Today I come to one of the world’s greatest food websites to talk about one of my biggest nerd-triumphs, Nesselrode Pie. Hold onto your panties, history freaks, because we’re going way, way back to the 18th century to learn about the world’s first “celebrity chef.”
Picture it: Paris, 1794. The French Revolution is raging, the streets run red with blood, and a 10-year-old boy named Antonin Carême is abandoned by his parents. He finds work in the kitchen of a chophouse that affords him room and board, and at 14 he is sent to apprentice at a famous patisserie. He soon becomes the most sought-after pastry chef in France, ending up with his wagon hitched to Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Talleyrand, called by some “the world’s first foodie.”
In 1814 Napoleon is defeated, and Talleyrand is all “It’s cool, I’ve never liked that guy anyways lolz please don’t murder me.” Tsar Alexander I of Russia rolls into Paris, bringing along with him his chief diplomat, Count Karl Nesselrode. Talleyrand sees that this dude is his people, so he calls him up like “Karl! Dude! Screw the hotel—I’ve got this bangarang estate with like a thousand bedrooms you guys can crash at, and a crap-ton of servants who can help you guys out. I’ve got this one guy, Carême, who makes the most ridiculous desserts. Seriously, you can be up at 3 AM writing treaties in your underpants, macking on some cream puffs. What are you into? Chestnuts? Dried fruit? Armenian brandy? ON IT.”
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And thus, Nesselrode pudding was born: A frozen bombe of creamy vanilla custard folded with roasted chestnut purée, candied fruit, whipped cream, and a generous splash of quality booze. Every part of this dessert (even the freezing) made it insanely expensive to produce, which is why it became the must-have for any society event in the 19th century. Men wanted to be it, women wanted to be with it. If you did not have some form of Nesselrode pudding at your fancy soirée, you may as well just set yourself on fire and crawl into the gutter.
Men wanted to be it, women wanted to be with it.
About that Nesselrode Pie
Then came the 20th century and the age of industrialization, in which we began screwing up perfectly good foods: We started suspending canned tuna in lemon Jello, cramming whole chickens into cans, trying to make every foodstuff “EZ.” Nesselrode pudding got the convenience treatment too, and went to crap the same way mincemeat and cherry pie filling did. All you had to do was pop open a jar of mix, stir it into a bowl of prepared boxed vanilla pudding and “whipped topping,” and you were good to go. The melange of slow simmered dried fruits was replaced by those awful red and green candied cherries that are infamous for "ruining fruitcake." The notes of expensive booze were replaced by something I can neither pronounce nor spell, so we’ll move on. The chestnuts were replaced... by ground up cauliflower stems. You read that right. Then all of that was mixed up with some corn syrup, crammed into a glass jar, and there you go—highfalutin entertaining in less than five minutes.
In the 1940s, a woman named Hortense Spier opened a pie bakery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which sold to restaurants all over the city for the next thirty years. One of her signatures was a pie crust filled with modernized Nesselrode pudding, stabilized with a bit of gelatin and covered with chocolate shavings. While it was popular all year round, its sales boomed around Christmas—possibly because the red and green filling was seen as festive, and you know how people love to color coordinate around the holidays. But by the end of the 1960s, Nesselrode was heading the way of the Dodo—likely because it sucked really, really bad.
Two hundred years after its invention, I developed a fascination with Nesselrode pie, and was determined not just to bring it back to New York City, but to bring it back to a form that Carême would recognize. I didn’t manage to make a huge dent in the dessert scene with it, even after telling nearly every single person I met this long and incredibly fascinating story. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with people.
You, however, have read all the way through, and must be quivering with excitement. History's secrets are about to be revealed to you! A crime against desserts will be avenged! You will have a trick in your arsenal to prevent you from being executed by invading Russian armies! This is a really big day for us food nerds. Now go forth and bake, my Padawans.
Allison Robicelli is a cookbook author, humorist, host of the Robicelli Argument Clinic Podcast, occasional TV personality, restauranteur (Oaxaca Taqueria & Rip's Malt Shop in NYC), wife, mother, and all around good time.
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