Winter swirls in with its own culinary expectations: the table laden with burnished game and crackling pork, rich, buttery greens and golden orange gourds at dinner time. And chestnuts. Roasted chestnuts, chestnut pure'es, chestnuts braised, boiled and baked are certainly seasonal, traditional and cozy, but they can also be very bland. When these same chestnuts are teamed with sugar, butter and chocolate, however, they become memorable even into the summer months.
Although classified as nuts, chestnuts must be cooked in some manner before being eaten. In the United States, chestnuts are most often roasted to be munched while sitting by a flickering fire. In Europe, however, they are used as a vegetable and as a fruit. They are pure'ed to be pooled alongside game, to thicken soups and also to flavor and sweeten many desserts.
Chestnut desserts have always been very popular in France. Chestnut pure'es are frequently used in dessert cre pes and souffle's. It is a rare cookbook that fails to include at least one sweet chestnut treat; they know the nutty flavor of chestnuts is at its best blended with sugar and cream.
One such famous dessert is Mont Blanc. In the recipe that follows chestnuts are simmered in a vanilla-flavored sauce, pure'ed and pressed through a ricer. The sweetened pure'e is then served, mounded softly on a plate. Topped with whipped cream, the dessert resembles an alpine peak, hence its name. The chestnut pure'e can also be packed into a round mold with the cream piped in the middle.
Many would not expect the delicious chestnut and kirsch mixture hidden beneath the rich buttery chocolate icing of the Chestnut Surprise. The body of the dessert is made with unsweetened chestnut pure'e and pure'ed glazed (or candied) chestnuts (cre me de marrons glace's) and flavored with kirsch. The blended essences of cherry, chocolate and chestnut is an unusual success.
And while a chocolate bu che de noel seems to have caught the fancy of Americans, the French often indulge in the chestnut version.This chestnut bu che is spiked with chocolate but delivers a nutty punch. Decorated with crystallized mint leaves and whipped cream to resemble a fallen log, it is sensational for a holiday dessert.
If the thought of preparing fresh chestnuts is too daunting, there are on the market two kinds of canned chestnut pure'es, a sweet one made of pure'ed glazed (or candied) chestnuts (cre'me de marrons glaces) and an unsweetened version.
But, if you are going to go it alone and pure'e the chestnuts yourself, remember that chestnuts are always cooked twice; the first time to facilitate peeling, the second to tenderize. Also buy about 1/4 pound more chestnuts than required in case every chestnut is not perfect. A healthy chestnut is plump and shiny; its outer shell comes off easily after roasting. Discard any imperfect nuts (those that are wizened or have mold or black spots on them).
There are various ways to prepare them for peeling. For the skillet method, slit the chestnuts with a sharp knife and put them in a skillet with enough oil to coat them. Stir and cook over moderate heat for about 10 minutes. Remove shells and skins with a sharp knife as soon as you can handle them. The heat of the chestnuts facilitates the process.
You can deep-fry the chestnuts by cutting all around them with a sharp knife. Place a few at a time in a wire basket, or sieve, and immerse in deep fat heated to 375 degrees until the peel opens of its own accord. Drain chestnuts well on paper towels.
To boil them, slit each shell and place them in boiling water to cover. Boil 20 minutes, drain and cool. Peel off shells.
Or roast the chestnuts, after coating them with oil, in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove shells and skin.
In each case, note that the larger the slit, the easier it is to shell the nuts.
For a sweeter taste, simmer the shelled nuts in a sweetened, vanilla-flavored milk until they are tender. The nuts are then ready to eat whole or pure'ed. Below is a recipe for sweet chestnut pure'e that can be incorporated into many delicious desserts. Although making your own chestnut pure'e is beyond the call of duty, the fresh home-made taste is delicious and therefore tempting.
Chestnuts will be available in local supermarkets until the end of the year. At Giant the cost is $1.79 a pound. Safeway declines to quote a price but says it will be competitive. SWEET CHESTNUT PUREE (Makes 3/4 to 1 cup pure'e)
Try this folded in dessert cre pes or just topped with whipped cream and chocolate.
1 pound chestnuts
Oil for coating
2-inch piece vanilla bean
1 cup hot milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon softened butter
Slit the chestnuts with a sharp knife and put them in a skillet with an oven-proof handle with enough oil to coat them. Bake in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove the shells and skins with a sharp knife. Chop coarsely and cook, along with the vanilla bean, in hot milk for 20 to 30 minutes, or until chestnuts are very soft. Remove vanilla bean. Force chestnuts through a ricer, or pure'e them in an electric blender. Put sugar, water and salt in a small heavy saucepan. Stir and cook slowly until the mixture begins to boil. Cover and cook rapidly 3 minutes, or until the steam has washed off any sugar crystals which may have formed around the sides of the pan. Cook, without stirring, until a soft ball forms when a little of the syrup is dropped in cold water (or to 234 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not let the syrup brown. Blend the syrup with the chestnut pure'e, beating vigourously until a thick paste is formed. Cool to lukewarm and stir in the butter. Store in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator and use as needed. MONT BLANC (6 servings)
Pat into a mound or force through a ricer for a less compact effect.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds chestnuts, shells slit
Salt to taste
2 1/2 cups milk (approximately)
1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
Boil the chestnuts for 10 minutes in salted water. Cool them slightly. Peel them, removing both the outer shells and the inner skins. Put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with the milk and add the sugar and vanilla bean. Simmer for about 1 hour, or until the chestnuts are tender. Remove the vanilla bean.
Drain the chestnuts, reserving the milk, and pure'e them through a sieve into a bowl using a pestle or heavy wooden spoon. Add a little of the hot milk to give the pure'e a smooth consistency. Stir in the butter and egg yolks. Form the pure'e into a mound on a serving plate and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
Whip the cream with the confectioners' sugar. Serve the dessert very cold, covered with the whipped cream. Adapted from "The Good Cook-Classic Desserts," (Time/Life Books, 1980) BUCHE AUX MARRONS (12 servings)
3 pounds chestnuts or 4 cups unsweetened chestnut pure'e (2 pounds)
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 to 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate bits
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup (1 stick) whipped sweet butter (at room temperature)
1 to 2 tablespoons rum (optional)
6 walnut halves
Crystallized mint leaves (optional)
1 cup good quality chocolate sauce or 1 cup whipping cream (optional)
To prepare chestnuts, slit outer covering of each chestnut with the point of a small knife. Scatter 2 pounds of chestnuts on a cookie sheet and roast for 15 minutes at 450 degrees. Then roast the remaining chestnuts. Peel the first batch while the second is roasting. It is easier to peel them when hot, but harder on the fingers, so use a potholder. The inner membrane should come off with the shell. Some will be stubborn, but don't worry; these will come off easily after boiling.
Cover peeled chestnuts with warm water in a 4-quart pot. Bring to boiling point, with cover on, and simmer gently for 30 to 45 minutes. Test after 30 minutes; when chestnuts are very soft, they are done.
Drain water from chestnuts and pure'e, using food mill with largest holes or a strainer. (A food processor or blender will not give the right texture.)
Measure 4 cups pure'ed chestnuts, tightly packed, into a 4-quart mixing bowl. Stir in sugar.
In a separate bowl, melt chocolate bits by pouring water over them. When the color of the chocolate turns lighter, pour off water and stir chocolate vigorously with a rubber spatula. Add butter in small chunks and stir. If using rum, add it next, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix very quickly.
Combine chestnut and chocolate mixtures and blend well. If rum has been used, refrigerate for an hour, until batter stiffens a little.
Place a piece of freezer wrap (about 18-by-24 inches) shiny side down on your working surface. Grease surface with salad oil, using your fingers to spread it evenly. (You can also use aluminum foil taped together to create the wide surface.)
Pour batter onto greased surface; bring paper up around sides and roll pure'e back and forth until it has a cylindrical shape. Push ends inward from time to time, as they tend to become too thin. Continue rolling and shaping bu che with your hands until it looks like a log about 12 inches long and 2 1/2 inches thick.
Cover well with the freezer paper, place on cookie sheet, and refrigerate overnight. (You can also freeze at this point until ready to use.)
If log has cracked, don't panic; mold it together again with your hand. Slice a thin piece off each end at a slant so that it looks like a sawed log. With a fork, ruffle surface so that it looks like bark. Transfer to serving platter and garnish with walnut meats. Finish with a few crystallized mint leaves.
Of, if you prefer, use a chocolate sauce or slightly sweetened, stiffly whipped cream to decorate log before garnishing it with walnuts and mint.
Just before serving, if you have not covered the bu che with whipped cream, sprinkle with confectioners' sugar to simulate snow. (If this is done ahead of time, sugar dissolves.) Cut 1/2-inch slices on a slant; serve with a fork. A dash of slightly sweetened whipped cream may be served with each slice. Adapted from "My French Kitchen," by Denise Knaitman Schorr (Globe Pequot, 1981) CHESTNUT SURPRISE (8 to 10 servings)
2 pounds canned unsweetened chestnut pure'e
3 teaspoons hot milk
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 to 2/3 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like it)
2 to 4 tablespoons kirsch
8-ounce glazed (or candied) chestnut pure'e (cre'me de marrons glace's)
Peanut oil for greasing mold
FOR THE CHOCOLATE ICING:
3 to 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
2 to 3 tablespoons strong brewed coffee
4 to 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
7 to 9 cherries preserved in kirsch (or other liqueur) and coated with chocolate for garnish
Put the unsweetened chestnut pure'e through a food mill, using the finest disk, into an enameled saucepan. Stir in the hot milk, place the saucepan over hot water, and stir until the pure'e is smooth and almost fluid. (It becomes darker in color.)
Cream the butter and work in the sugar. Then work this mixture into the warm chestnut pure'e until thoroughly blended.
Stir in the kirsch. Add the glazed chestnut pure'e a tablespoon at a time, working thoroughly with a wooden spatula after each addition.
When the mixture is perfectly smooth, pour it into the lightly oiled charlotte mold and refrigerate for several hours until firm enough to unmold.
To make chocolate icing, melt chocolate with coffee over low heat. When a thick, creamy mixture has been obtained, remove from heat and allow to become lukewarm. Work in the butter piece by piece until it is thoroughly blended.
Allow the icing to cool before frosting.
Unmold on a round serving plate that has been covered with a paper doily. If some of the pure'e sticks to the mold, just scoop out and pat into form. Frost the dessert with chocolate icing and decorate with the preserved cherries.
Adapted from "French Cuisine for All," by Louisette Bertholle (Doubleday, 1980)