Mont-blanc, to which you need only add the cocoa and rum, but that just seems to me like cheating.