In case you had not noticed, the holidays are here!
For me that means special delicacies made for my family and friends, especially if enjoyed around the fire, with a glass of cognac. When I saw chestnuts at the market I had to get some. First I thought of roasting them, as I do every year this time of the year, which reminds me of Christmas in Rome: there are chestnut roasters at every corner that wrap these goodies in brown paper cones for you to enjoy while walking around the cobble stone streets under the festive lights…
But then I thought of one of my sisters’ favorite treats: marrons glacés, candied chestnuts. In Italy and in France these little sweet nutty nuggets are a very welcome gift for the holidays. A little bite of marrons glacés and all your holiday stress is gone. They are luscious, “meaty”, sugary, and decadent. Package a small box and you will make anyone happy! Preparing them at home is not difficult but it does require patience, since it takes about five days and attention to detail. The recipe apparently goes back to the 16th century (see some history here) and I love making something so “ancient”, it makes me feel like I am carrying on a tradition. Anyhow, they turned out amazing and I think I will make this an annual Christmas ritual. I also ended up making Monte Bianco (the Italian name for Mont-Blanc) from the finished marrons. It is a very impressive dessert, made of meringue, marron glacés cream, and chantilly cream (sweetened whipped cream). My version is a bit deconstructed and is topped with pieces of marron glacés and drizzled with marron glacés syrup. It makes for an elegant holiday dessert. The name come from the fact that the finished dessert should look like the high white (bianco / blanc) mountain (monte / mont) peak.
If you don’t feel like going through this process, you can always order a box of perfect and individually wrapped (expensive) glazed chestnuts at Clément Faugier, France’s marron glacé king.Also, in case you want to make Crème de Marrons (candied chestnut creme) you can see how my friend Pamela makes it here. This is a great solution if you want just use pieces.
Tips (read before starting): As I mentioned, these little treats are not hard to make… but they require lot of small work (peeling the outside chestnut skin is particularly tedious), tendering (changing their syrupy “bath” over five days requires discipline and patience) and gentleness (you have to be careful not to move to fast or abruptly when moving the chestnuts or they will break into small pieces). But no worries…even if they do break, the pieces are equally delicious and can be used to make other desserts, like Monte Bianco, and make great gelato or ice-cream topping. Remember to start the process 5 days before you want to serve them. One thing that baffled me when I started researching how to get the chestnuts ready for the syrup was which layer to peel, how and when. The literature out there was not very clear, so I went through a trial and error process. For my first batch I peel BOTH the outer and inner skin, learning the hard way that is was totally unnecessary and way too much work, and yielded ugly and brownish looking chestnuts. For the second batch I only peeled the outer shell and then peeled the second skin AFTER boiling the chestnuts for about 8-10 minutes. One French recipe calls for adding a tablespoon of flour in the first boil…I do not find that necessary. Another tip here is that you will need to work really fast to peel them and leave the chestnuts in the hot water until you are ready to peel them, or they will stick fast, and you will have to start over again. Another lesson learned was how long to boil the chestnuts in each syrup bath: all you need is JUST one minute…any longer and you risk breaking those little gems. Some recipes call for adding more sugar at each bath to increase the speed of the crystallization process but I did not find that necessary (I do not want to see my dentist over the holidays!). Definitively use a real vanilla bean…that is basically the only flavoring that goes into this recipe. Oh, and you can certainly add a tablespoon of liqueur, such as rum, in the syrup to give it more depth (I did!). Finally, even after my fifth syrup bath, I realized I had yet more syrup left and needed to dry the chestnut off to “crystallize” the sugars. I accomplished that by slowly drying them in the oven at 180F for about an hour.
2 lbs (1 kilo) chestnuts
2 lbs (1 kilo) granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups (650 ml. water) water
1 vanilla bean
Optional: 1 Tbsp rum
Peel chestnuts of their outer shell (do NOT peel the inner skin off them!!!). Drop the peeled chestnuts in boiling water for 8-10 minutes. Lift them out, one at a time (leaving the unpeeled chestnuts in hot water), and peel off their inner skin, as quickly as you can, while still hot, to avoid them sticking to the nut. You will be left now with the “naked” chestnut. Repeat until all the chestnuts have been peeled.
In a medium pan, on low-medium heat, cook the sugar, water, and the scraped vanilla bean and seeds (using a paring knife, score the bean lengthwise then scrape the seeds out with the blade) over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves completely, simmering for about 5 minutes. At this point add the “naked” chestnuts. Bring to a boil and cook about 8-10 minutes (you will do this ONLY for the first bath). Remove the pan from heat and discard the vanilla bean. Carefully transfer the chestnuts to a glass bowl (to avoid they sit in a reactive, hot pan), cover and allow the chestnuts to steep over night until the next day.
Carefully transfer the chestnuts to the saucepan, bring to a boil and cook JUST for 1 minute (do not cook longer or your chances of the chestnuts remaining integer will decrease). As per day 1, allow the chestnuts to stand overnight until the next day carefully transferring them into a glass bowl.
Repeat instructions from DAY 2.
Repeat instructions from DAY 2, but adding the rum (if using) to the syrup before boiling.
Repeat instructions from DAY 2, but steep just until the afternoon or evening. At this point you will proceed with the drying process. Preheat oven to 180°F (about 80°C). Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone mat). Distribute the crystallized chestnuts evenly over the cookie sheet and allow them to dry out for about 1.5-2 hours with the oven door ever so slightly ajar (I used a metal spoon to open it up slightly).
Wrap each marrons glacé individually in brown crinkled paper cases and store in an airtight container.
Save the marrons glace syrup for another use (see below).
Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) dessert (deconstructed)
2-4 meringues (depending on size)
4 Tbsps marrons glacés cream (using a food mill, puree a dozen marrons glacés)
4 Tbsp crème Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream)
A few pieces of marrons glacés
2 Tbsp marrons glacés syrup
Layer the ingredients in a glass, starting from the bottom with the first ingredient as follows: break the meringues in small pieces, pipe over them the marrons glacés cream using a pastry pipe with an edged point, pipe the crème Chantilly, top with pieces of marrons glacés and finally drizzle with some of the marrons glacés syrup. Serve with a spoon. Share one bowl for extra romantic points!
Finally I also made some marrons glacé liqueur with vodka and the left over syrup (basically I steeped 1 tablespoon of the marrons glacé syrup per each cup of vodka, adding an optional marrons glacé on the bottom of the bottle), a nice little extra to be consumed next to the fire on a cold Christmas day