While many attempt to survive Whamageddon (a trending seasonal game in which you’re “out” as soon as you suffer inadvertent exposure to ’80s-era pop-duo Wham!’s holiday standard “Last Christmas”), I’m waiting for the older chestnuts — the ones extolled in the rich, calm voice of Nat King Cole in “The Christmas Song.” I can rant about the commercialization of the season, holiday shopping traffic and the well-meaning atrocity of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” with the best of them — but give me a cup of hot chocolate, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Cole, and I can go from work-stress ragey to Ellen DeGeneres in five seconds flat.
The ubiquity of Cole’s song and the persuasive warmth of his voice unfolding it has created, I think, a strange phenomenon: One of the activities we most associate with the season is one that most of us have never actually performed. At various points in my life I’ve waited for Santa, cut down and decorated a pine tree, hung tinsel and lights, and baked cookies. I’ve even ranged further down the list to “Leave out produce for Santa’s reindeer” and “Drive across town to see the truly obnoxious Christmas lights,” though never quite reaching “Lick a frozen flagpole on a triple-dog dare.”
But when I started noodling on a chestnut cocktail for the holidays, I realized that I had never actually performed the first activity mentioned in one of the most popular holiday songs of all time.
I’ve now taken an afternoon to address that gap in my education, so if you’re interested in trying it yourself, here is my suggested method for roasting chestnuts on an open fire:
1. Acquire a couple dozen chestnuts in shell.
2. Start a roaring fire, preferably in your own hearth rather than in your most-loathed colleague’s cubicle, and turn on “The Christmas Song.”
3. With a sharp knife, cut an ‘X’ into the shell of each chestnut.
4. Stanch the bleeding from the knife wounds you acquired from Step 3; complete the rest of the cutting wearing thick work gloves.
5. Place chestnuts in a metal roasting rack into the fire.
6. Gradually grow extremely hot and tired from holding the rack over the fire.
7. Leap up in panic when several inadequately sliced nuts explode, propelling pieces of shell out of the fireplace and causing your dogs to howl in fury.
8. Discover upon removing the rack that among the nuts that didn’t explode, some have scorched while others have barely cooked. Yield: about six properly roasted nuts.
9. Contemplate how roasting chestnuts turns out to be one of the many traditional activities that — like sheepherding, butter-churning and working in a smithy — seem romantic, but today exist primarily to remind us how quickly we would perish from sheer incompetence should our convenience-laden world vanish.
10. Acquire pre-roasted chestnuts online, and spend your holiday leisure time baking and watching “Die Hard” like a sensible person.
I personally advise skipping directly to Step 10. But perhaps I am just woozy from smoke inhalation and blood loss.
Here is the thing about pre-roasted chestnuts: They have a subtle, appealing flavor (faintly sweet, earthy, nutty) that is lovely when dolled up with wintry spices. But their starchy texture is somewhat off-putting — like a mealy, slightly gluey potato. They make for a pleasant inclusion in salads and a truly delicious wintry soup, but their texture — like that of most starchy ingredients — presents a definite challenge in cocktails.
I thought about other starch-inclusive cocktails I’d encountered recently. At the Purple Pig in Chicago, the menu listed a drink that included Glenfiddich Scotch, butternut squash and allspice dram. Frequently drawn — by masochism or professional duty — to order drinks that seem like they could be truly horrific, I was happily surprised: It was a beauty, with the mellow, sweet flavor of butternut complemented perfectly by the depth of the whisky and the liqueur — and zero mealiness.
Alan Beasey, head bartender at the Purple Pig, says there were doubters about the squash component, which led to the drink’s Bruno Mars-inspired name: Don’t Believe Me Just Squatch. To get it to work, they first roasted the squash to soften it, bring out the sugars and a smokiness that would work with the scotch, then peeled it, cubed it, spiced it up with cinnamon and chile and tossed it in cane syrup and brown sugar. Blending it and adding water got it to a good consistency: “We wanted it to have texture and be a little creamy, but not be heavy or chewy,” Beasey says. “In some batches there were some fibery bits left. That was easy to strain out.” They finish the drink with a double strain to further protect against any unpleasant textures.
Another technique I found in the new “The Aviary Cocktail Book” (the Alinea Group, 2018) from Chicago’s bucket-list cocktail bar. The book includes a drink called the Sweet Potato, in which the orange spud is first baked, then goes through a sous-vide treatment to extract its flavor in liquid form without pulling out any of the solid flesh, creating a syrup with no mealy or starchy texture. The drink also includes acidulated orange juice, a smoked paprika ice containing honey and ancho chile liqueur, and tequila. (By the way, if you’re looking for a last-minute present for the cocktail geek in your life: Much like the bar itself, the Aviary’s book is astonishing, loaded with countless drinks so complex and visually lovely that I’ve decided to spend retirement cocktailing out of it. It’s a cocktail book the way Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia can be described as a local church.)
Regarding my starchy chestnuts, in the end, I opted for a tiki-esque solution and turned them into an orgeat — traditionally an almond syrup, but you can get some gorgeous variations by changing the nut component. This one I dolled up with cinnamon, allspice and Angostura bitters, then added dark rum — which has the triple effect of making the chestnut puree more liquid, giving it a rich, boozy note, and adding a preservative that helps the syrup last a little longer in the fridge. I wanted to echo that holiday-song roastiness, so I worked with a smoky mezcal base to get a hint of fire into the mix.
As you might guess, the most important part of the process is straining the orgeat thoroughly to remove as much of the solids and mealy texture as you can. You’ll strain the final drink as well, and its composition — the bright citrus and the hard shake with ice — helps smooth out any soupiness.
Sip it by a roaring fire, and make your spirit bright. Just remember: Though it’s been said, many times, many ways, if you use that roaring fire to roast chestnuts, make sure you use protective eyewear.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
1 serving (makes about 3 cups chestnut orgeat syrup)
We used Del Maguey’s Vida for the mezcal, but any mezcal with a nice smoky note will work well here (to give that “roasting on an open fire” taste). Note that the orgeat also works well as a creamy sweetener in coffee.
MAKE AHEAD: You should make the chestnut orgeat ahead of time to give it time to cool; it will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
For the chestnut orgeat
2 cups peeled, roasted, coarsely chopped chestnuts
6 whole dried allspice berries
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon Angostura bitters
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups water
1 cup dark rum
For the drink
1½ ounces mezcal (see headnote)
¾ ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Star anise pod, for garnish (optional)
For the chestnut orgeat: Combine the chestnuts, allspice berries, cinnamon, salt, bitters, brown sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring once or twice. Let cool.
Ladle or pour into a blender; puree until smooth and creamy. Add the rum and blend again, until well incorporated.
Strain it at least once through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any remaining chunks and minimize the starchy texture. Bottle the mixture, seal and refrigerate until well chilled. The yield is about 3 cups.
For the drink: Chill a Nick and Nora glass or cocktail coupe. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the mezcal, sherry, lemon juice and 1 ounce of the chestnut orgeat. Seal and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain the drink into the chilled glass.
Float the star anise pod on top, if desired.
More from Food: