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SPECIAL ISSUE / CHRISTMAS EVE

Fabulously festive, in a nutshell

Luscious chestnuts can steal the show in a flambe, folded into an ethereal mousse or in an earthy, elegant chocolate chestnut cake.

December 20, 2006|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

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.

betty.hallock@latimes.com

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