Long, long ago

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My new boyfriend's parents were coming for the weekend, and I wanted to make a good impression.

The boyfriend said his mom liked chestnut. I went to see Ina. Back then we spent as many mornings as possible at Ina's restaurant, drinking coffee, scraping up scrapple and making plans. I explained: chestnut. Ina was happy to oblige.

That Saturday, she handed over a heavy white box tied in string. "Chestnut," she winked. "Very special." Words that came back to me later, when the parents were pacing the living room and I was pulling at the string in the kitchen. What had she meant by "special"?

I folded back the flaps and found a mound of mousse. It looked something like a dome. Or a hill. Decorated, at its peak, with a single chestnut.

"Is this," I whispered to the boyfriend, "a chestnut, um, chest?" He nodded. I closed the door and plated in privacy.

Now, decades in, Ina is closing her doors. My mother-in-law, who loved chestnut, who loved our children, is gone. The memory of that impressive mousse still makes me smile. Special indeed.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at leahreskin@aol.com.

Twitter @leaheskin

Chestnut mousse

Prep: 45 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Serves: 8

10 ounces roasted chestnuts (in a jar or pouch)

11 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup water

¾ cup warm milk

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten in a small bowl

1 tablespoon dark rum

1 cup whipping cream

1 Grind: Drop chestnuts into a food processor. Pulse to a fine powder. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and the butter. Process smooth. Leave in food processor.

2 Caramelize: Stir together ½ cup (8 tablespoons) sugar and the water in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high, without stirring. Mixture will turn from cloudy to clear, then bubble. When the bubbles slow (after about 6 minutes), watch closely. Mixture will turn tan and give off a burnt-sugar scent. Swirl the pan by its handle until sugar turns an even caramel-brown, about 1 minute.

3 Thicken: Pull pan off heat. Carefully whisk in warm milk; mixture will bubble up. Pour a few tablespoons of this caramel over the yolks; whisk. Return pan to medium-low heat. Pour yolks back into caramel and whisk until 165 degrees hot and thick, about 3 minutes.

4 Swirl: Strain caramel through a fine-mesh sieve onto chestnuts. Swirl completely smooth. Add rum; swirl smooth.

5 Fold: Whip cream with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to sturdy peaks. Fold into chestnuts. Chill.

Provenance: Inspired by Ina Pinkney, with technical assistance from Joan Moravek. Ina's, a Chicago breakfast mecca for 23 years, will close Dec. 31. Thank you, Ina, for all those delicious mornings. Her recipes can be found in "Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast."

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