The holiday season is upon us, and with it we usher in time-honored traditions. Halls are decked, presents are purchased, and chestnuts are roasted. Nat King Cole immortalized chestnuts in The Christmas Song, and no holiday season in New York City would be complete without their singed scent rising from the pushcarts that clutter Midtown. These nuts may have iconic status, but as of late both chefs and home cooks alike are using them in more down-to-earth ways.
Dating back to the Roman Empire, chestnuts were a winter staple in Italy. Throughout lengthy campaigns, soldiers would plant legions of the trees to provide food for their armies. The nuts not devoured whole were ground into flour, then used to bake up dense loaves of bread. Polenta was originally made with the nuts, too, until cornmeal was introduced in the 16th century. For centuries thereafter, chestnuts became a delicacy associated with seasonal preparations and for special recipes, like the one created by famed Chef Bartolomeo Scappi, who roasted them with sugar and rose petals.
American Plight & Blight
As far as the US is concerned, the chestnut has had a far less romantic plight. In the early 1900s, a fungus called chestnut blight swept through the nation. The blight destroyed thousands of trees, particularly on the east coast where they grew prevalently. As American chestnut trees are still susceptible to this fungus, most of the nuts we find for commercial use are imported from Italy. One especially popular variety is the hybrid Italian marron, which is juicier and sweeter than its ancestors.
Chestnut Prep 101
Part of the allure of chestnuts is that their season is very short, starting in early October and ending in late December. When shopping for chestnuts, look for unwrinkled shells and glossy exteriors. Fresh chestnuts will feel heavy in your hand and should be firm to the touch. Be wary of any pinholes, as these usually indicate the presence of worms.
When cooking your chestnuts, you may opt to boil or roast them. Boiling is the easiest way to loosen and shell the tough skins. If you decide on roasting instead, you must score the chestnuts first so the steam can escape while cooking. Skipping this step is a guarantee the nuts will explode in your oven or over the coals.
Roasted chestnuts are generally eaten warm, as is. Boiled, meanwhile, make an excellent bed for wild game, or are often incorporated into traditional stuffing recipes. Puréeing chestnuts with warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg will produce a uniquely festive side dish. Chestnut flour is especially popular this time of year, too, since it is the perfect gluten-free alternative for baking a batch of gingerbread.
If you find yourself with a hankering for chestnuts after Christmas has passed, many grocery chains and specialty stores carry prepared chestnut spread year-round. Try it warm atop a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream or in this crepe!
Chestnut Crepes (Makes Approximately 8 Crepes)
1 Cup Flour
½ Cup Milk
½ Cup Water
¼ Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Butter, Melted
Pinch of Cinnamon
Pinch of Grated Nutmeg
4 Ounces Chestnut Spread
- Combine flour and eggs in a large mixing bowl, eliminating as many lumps from the flour as possible.
- Slowly whisk in the remaining ingredients (up to the cooking spray), one at a time, until the batter is smooth.
- Heat a crepe pan, or nonstick frying pan over medium heat and lightly grease with the cooking spray.
- Pour ¼ cup of the batter into the heated pan. Cook for approximately 1 minute on the first side and flip, cooking for an additional minute. Continue cooking the remaining batter.
- Spread approximately 2 tablespoons of chestnut spread on each cooked crepe, and fold. Serve warm alone or with powdered sugar and a dollop of whipped cream.