IT all started with marrons glaces, each candied chestnut wrapped in burnished foil, tucked into a beautiful box. The best are moist and sweet to the core but retain the full flavor of mellow, earthy chestnut. They're something of a Christmas tradition -- every year I order a box from France. But why so expensive? I was paying nearly $50 for a box of 12, plus shipping.
And how hard could they be to make?
In principle, it seemed easy: Poach the chestnuts, soak them in a vanilla sugar syrup a few days, then voila. But there were early warnings: recipes that said "requires exceptional ability" or packages that claimed "there are more than twenty stages involved in the process." Twenty?!
It was a challenge I couldn't resist.
I knew I'd need to start with great chestnuts. Everyone, even the French, say the best come from Italy. Among my favorite marrons glaces are those from Jean-Paul Hevin in Paris -- so luscious and not so sweet that the sugar overpowers the chestnut flavor. Hevin uses Italian chestnuts, and his website explains that "shiny, tender chestnuts from Turin are the world's best variety. Their particular quality stems from their refined chestnut flavor and their not-too-chalky texture."
I didn't go to Italy for my chestnuts, but I did go as far as the Sacramento Delta to visit chestnut farmer Harvey Correia, who grows a variety of Italian marroni and has been selling them online (www.chestnuts.us) since last year. Demand has been so high that he sold out this season.
Armed with delicious fresh chestnuts, I looked forward to meaty sugar-soaked nuts that would become much like soft, candied fruit. Visions of marrons glaces danced in my head -- to be eaten whole, in crepes, atop ice cream, in cakes, mixed into a semifreddo with crushed amaretti. They're perfect for the holidays.
First I peeled them, no easy task. To peel a chestnut is to know a chestnut, all of its curves and crags -- what Pablo Neruda called "an edible rose." I soaked them in a sugar syrup with vanilla, and morning and night over three days I cooked down the syrup to thicken it.
The result? Some chestnuts fell apart when I picked them up. Others weren't candied all the way through. Or worse: Some were hard or rubbery in the center. In short, they were a disaster. There was just one thing to do -- set them on fire. Well, at least flambe them -- in Grand Marnier and rum, a recipe from the Italian cookbook "Tempo di Castagne," or "Chestnut Time."
Because marrons glaces or no marrons glaces, chestnuts are great for any Christmastime dessert: chestnut mousse, chestnut ice cream, chestnut crepes, chestnuts flambe, a splendid chestnut cake topped with gilded, whole chestnuts for a special Christmas Eve dinner.
For the chestnuts flambe, I didn't use the failed marrons glaces but started anew with fresh ones. The chestnuts are roasted, then warmed in a caramel-y syrup with orange liqueur, splashed with rum and once flambeed, all the flavors meld together.
It's even more stunning if you can flambe the chestnuts in a chafing dish at table. These aren't chestnuts roasting on an open fire but roasted chestnuts under an open fire.
An elegant option
CHESTNUT cake is a traditional, not-too-sweet Italian cake, made with chestnut flour and olive oil, and often flavored with rosemary and pine nuts. But the flavor of chestnut flour (sometimes toasted before making the cake) can be surprisingly strong.
A softer, gentler version from Dorie Greenspan's new book, "Baking: From My Home to Yours," makes a fabulous dessert for an elegant holiday dinner. It's layered with a chestnut-studded ganache, glazed with chocolate and topped with gold-dusted, whole chestnuts.
Greenspan's recipe calls for canned or jarred, cooked chestnuts. And of the canned, jarred and cryovacked chestnuts that I tried, the jarred -- in particular the Spanish brand Sierra Rica from the Huelva region of Spain -- tasted best and had the best texture.
If you're using fresh chestnuts for a dessert, shop carefully. The majority available at groceries have been imported, which means they may not have been stored properly during transit and after arrival. Look for chestnuts that are lustrous and heavy; the nut shouldn't be rattling around in its shell.
When you get home, store them in the refrigerator. They should be "cured" a few days at room temperature before peeling, says Correia. This allows the starches to convert to sugar and makes the pellicle, the thin skin around the nut, easier to remove.
To peel chestnuts, first score them by making an "X" in the shell with a small, sharp knife. Then roast them in a 550-degree oven for about 15 minutes, cover them in a towel that's been soaked in ice water until they're cool enough to peel , and their shell and skin are fairly easy to remove. It's a technique from "Roger Verge's Vegetables in the French Style."
And as for marrons glaces, I ended up buying a box.
Chocolate chestnut cake
Total time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, plus overnight chilling time
Note: Adapted from "Baking: From My Home to Yours" by Dorie Greenspan. Sweetened chestnut spread with vanilla, such as the Clement Faugier brand, is available at Surfas in Culver City and Nicole's in Pasadena; also available online at www.kalustyans.com and www.lepicerie.com. Edible gold dust is available at Surfas and bakers' supply shops.
9 ounces premium-quality milk chocolate (such as Valrhona or Guittard), finely chopped
11 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped, divided
6 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup sugar, divided
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream, divided
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
10 ounces (2 1/4 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon (packed) light brown sugar, divided
4 large eggs, separated
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup store-bought sweetened chestnut spread with vanilla (available in specialty markets and many supermarkets)
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup brandy
16 to 18 jarred, peeled whole chestnuts (available in specialty markets and many supermarkets), 6 coarsely chopped, the rest left whole
Edible gold dust (optional)
1. To make the ganache, put the milk chocolate and 3 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir 6 tablespoons sugar with 2 tablespoons water and the cinnamon stick. Place the mixture over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Without stirring, boil until the caramel turns a deep amber color, brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to remove any sugar crystals and swirling the pan from time to time. (Depending on the size of your pan, it will take 5 to 7 minutes for the caramel to color properly.) Stand back and add 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cream and one-fourth teaspoon salt -- the mixture will bubble furiously and it might seize, but it will smooth out as you heat it. With the caramel at a boil, whisk it for another minute, or until it is smooth, then pull the pan from the heat and carefully discard the cinnamon stick.
2. Pour the hot caramel over the chocolate and gently stir until the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until it is completely cool, about 1 hour.
3. In a stand mixer, preferably with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter until smooth and fluffy. Add the chocolate ganache to the butter in four additions, beating on low just until smooth. Scrape the ganache into a container, cover and refrigerate overnight. (The ganache can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
4. Center a rack in the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-inch-high, 8-inch-square pan, dust the inside with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Put the pan on a baking sheet.
5. Sift together the flour, baking powder and the remaining teaspoon salt. Working with a stand mixer, preferably with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until smooth and light. Add 1 cup of the brown sugar and beat for about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating after each addition until well blended. Beat in the vanilla extract, chestnut spread and milk. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the dry ingredients and gently mix them in. If using a stand mixer, scrape the batter into a large bowl and thoroughly wash and dry the mixer bowl.
6. Working in the clean mixer bowl with the whisk attachment or in another large bowl with the hand mixer (and clean beaters), beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add one-fourth cup brown sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff but not dry. Using a large rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the chestnut batter in three additions. Scrape the batter into the pan.
7. Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, until the cake is golden on top and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and run a knife around the cake to loosen it from the sides of the pan. Let cool to room temperature in the pan. (The cooled cake can be covered and kept at room temperature overnight.)
8. To make the syrup, stir the brandy and the remaining tablespoon of brown sugar together in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.
9. To assemble the cake, cut a 7-inch cardboard square for a base. Turn the cake out onto the rack and peel off the parchment paper. Using a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, cut the cake horizontally into two layers. Place the bottom layer cut side up on the cardboard. Brush it with half the brandy syrup, spread it with 1 cup of the ganache and sprinkle with chopped chestnuts. Top with the second layer, cut side up, and repeat with the remaining brandy syrup. Spread ganache over the sides and top of the cake (you may have extra ganache; reserve for another use). Refrigerate the cake while you make the glaze.
10. To make the glaze, put the remaining 8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the remaining 1 cup cream, the remaining one-fourth cup sugar and one-fourth cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from the heat, pour the cream over the chocolate and wait 1 minute, then whisk very gently in ever-increasing circles, until the chocolate is melted and the glaze is smooth. Leave the glaze at room temperature until it is thick, but still pourable.
11. To finish the cake, put a cooling rack over a piece of wax paper (the drip catcher) and put the chilled cake on the rack. Pour the glaze over the cake and, using a long metal icing spatula, spread the glaze smoothly across the top of the cake and over the sides. Refrigerate the cake until the glaze sets.
12. To decorate the cake, brush 10 to 12 whole chestnuts with gold dust. Arrange the chestnuts in a diagonal across the top of the cake.
Each serving: 781 calories; 8 grams protein; 74 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 54 grams fat; 31 grams saturated fat; 160 mg. cholesterol; 290 mg. sodium.
Total time: 1 hour
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: Adapted from "Tempo di Castagne" by Carla Geri Camporesi
About 1 pound chestnuts
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier
1/2 cup rum
1. Heat the oven to 550 degrees. With a small knife, score the chestnuts with an "X" on the flat side of the shell. Roast them on a baking sheet until the shells where they have been scored curl and darken, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the chestnuts from the oven and immediately cover them with a towel that has been soaked in ice water and wrung out. When the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel away the shells and the thin skin covering the chestnut.
2. With a small pointed knife, remove the peel in a spiral from the orange.
3. In a medium frying pan, melt the butter. Add the sugar, the orange peel and orange liqueur.
4. Stir the syrup and let it thicken but not caramelize. Add the chestnuts and stir them gently into the syrup. Add the juice of half the orange and, when the chestnuts are warmed through, pour in the rum and flambe it by lighting it with a long match.
5. After the flame has died out, spoon the chestnuts with the syrup over vanilla ice cream.
Each of 6 servings: 277 calories; 2 grams protein; 47 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 2 mg. sodium.
Total time: 20 minutes, plus chilling time
1 cup chestnut puree, firmly packed
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or Amaretto
1 large egg white
1/2 cup sugar
Shaved chocolate or whipped cream for garnish
1. In a medium bowl, mix together the chestnut puree, butter, vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons water with a hand mixer until smooth. Set aside.
2. Set a saucepan of water over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Place the egg white in a deep metal bowl that fits over the saucepan without touching the water. Before setting the bowl over the simmering water, beat the egg white with a hand mixer on medium speed just until foamy, about 1 minute. Set the bowl over the simmering water, continuing to beat with the hand mixer (you don't want to let the egg white cook); reduce the heat to medium-low. Slowly add the sugar and beat on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 6 minutes.
3. Immediately fold the meringue into the chestnut puree mixture. Chill for an hour, and up to 3 hours.
4. Spoon the mousse into a pastry tube fitted with a large star tip. Pipe the mousse into glasses or bowls. Garnish with shaved chocolate or whipped cream.
Each serving: 356 calories; 3 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 60 mg. cholesterol; 17 mg. sodium.