On Monday, Mimi was suffering from the remnants from a cold and was feeling too miserable to do much of anything. Housebound, I realized it was the perfect day to deal with the mountain of chestnuts that we had and decided to spend the morning with Mimi, making marrons glacés, candied chestnuts.
The morning sun filtered through the kitchen window and seemed to offer some kind of solar blessing to our project. We proceeded with great enthusiasm. At first.
To prepare chestnuts for cooking, (1) split them into two halves and boil for 7.5 minutes. Transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water. (2) The shell will slip off easily, (3) leaving behind only the brown skins to remove.
These are the instructions for blanching chestnuts that I found on-line. I’ve delineated the steps for a reason.
The first step, cutting the chestnuts in half, was challenging in its way, though not impossible. I blanched them as directed and then peeled off the outer shells, no problem. Notice, however, that these instructions do not offer a handy adjective to provide an idea about the degree of difficulty for the third step, removing those brown skins. There’s a reason for that.
That brown skin was something else again. Sometimes, I could get my paring knife underneath the skin and it would slip right off. When that happened, I felt in sync with the ancient rhythms of my ancestors, who undoubtedly performed this task back in the boonies of France.
Then there were the “rogue” chestnuts, whose skins simply would not come off without a lot of effort. Those were roughly treated, the skin peeled away as inefficiently as necessary by a cook whose small, sick child was growing increasingly tired of the chestnut project. Nearly two hours into the job, I finally had one quart’s worth of peeled chestnuts. Witness:
Yes, that is all there is. Luckily, it was enough.
To preserve chestnuts: simmer chestnuts, along with a split vanilla bean, in a small sauce pan at a low temperature until fork tender. This may take as long as two hours. Before cooking, weigh the chestnuts and prepare a sugar and water solution of equal weight. Simmer the sugar syrup over low heat until it thickens. This may take as long as two hours. When both the chestnuts and the syrup finish, drain the chestnuts, return them to the saucepan, submerge in the sugar syrup, add a slug of vanilla, and simmer at a low temperature until the chestnuts candy. This may take as long as an hour and a half.
It was slow going, but didn’t require much work on my part. Here are some blurry photographs of the results:
Am I happy with preserved chestnuts?
Well…I’m not one to complain about the workload, but really, this was too much for me. The tips of my fingers are shredded. It’s definitely not a job to do with a small child, especially not one who is already fractious.
The candied chestnuts and their syrup are, however, really fabulous over brown sugar ice cream.
Chestnut Experiment #1
I cooked the first batch of my chestnuts in the obvious way, by roasting them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes in the convection oven. Although not the most romantic approach, they turned out just fine: sweet, meaty, and a little bit nutty. When I scored the nuts with my trusty chestnut knife ($6 well-spent!), I was surprised to find them soft — nearly liquid — beneath their shells.
My in-laws, who are visiting this weekend from St. Louis, seemed to enjoy them well enough. However, they loved the blue cheese that I drizzled with chestnut honey. So did I. And although I intended this post to be about roasted chestnuts, it looks like I’m going to have much more to say about chestnut honey.
Honey is fantasy food, the stuff of imagination. Think about it: bees somehow fashion it from flower nectar. So dreamy… small children would conjure it up it in their play kitchens if it didn’t already exist.
The ubiquitous, plastic bear variety suggests a uniformity of honey flavor that belies the more complex reality. Like chocolate, coffee, and wine, the flavor of honey varies dramatically depending upon certain environmental factors — specifically for honey, the types of flowers from which their bees sip. Every flower produces its own uniquely-flavored nectar, the diverse poetry of nature.
Chestnut honey has a rich taste that is simply astounding (as I suppose it should be, at $17 for a 400 gram jar). The decidedly complex flavor starts off honey-sweet, then leaves behind a distinct but pleasantly bitter note, similar to darkly toasted bread. The Zingerman’s catalogue describes chestnut honey as having “a fascinating aroma: a little leather, tobacco, almost smoky, like you’re walking in a forest in fall.” The honey also happens to look beautiful, like the color of burnished chestnuts.
Because it is so rich, I suspect the little jar that I have will last for quite some time. The honey is too fine for ordinary use though, so I’ll have to come up with other interesting things to do with it. Maybe honey ice cream? As glaze for a cake? Drizzled over soft panna cotta?
But the chestnut honey will keep for ages. In the meantime, I still have about 3 1/2 pounds worth of fresh chestnuts to dispatch.
Consider the chestnut. I’ve been considering chestnuts a lot lately, maybe even obsessively.
Because I live in Alabama, a mostly chestnut-free-state, I had to order chestnuts online in order to consider them up close. Turns out, you can get them from many sources on the net, but I chose Allen Creek Farm. Their chesnuts are gorgeous: large, shiny, and practically shouting, they’re so fresh.
The company’s website explains that the chestnut trees on Allen Creek Farm are pesticide-free. I had to order from them, in spite of the issue of the minimum order.
Four-pounds — there are now four-pounds-worth of chestnuts in my refrigerator. I also have a jar of chestnut honey, a package of chestnut flour, this book about the tragic history of the American chestnut tree, oh, and,
A Chestnut Knife
Hmmm… Did I mention that I have no idea how to prepare chestnuts? That I’ve eaten chestnuts exactly once? That I discovered only recently that the word “chestnut” contains a “t?”
What was I thinking?
Someone has a lot of chestnuts to eat.