When people think of chestnuts at this time of year, they usually think of them "roasting on an open fire." But there’s so much more to these nuts than that well-known line from "The Christmas Song."
Actually, chestnuts are a very Mediterranean and Asian ingredient. Over the years, they have been the staple food in southern France, Italy and North Africa. Chestnuts are extremely versatile. Whole chestnuts can be roasted, boiled, sauteed, steamed and glazed.
Chestnuts also are ground into flour that can be used in sauces and in baking. Chestnut puree is akin to nut butter, with a smooth, creamy texture and a mild flavor.
Unsweetened, chestnut puree can be used to smooth sauces, flavor stews and soups and be an ingredient in potato and vegetable dishes.
Sweetened, chestnut puree can be used just like fruit preserves on freshly toasted breads or muffins, or as an ingredient in frostings, cake fillings and chocolate confections.
Chestnut trees can live up to 500 years. This gives people lots of time to get romantic about chestnuts. The poet Longfellow included "vast forests of chestnut trees" in his works. Thoreau wrote of the "boundless chestnut woods" in New England.
One of Shakespeare’s characters in "Macbeth," a sorceress, was so incensed that she did not receive her share of chestnuts that she caused tempests to wreck sailing ships along the coast of her kingdom. In Japan, people will send to distant towns for the particular chestnuts they like.
In Modena, Italy, chestnuts are soaked in wine and roasted and served only on the feast of St. Martin’s Day. Traditional marron glace, or glazed chestnuts, take 16 steps to make and are a Christmas treat in England and France. A chestnut and chocolate confection called "the nipples of Venus" was a popular Italian delicacy, said to be a favorite of classical composer Mozart and his archenemy, Salieri.
This is a good time of year to look for the chestnut harvest. You may find chestnuts at local farmers markets or specialty food stores in your area.
Peeling, roasting and pureeing chestnuts takes patience and time. Today, many chefs purchase whole chestnuts in syrup or water and prepared chestnut puree. The quality and supply are consistent. Processed chestnuts give the chefs time for creativity rather than for peeling and chopping.
Chestnut puree is used in puddings, pastry creams, Bavarians, pies and traditional chestnut desserts such as Mont Blanc and Nesselrode pudding. Chestnut puree can be substituted for up to one-third of the flour in moist baking recipes, such as banana bread and muffins. Chestnut puree can be added to pancake and waffle batter, pound cakes and cookies. It also is used for creating new ice creams and for fillings in chocolate confections and layer cakes.
An elegant, creamy chestnut soup can be made quickly and easily. Prepare a roux with 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) butter and 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) all-purpose flour in a medium saucepan. Stir in chestnut puree (about 2 cups puree for 2 ounces of roux) and enough chicken or vegetable stock to create the desired thickness. Add a small amount of milk or heavy cream and mirepoix (chopped carrots, celery and onions) and chopped parsley for flavor. Allow to simmer until thickened and the vegetables are soft. Just before serving, add a small amount of sherry or Marsala to complement the chestnut flavor. This soup also can be thickened with chestnut or bread flour and served as a sauce for poultry, venison, potato dishes or egg noodles.
Chestnuts and chocolate are a popular pairing. Their textures and flavors complement each other perfectly. Many sweet and savory dishes offer a pairing of chestnut and chocolate. For poultry dishes, a small amount of bitter chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder is added to the sauce for flavor contrast and a heightened color. Chestnuts are glazed in meat juices or butter and served as a garnish for poultry dishes.
Chestnut puree and chocolate, shaved or melted, is a traditional filling for crepes served as a light breakfast on special occasions or as a dessert any time.
A Milanese specialty is Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc in French or White Mountain in English). From the city of Milan, Italy, you can see the towering peak of Mont Blanc. Milanese chefs create a pyramid of dark chocolate and pureed chestnuts, topped with snowy peak of whipped cream.
In Piedmont, an Italian rice-growing region, dolce di riso, or sweet rice, is a favorite dessert. Arborio rice, the same rice used to prepare risotto, is made into a sweet pudding and flavored with chestnuts and chocolate.
Nesselrode is a classic chestnut pudding that goes in and out of fashion. This dramatic dessert was invented by a chef for Count Nesselrode, a Russian statesman. Nesselrode was a famous dessert during the mid-19th century, very belle epoque. Maybe it’s time for you to stage a Nesselrode comeback.
Nesselrode can be served on its own or used as the filling for pies or tarts.
It’s usually given a dramatic presentation, mounded as a tower studded with glazed chestnuts and chocolate pieces or as a mile-high frozen pie. The recipe to the left will give you some ideas for presentation.