Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cooking With Lady Evil: Candied Chestnuts

Ah, good old chestnuts.

They're the most recognizable of retro holiday foodstuffs. Even people who have never actually tasted them couldn't imagine roasting anything else over an open fire in December. Williams-Sonoma makes chestnut-scented candles and Starbucks apparently introduced a chestnut praline latte this year. We associate chestnuts with comfort, coziness and Christmas cheer.

Ironically, they've also been responsible for more frustration, burned fingers and steady streams of mumbled cuss words in my kitchen than any other "exotic" ingredient I've tried to work with. Chestnuts are deceptively hard to cook. They take a lot of time, effort and patience, and a lot of the instructions for handling them that I found around the internet simply didn't work for me. Since chestnuts are often expensive and it can be heartbreaking to ruin them, I've put together the recipe for candied chestnuts that--after much tweaking--finally worked out almost perfectly for me this year.

I've also peppered it heavily with warnings about the pitfalls of cooking chestnuts, because there are many.

1.  Get yourself a pound of chestnuts.

Odds are that you'll accomplish this step by going to your local grocery store, loading up a bag from the obligatory barrel o' chestnuts that every grocery store has this time of year, and paying for said bag at the counter. If this is the route you're taking, congratulations. There is nothing more you need to know about this step.

If you plan on buying a paper bag full of freshly-picked chestnuts from a local farmers' market, however, keep in mind that when they come off the tree, chestnuts look like this:

...and that odds are your hand-picked chestnuts haven't been completely separated from every last fragment of that prickly mutant-cactus-looking protective shell. Don't stick your hand in the bag too enthusiastically, is what I'm saying.

2.  Shell the chestnuts.

This is the hardest step in the entire recipe, because chestnut shells are the most evil shells in all of nut-dom. There is no way to remove them from the meat beneath without first roasting the nuts and then quickly and painfully shelling said nuts while they're still hotter than the surface of Mercury, because if you wait until they've cooled, the shells will start to adhere to the nuts again. And even then, it's often almost impossible to keep the damn nuts intact while you're shelling them.

I've tried several different techniques to make this process easier and less frustrating, and I've found that the easiest way to do it is to cut through each chestnut's shell--but not into the meat any more than you have to--with a sharp knife until your incision reaches around about 85% of the nut's circumference. Your end result should look something like this once they come out of the oven:

This method still isn't perfect; it takes a long time even with a very sharp knife, and gave me hand cramps. But I only broke one chestnut in half while shelling it this time around, so I'll take it.

3.  Roast the chestnuts in a 350 degree oven for ten to fifteen minutes.

Easiest step on the list. If you remember (I didn't) you can sprinkle them with a little water before they go in to make them easier to peel.

4.  Remove chestnuts from the oven and peel off their shells.

Good news: Because of the way you've cut them, the shells should come off easily--like cracking open a giant pistachio.

Bad news: You've got to do it quick--like, right out of the oven quick--or they'll start sticking again when they cool down. Handling burning-hot chestnuts is, as you may have guessed, unpleasant. It helps somewhat to wear two pairs of disposable food handling gloves while you're doing it, although that does make it a bit harder to handle the nuts. Nor will it protect you from poky, jagged shell edges.

Also, as if all that packaging weren't already enough, the chestnut meat is covered by a papery brown membrane, which also needs to be removed. Sometimes if you're lucky, it comes off with the shell and you don't have to worry about it. More often, it only partially comes off or doesn't come off at all, and if you don't remove it fast enough (i.e. right when the nuts come out of the oven) it cements itself to the nut and will not budge for any consideration. I hate this stupid membrane. It seems to serve no purpose other than to taunt me and stand in the way of my enjoyment of sweet chestnut flesh.

Fortunately you don't need to worry too much about the membrane for this recipe, because in the next step we...

5.  Put chestnuts in a saucepan with enough water to cover them and boil for ten minutes

Once you're done with this step, pour the chestnuts into a colander. Once the water is drained away, pick any remaining membrane fragments off the chestnuts with your fingers or rub it off with a dish towel. It should be waterlogged and peel off easily. Take that, impenetrable fun-ruining membrane!

6.  In a separate pan mix together 2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.

Bring this mixture to a boil and boil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Also, watch it carefully. From personal experience, I have learned that boiling-over sugar syrup + hot stove = loud smoke alarm and husband giving you grief for not being more careful.

7.  Add chestnuts and boil them in syrup mixture for 10 minutes.

8.  Pour chestnuts and syrup into a container with a lid and cover loosely. Let sit for 12-18 hours.

Be sure to wait a few minutes for the syrup to cool down, though. Sugar can get HOT.

9.  Repeat the boiling-covering-and-letting-sit process 3-4 times.

Hmm, I forgot to mention up front that this was a multi-day process. Over the next 3 to 4 days you're basically supposed to boil the chestnuts in the syrup for 10 minutes, then pour them back into their container and let them sit for 12 hours, then repeat the process until the syrup is mostly absorbed. (It'll never be fully absorbed for this recipe. I always make a little extra because the nice thick vanilla-chestnut syrup is good on pancakes.)

10.  Enjoy!

I like to crumble my candied chestnuts up and eat them over vanilla ice cream, or bake them into bread. If you get enough whole ones to put into paper candy cups, they also make great additions to a Christmas baked goods gift box.


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