Is there a scent more evocative of short days, long nights and crisp, cold air than that of roasting chestnuts? They appear just in time for Thanksgiving, have become a important prop in recreating Christmas as we imagine it used to be, and are gone by the end of January, long before the spring thaw.
This doesn't leave much time for those who love chestnuts. And, if you're going to cook them yourself, you have to feel that way, because cooking with fresh chestnuts is definitely a labor of love.
While each nut must be painstakingly pried from the shell, this shell is easiest to remove when it is too hot to handle. Actually, "easy" is probably a poor choice of words for anything having to do with chestnut preparations, so it helps to have lots of people around to share the time-consuming task of peeling.
The simplest way to enjoy fresh chestnuts is roasted, whether in the oven, over a fire, or on the wood stove. Make a 1/4-inch slash in the rounded side of the shell with the tip of a paring knife. This allows the steam to escape, preventing the nuts from exploding. Cook the nuts on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Let the diners peel their own, removing the fibrous brown membrane as well as the shell. Roasted chestnuts go well with eggnog or by themselves as an hors d'oeuvre.
To peel chestnuts for cooking, slash as described above and roast on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for five minutes, or until the shells start to blister. Use a small paring knife to peel off the shell. The hotter the nut, the easier it is to remove the shells: after five or six, you will probably need to return the nuts to the oven. Chestnuts can also be boiled or deep fried to facilitate peeling.
Chestnuts are associated most often with dessert, but they are also delicious in soups, stuffings and pure'es.
Most of the chestnuts sold in the United States are imported from Italy. When buying them fresh, look for ones that feel dense and heavy. A shriveled or blistered shell indicates a moldy chestnut. A tiny hole usually indicates the presence of a worm. Because of their high water content, chestnuts are quite perishable: buy them from a store with a fast turnover. Keep them in a loosely sealed bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
Prior to the arrival of the potato in Europe, the chestnut was the provender of the poor. The sweet nut leads a double life, however. The rich dote on marons glace's, candied chestnuts, which are sold in ornate jars. Gourmet shops carry a whole line of luxury chestnut products: pure'es, creams, whole nuts in water or syrup.
CHESTNUT SOUP WITH AMARETTO (8 servings)
I make chestnut soup but once a year. (After I've finished peeling all those chestnuts, I vow never to do it again.) By the time chestnuts are back in season, my craving for the soup has returned, and, to the necessary degree, so has my patience. A splash of amaretto or hazelnut liqueur reinforces the nutty flavor of the chestnuts.
2 pounds fresh chestnuts
1 small onion
1 small clove garlic
2 to 3 scallions
3 stalks celery, or 1 small celery root
4 tablespoons butter
5 cups brown stock or chicken stock
1 bouquet garni of bay leaf, thyme and parsley
3 to 4 tablespoons amaretto or hazelnut liqueur (like Frangelico)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cayenne pepper and freshly grated nutmeg
Make a slash in the rounded side of each chestnut and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven for 5 minutes. Peel off the shell and inner skin.
Peel the carrots, parsnips, onion and garlic. Finely chop all the vegetables, including the scallions and celery. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the vegetables, and cook for 5 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Add the chestnuts, stock and bouquet garni. Gently simmer the soup for 40 minutes, or until the chestnuts are very soft.
Remove the bouquet garni and pure'e the soup in a blender or food processor. Return the soup to the saucepan, adding the amaretto, 2/3 of the cream, and salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg to taste: the soup should be very flavorful. If a sweeter flavor is desired, add a spoonful of brown sugar.
To serve, ladle the chestnut soup into warm bowls. Pour a little of the remaining cream in each bowl and marble it into the soup, stirring with a skewer. Chestnut soup is extremely rich, so keep the rest of the meal simple.
Per serving: 516 calories, 10 gm protein, 75 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 57 mg cholesterol, 582 mg sodium.
CHESTNUT STUFFING WITH PORK SAUSAGE (8 servings)
This rich stuffing can be baked inside a capon or turkey or in a buttered baking dish covered with foil.
1 pound fresh chestnuts
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound breakfast-style or sweet Italian sausage
3 tablespoons butter
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 ounces prosciutto ham, finely chopped
2 cups bread cubes, lightly toasted on a baking sheet in the oven
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Peel the chestnuts and cut each nut into quarters. Gently simmer the chestnuts in the stock in a saucepan over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until tender.
Crumble the sausage and brown it in a frying pan over medium heat. Transfer the sausage to a colander to drain off the fat.
Melt the butter in the sausage pan. Cook the celery over low heat for 5 minutes, or until tender, adding the ham after 3 minutes. Stir in the bread cubes, sausage, chestnuts, half the stock, and salt and pepper to taste. Add stock as necessary: the stuffing should be moist but not soggy.
Spoon the stuffing into a buttered baking dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until thoroughly heated. Alteratively, spoon the stuffing into the cavity of a turkey or capon.
Per serving: 321 calories, 12 gm protein, 36 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 572 mg sodium.
HUNGARIAN CHESTNUT PUREE (6 servings)
Mention chestnuts to a Hungarian and his eyes will light up. The dish that so excites him is gestenye pure, a pure'e of chestnuts and rum, squeezed into squiggly strands, topped with clouds of whipped cream and dusted with nutmeg. You can cheat on this one and use canned chestnut pure'e. A good brand is Clement Faugier, but be sure you buy the pure'e not the cre`me. The recipe comes from my Hungarian aunt, Judy Raichlen.
1 1/2 pounds fresh chestnuts (or a 1 pound can of pure'e)
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
1 vanilla bean, split
4 tablespoons light rum
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg
Peel the chestnuts and place them in a saucepan with the sugar, vanilla bean and water to cover. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the nuts are very tender.
Remove the vanilla bean and pure'e the chestnuts in a food processor, adding 3 tablespoons rum and enough cooking liquid to obtain a soft, smooth pure'e. It should be wet enough to squeeze through a piping bag, but dry enough to hold its shape. Beat the cream into stiff peaks in a chilled bowl, adding the confectioners' sugar and remaining rum.
Force the chestnut pure'e through a ricer into 6 serving bowls, or pipe it into mounds of squiggles, using a piping bag fitted with a very small star tip. Pipe rosettes of whipped cream on top and dust with freshly grated nutmeg. The pure'e is sweet and very rich: serve it with strong Viennese coffee.
Per serving: 230 calories, .8 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 54 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium.
CHESTNUT CHEESECAKE (10 servings)
This unusual cheesecake is flavored with chestnuts and rum. Here, too, you can use canned chestnut.
FOR THE CRUST:
8 ounces ginger snap cookies
1/3 cup melted butter, plus butter for pan
FOR THE CHESTNUT PUREE:
1 1/2 pounds fresh chestnuts (or a 1-pound can of pure'e)
1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
TO FINISH THE FILLING:
24 ounces (3 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar (or to taste)
1/4 cup dark rum
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
FOR THE TOPPING:
2 cups sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons light rum
Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Crush the cookies to fine crumbs in the food processor or with a rolling pin. Mix in the melted butter, and press the crust into the bottom and along the sides of the springform pan. Chill for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the chestnuts. Score, roast and peel the chestnuts, then place them in a saucepan with the sugar, vanilla bean, and cold water to cover. Gradually bring the liquid to a boil, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the chestnuts are very tender. Remove the vanilla bean and pure'e the nuts in a food processor, adding enough cooking liquid to obtain a soft, smooth pure'e.
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together in a mixer (or by hand) until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one by one, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the chestnut pure'e, dark rum, and vanilla, and beat until smooth. Pour the filling into the crust and bake at 325 degrees for 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the filling is set.
Whisk the sour cream, sugar and light rum together until light and smooth. Spoon this mixture on top of the cheesecake, turn off the oven, and let the cake cool in the oven. Chill chestnut cheesecake for at least four hours, preferably overnight, before serving.
Per serving: 923 calories, 14 gm protein, 100 gm carbohydrates, 52 gm fat, 28 gm saturated fat, 257 mg cholesterol, 423 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.