November 27, 2021

Chinese bakery style chestnut sponge cake

This time of year has me thinking of chestnuts more than ever.  Fresh chestnuts as well as jarred and vacuum-packed versions pop up at supermarkets and specialty stores, conjuring up images of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and special chestnut desserts for the holidays.

Chestnuts are one of my favorite things. My love for them is pretty well documented here (type in "chestnuts" in the search bar) and I'd like to add another chestnut dessert to the roster today.  This time, I'm exploring a rendition of the classic chestnut sponge cake you'd find at a Chinese bakery.

I am a bonafide chocolate lover but when my birthday rolls around, I find myself picking this chestnut cake as my birthday cake.  You can buy one at a Chinese bakery and you'll find them in this identical form across Chinese bakeries - 2 layers of light as air sponge cake (chiffon cake, specifically) between a delicious chestnut paste filling, wrapped around smooth, lightly-sweetened, whipped cream.  This cake is probably where my love of chestnut first originated.  We go way back and we've celebrated many a birthday together.  

So it was with great excitement that I finally attempted to make this cake at home recently.  I knew it would be impossible to replicate the exact thing from the bakery but I am happy to say this came pretty close.  The chiffon cake layers were a tad denser than they should be but the chestnut paste filling was rather spot on!  Next time, I'd make a couple of tweaks - including using lighter cake flour for the cake layers - but this is something this chestnut-lover sees herself making again.  

To give you an idea of what this Chinese bakery style chestnut cake typically looks like, here's an example of a past store-bought birthday cake:

Below, you can see the 2 layers of moist chiffon cake, generous filling of chestnut paste, and the whipped cream that brings it all together.  The overall effect is a lovely eggy, vanilla-scented cake, with a smooth chestnut filling that is not all too sweet or at all too heavy.  

Making the homemade version

The cake layers

For my homemade chestnut cake journey, I used these two blog posts: Chinese Chestnut Cake with the corresponding Chiffon Cake Base recipe from a blog called, Mrs. Ip's Kitchen.  I tried to understand the recipes as much as possible and to simplify the steps where I could.

Chiffon cake is one of my favorite cakes and this is the first time I've baked it in a cake pan as opposed to a tube pan.  And you really do turn the cake pans upside down to cool, and it works.

I wanted to stay close to the recipe so I used all-purpose (or "plain") flour instead of the usual cake flour I use in my favorite chiffon cake recipe.  I used Gold Medal all-purpose flour, which has slightly lower protein content than King Arthur Flour (i.e., lower protein makes for lighter, more tender results).  The cake turned out nicely but wasn't quite as airy and moist as I'm used to.  Next time around, I will try this cake recipe with lighter, lower protein cake flour and see if I can get a lighter result and make this cake turn out even closer to the bakery ones.

The chestnut filling

The headliner for this cake is the chestnut filling!  I've made a similar recipe for mont blanc tartlets but I really thought this recipe made a spot on filling that was just sweet enough.

I used vacuum-packed chestnuts from Trader Joe's (unfortunately, this is a seasonal product so this is the time to go and find some before it's gone); I used two 6.5 oz. (184 g.) packages and I found this made more than enough chestnut paste to generously fill the 8 inch cake as well as leave plenty extra for decorating the top.

After cooking/warming up the chestnuts in water, make a simple syrup with that chestnut water and blend the chestnuts with that, along with a little melted butter, milk, and vanilla extract.  It is absolutely delicious and this is a filling that can be used for other desserts such as a log cake and many other possibilities!  I'll be keeping this one in my back pocket.

Putting the cake together

I made lightly sweetened whipped cream using 1 cup of heavy cream.  I found this is enough for the cake but I was a little stingy in the application and I regret that.  Oftentimes when I'm eating the bakery-bought version, I find it has a little too much whipped cream for my taste and I thought I could make it more to my own liking at home.  Surprise to me, I realized I needed a bit more whipped cream on my cake to add that extra bit of moisture and creaminess.  

I placed a cake layer on a stand, then spread it with some whipped cream.  The chestnut filling is next and I found it works really well to place the filling in a large piping/sandwich bag, cut a relatively large opening to it, and pipe rings around the cake that you can then just smooth out with an offset spatula.

I spread whipped cream on the second layer of cake before inverting it over the chestnut filling (just wish I did it a little more generously) before coating the entire cake with whipped cream.

Finally, I took the extra chestnut filling to pipe a border on top.  I was going for a shell border but it turned out looking more like an interesting leaf/ribbon effect.  I used a 1M piping tip for this and probably should have gone for another open star tip but, frankly, we can blame my incompetent cake-decorating/piping skills for this.  So please pardon the messy look of that border!  

Happily, the end result was a very tasty (even if not perfect) imitation of the real deal.  Next go round, I'm trying cake flour for the chiffon cake layers and being a little more generous with the whipped cream.  

When I take a bite out of this cake, I thought it tastes like birthdays, which certainly made me smile...and eat more cake!  

Chinese Bakery Style Chestnut Cake
Adapted from Mrs. Ip's Kitchen (with chiffon cake layer recipe here) 

- For an two-layer 8" round cake - 

For chiffon cake layers:

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
50 g caster/superfine sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
75 g caster/superfine sugar, sifted 
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
75 ml warm canola or vegetable oil
110 ml warm water
150 g all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder

* I used Gold Medal brand all-purpose flour.  Next time, I would try using cake flour for a lighter result

For chestnut filling:

13 oz. (368g) vacuum-packed chestnuts
1/2 cup granulated sugar (could also use caster/superfine sugar)
1/2 cup water (use water used in cooking chestnuts)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 tablespoons milk

For whipped cream frosting:

1 cup (8 oz.) cold heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make cake layers: Prep two 8 inch round cake pans by lining the bottoms with parchment paper (do not grease).  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, start whipping the egg whites.  When large bubbles form, add cream of tartar and whip until egg whites turn white in color.  Gradually add the 50g of caster sugar, about a tablespoon at a time, until egg whites are stiff.

Place egg yolks, salt, 75g caster sugar, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and whisk together thoroughly.  Gradually whisk in the warm oil, then the warm water.  Sift the flour and baking powder together over the egg yolk mixture and gently fold in and combine using a rubber spatula.  Fold in the whipped egg whites, half at a time.  Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.  Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the center of the cake springs back when gently touched and a cake tester comes out clean.  Invert the cake pans onto a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. 

Make chestnut filling: Place chestnuts in a saucepan and add enough water to cover the chestnuts.  Bring to a boil, then lower the flame, and let cook for a few minutes (you are essentially just warming up the cooked chestnuts and softening them a bit more). Remove chestnuts with a slotted spoon and place into a food processor.  

Remove 1/2 cup of the still-warm chestnut cooking water and place into a measuring cup.  Stir in the sugar to make a simple syrup.  Add the simple syrup, melted butter, and milk into the food processor with the chestnuts and blend until a smooth paste forms (add a bit more milk, if necessary).  Scrape the sides of the bowl, as needed, to make sure the paste is well mixed.  Scrape the chestnut paste into a bowl and let cool.

Whip cream: Start whipping heavy cream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla extract and whip until it just reaches stiff peaks.  

Finish the cake:  Run a knife around the sides of the cooled cakes, then turn cakes out of the pans, removing the parchment paper.  Place one layer of the cake on to a cake stand or plate (I placed it bottom side up).  Spread a relatively thin layer of whipped cream on the cake layer.  Place approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of the chestnut paste filling into a large piping or sandwich bag, snipping a fairly large opening at the corner.  Pipe thick rounds of the filling over the whipped cream to cover the cake.  Using a small offset spatula, gently smooth out the chestnut filling evenly.

Spread another thin layer of whipped cream over the second cake layer.  Invert this (whipped cream side down) onto the chestnut filling.  Use the remaining whipped cream to cover the top and sides of the cake.  

Use remaining chestnut filling to pipe a border around the cake.  Place the filling inside a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip (in this post, I used a 1M tip) and pipe, as desired.  

Store cake in the refrigerator.  Slice and serve when ready.

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