This season, I’m all about holiday classics: tuning into a little Wham! on the radio, dusting off my old ice skates and of course, reviving desserts from days of Christmas past.
Speaking of holiday nostalgia, I’ve developed a deep affection for chestnuts over the years. It’s the tree nut referenced in Christmas carols, the inspiration for a functional doll (and subsequent ballet), and, I’ve found, one of the more unpopular holiday foods to prepare. The song boasts “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but seemingly no one from ages 1 to 92 actually enjoys eating them. This mostly has nothing to do with flavor, but stems from fear of the unknown. Picking up a bag of chestnuts from the market is daunting because, how the heck are you supposed to eat them? Unless you truly want to spend hours and risk injury smashing open chestnuts with your heirloom nutcracker, there’s a much simpler solution.
The first step is to soak. This tenderizes the shell making it easier to peel, and helps to avoid explosions that can occur when dry-roasting nuts. The chestnuts can sit anywhere from 12—24 hours in water and add a pinch of salt for flavor.
Now, if you don’t want your chestnuts to recreate the ballet in the oven, this next step is crucial. Repeat: don’t skip this! With a paring knife, mark an “X” on the rounded side of the chestnut. When the chestnuts do hit the heat, the “X” will open up, allowing steam to be released sans explosion and creating a tab for easy shell removal.
My preferred roasting vessel is a cast iron skillet, not just because it makes a gorgeous serving platter, but cast iron heats evenly,so the risk of burning one side is minimal. The nuts will roast for 30—40 minutes, or until the “X” fully opens. When removing from the oven, let the nuts cool fully. There are few things worse than a steam burn incurred from a hot nut! After the chestnuts are peeled, a little salt is all that is needed to serve them. But if a little higher inspiration is necessary, here’s a recipe for a chestnut and salted caramel spread.
Chestnut and salted caramel spread
For the caramel:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
3 Tbsp cream
2 Tbsp salt
Combine sugar and water in a pot, making sure the sugar is hydrated. On medium heat, (don’t stir!) heat the sugar until a light golden color starts to emerge. Switch to low heat and continue until a rich caramel color is even throughout. Remove from heat, and add cream and salt, stirring until caramel comes together. Set aside to cool. Don’t totally chill the caramel since it should be pliable to mix with the chestnuts.
For the spread:
1 recipe of caramel
5 oz roasted and peeled chestnuts
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp grapeseed oil (optional)
In a food processor, combine chestnuts and salt, blending until mostly smooth. While the processor is running, stream in the caramel until one cohesive mass has formed. If the spread is too hard, pour in 1—2 Tbsp oil until it has a spreadable consistency.
Scoop into a glass jar to create a simple and tasty holiday gift, or place in a ramekin and serve on toast. Also makes an optional delicious ice cream topping.