Lost Foods of New York City: Gesztenyepüré, Hungarian Chestnut Puree
Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.
No other single force has shaped New York City food as much as immigration.
Without the constant influx of people from other countries to New York City there would be no pastrami or pizza, no hot dogs, curry, or chop suey. But while some immigrant foods stick indelibly to the city’s culinary fabric, others are destined to make a quieter, though no less delicious, impression.
Take gesztenyepüré—a chestnut puree dessert that once delighted diners in the Hungarian restaurants that crowded the city’s Upper East Side. It’s a simple dish, almost to the point of not needing a recipe—a mixture of pureed chestnuts flavored with rum and vanilla and pressed through a potato ricer to make thin chestnut “noodles” that get topped with whipped cream. (Anyone who grew up making Play-Doh hair will immediately understand gesztenyepüré’s shape and texture.)
According to Michael Szarvasy of the New York Hungarian House on East 82nd street, gesztenyepüré is traditionally served unsweetened to let the chestnuts’ nutty flavor shine though—but many contemporary recipes do include sugar.
Gesztenyepüré is a popular dish in Hungary where it is served at cafés and in homes, particularly during fall and winter when chestnuts are in season and find their way into many different dishes. The dessert is also served in parts of Austria, where it is called Kastanienreis, or “chestnut rice.” And a parallel dish called Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco (named after the snow-capped mountain) can be found in France, Northern Italy, and Switzerland—a testament to the region’s historically permeable borders and overlapping cultures.
The dessert made its way to America with the Hungarian immigrants who settled in New York City from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth centuries. They brought with them a zest for culture and the arts, and the hearty, rib-sticking fare—chicken paprikash, beef goulash, apple and cabbage strudel and, of course, gesztenyepüré, that had graced their dinner tables in the Old Country.
In 1900, the New York Times described “Hungarian Broadway” on Second Avenue between Houston and East Tenth street as an East Village neighborhood where “almost everybody who walks there hails from Hungary or Bohemia, and nearly every second house presents the sign ‘Hungarian Restaurant.’”
Within a generation or two, the locus of Hungarian life in New York began to shift northward on Second Avenue to the less-crowded pastures of Yorkville. There, the Hungarian community thrived in the low 80s, with its Central European immigrant neighbors occupying the streets to the south and north. "It was very funny, the Czechs, next to the Hungarians, next to the Germans—just as it was in Europe," 91-year old New York resident Jan Hird Pokorny was quoted as saying in a 2006 New York Times article.
Despite the shift in neighborhood, the Hungarians continued to delight in their favorite chestnut dessert. “Every restaurant would have served it—it’s a standard” commented Szarvasy.” Indeed, a series of restaurant reviews from New York magazine from the 1960s and ‘70s mention the dessert. For example, at the now-closed Hungarian cafeteria, Eva’s, diners could select “a small hill of whipped cream … covered with a good quantity of firm vermicelli-like chestnut puree” for 80 cents. Meanwhile, in his memoir Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, New York City’s late, famed Hungarian restaurateur, George Lang, reminisced about his favorite Little Hungary eatery, the long-since closed Debrecen.
“It served … vanilla-and-rum flavored chestnut puree hiding under a mountain of whipped cream, the kind of food that to this day I call normal.”
Unfortunately, gesztenyepüré did not have the crossover appeal necessary to become a classic New York dish. By the late 1980s, right around the time that Harry taught Sally how to say “Waiter, there is too much pepper in my paprikash,” rising rents and an influx of shiny high-rises to the neighborhood began to push Yorkville’s Hungarian community toward the suburbs. Slowly, the Upper East Side’s beloved Hungarian restaurants and grocery shops—like Paprikas Weiss in the mid-’90s and Yorkville Meat Emporium just last year—packed up and left town. Meanwhile, like many children and grandchildren of immigrants, the second and third generation Hungarians began to acquire Americanized taste buds that left little room for their ancestors’ creamy chestnut dessert.
Today, a few Hungarian eateries and shops remain in Manhattan, with a few more scattered throughout Queens and Brooklyn. But only one—Andre’s Café, a 35-year old Queens-based bakery that bucked the trend by opening a Yorkville outpost on 2nd avenue near 85th street in 2005—serves gesztenyepüré. Along with palacsinta (Hungarian crepes), floden (layered jam pastry), and strudel, Andre’s menu reads like a time capsule of a neighborhood gone by. Never mind that their gesztenyepüré is made with a Swiss brand of canned chestnut puree and served highly sweetened. It’s divine—like pudding but more densely textured, with a spiced earthy flavor that cuts through the sugar. A bowl of chestnut puree and an espresso enjoyed amidst the café’s Hungarian tapestries, dolls and other bric-a-brac is entirely worth the trip. (Yorkville’s Hungarian Literary Society is also rumored to serve it on occasion, but good luck getting a reservation.)
While in the neighborhood, walk a block north to Schaller & Weber, a holdout German butcher and grocery store—and buy a can of unsweetened chestnut puree to make the dessert at home. (The ethnic food superstore, Kalustyan’s, and several other New York groceries also sell canned chestnut puree). Perhaps gestenyepüré is too unusual and oddly named to find a permanent spot in New York City’s gastro-canon. But just in case the city ever decides to have a nouveau-Hungarian food moment, it can’t hurt to be prepared.
Gesztenyepüré (Hungarian Chestnut Puree)
This version breaks from tradition by adding sugar to sate my American sweet tooth. If you want to go more traditional, omit the sugar in the puree. Recipe adapted from The Hungarian Girl blog.
2 cups canned, unsweetened chestnut puree
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons confectioners sugar, or more to taste
1-2 tablespoons rum
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons sugar
nutmeg for garnish
1. Stir together chestnut puree, vanilla extract, confectioners sugar, and rum (starting with 1 tablespoon and adjusting to taste) together in medium bowl, set aside.
2. Add whipping cream to a bowl and whip with electric beaters until cream holds soft peaks. Add sugar and continue whipping until cream holds stiff peaks, set aside.
3. Press the chestnut mixer through a potato ricer into a bowl, then carefully scoop chestnut "noodles" into individual serving cups. Top with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg.
Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com