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Is roasting chestnuts really the quaint Christmas activity it appears to be?

We got some fresh chestnuts and tried to cook with them.
Chestnut blondies [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

The song makes it sound so idyllic.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

The hard-shelled nut has been closely tied with Christmas since it appeared as the very first line in that 1945 classic. But have you ever wondered what exactly Robert Wells’ and Mel Tormé's iconic The Christmas Song was referring to?

I have. As a Florida native, I had never really encountered a chestnut in the wild, or the kitchen. Oh, I’ve heard my extended family from the Northeast talk about chestnuts in stuffing, and on two recent trips to New England I ate rather memorable versions of chestnut pudding.

But a fresh chestnut? Roasting? On an open fire?

It once seemed as fictional as Rudolph.

So when I saw a bag of fresh chestnuts at the grocery store while Thanksgiving shopping this year, I placed them in my cart and pondered the festive possibilities.

Then I turned to Google.

How do you store chestnuts

How to roast chestnuts

What even are chestnuts

I stumbled on a YouTube video called “How to Roast Chestnuts," a low-key production featuring organic chestnut farmer Chris Foster demonstrating the proper way to prepare the nut for roasting. On his farm outside of Portland, Ore., Foster grows chestnut varieties from Italy and France. In the video, he offers a trove of facts about chestnuts.

They are in fact nuts, the seeds of the chestnut tree that look like clusters of grass when they’re picked. Under that outer layer is an airtight shell, and then the chestnut meat.

There’s moisture inside that shell, which is why it’s a good idea to refrigerate fresh chestnuts. I had already learned this the hard way, when I left my first batch of fresh chestnuts out on the counter overnight and they began to soften and, er, smell.

It’s important to cut into the chestnut shells before roasting. I knew this was serious business when Foster took out his “chestnut knife.” He demonstrated how to cut the chestnuts “clamshell style,” making a small incision across the top of the chestnut, deep enough to cut into the shell but not so deep that you cut into the chestnut.

“They’ll explode if you don’t cut the nuts!” he said.

He placed his chestnuts on a pan in which he had drilled holes, so the shells of the chestnuts could get nice and charred while the insides cooked. He placed them over a fire. It all seemed so idyllic.

The Christmas Song seems to be drawing on less contemporary chestnut practices, memories of the 1800s and early 1900s when chestnut trees were ubiquitous in America, especially along the East Coast. But the American chestnut has been extinct for nearly 100 years, wiped out by a disease that killed the chestnut trees in this country.

So while you may see fresh chestnuts in stores this time of year, they most likely come from Europe, where chestnuts have long been a staple during winter months. It’s common to see folks roasting and selling chestnuts right in the street ― my colleague Kathy Saunders said she saw chestnut vendors everywhere on a recent trip to Italy.

Related: This is what it's like to hunt for white truffles in Italy

Armed with a second fresh bag of chestnuts and some new knowledge, I got to work.

Using a paring knife, I gently sliced through the shells of a couple chestnuts to create X’s on the rounded side, a task that, sorry to tell you, is kind of a pain. It is crucial — if you don’t pierce the shells, steam won’t be allowed to escape during the cooking process. But it can be tricky, and after the 10th chestnut I was ready to throw it all into the proverbial fire.

It seems the best way to cook chestnuts is indeed over an open fire, so the flames can touch the shells. I briefly considered asking my husband to drill holes into an old skillet and take the chestnuts out to our backyard fire pit, but that seemed like a bit much, so I tried the oven.

I placed the cut chestnuts on a baking sheet, cranked the oven to 425 degrees and cooked them for 15 minutes. I knew the insides should be softened, the outer skin sort of pulling away. It did not look like much was happening.

Another 15 minutes, and things looked more promising. I couldn’t really tell what the insides were doing, but the outer shell had pulled back where I had cut the X, revealing more of the chestnut meat, almost like a little present.

I let them cool, then tried to peel them, and realized quickly that it would have been easier to do if I hadn’t let them cool quite so much. I read a couple recipes that called for wrapping the chestnuts in a kitchen towel after they come out of the oven, to trap some of the steam, which helps the peels slide off. Cooking them in an aluminum foil packet also yields similar results, though even after trying both methods I wasn’t able to get the shells off all my chestnuts.

Then, a holiday miracle. The next time I went to the store, I found chestnuts that were already roasted and unshelled — surprisingly, three different stores sold the 8-ounce bags as a seasonal product.

And working with these shelled chestnuts? It is a dream. Slightly softer than fresh chestnuts that have been roasted, they can easily be chopped or pureed or pulsed in a food processor.

I didn’t love eating them unadorned, but they offer a lovely earthy flavor and interesting texture to baked goods, and pair well with hearty herbs and root vegetables. I will definitely keep some of these on hand for more winter recipes.

But the scoring and the wrapping and the shelling? Well, I don’t think I’ll be writing a song about that any time soon.

For these recipes, you’ll need to start with cooked and peeled chestnuts. The path to getting there is up to you.

Chestnut Pudding

Chestnut pudding [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

8 ounces cooked, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large egg, plus 2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup chilled heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Gingersnap cookies, optional

In a blender, puree the chestnuts with the milk until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, whisk the sugar with the cornstarch and salt, then whisk in the egg and yolks. Stir in the chestnut-milk mixture and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, until bubbles break the surface of the pudding and it thickens, about 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and whisk in butter cubes and vanilla. Pour the pudding through a fine strainer into a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of the pudding. Let the pudding cool completely, then refrigerate until chilled.

In a large bowl, whisk the cream with the nutmeg until semi-stiff peaks form. Spoon the pudding into bowls or cups and top each with a dollop of whipped cream and a fresh grating of more nutmeg.

Lightly crush the gingersnap cookies with your hands or a heavy glass, then scatter on top of the whipped cream.

Serves 8.

Source: Adapted from Saveur

Chestnut Blondies

Chestnut blondies [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

For the blondies:

2 large eggs

1 large egg yolk

10 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1¼ cup roasted chestnuts, shelled

⅓ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the glaze:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped

A pinch of salt

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Sprinkles or colored sugar, for topping glaze

Make the blondies: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the inside of an 8- by 8-inch pan with aluminum foil and butter the foil. Set aside.

Place 5 ounces white chocolate in the bowl of a food processor.

Cook 10 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the butter sputters and foams and the solids turn golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape the butter and all the browned bits into the food processor on top of the white chocolate. Let it sit for about 5 minutes to allow the chocolate to melt. (Reserve the saucepan to make the glaze.)

Add the chestnuts, granulated sugar, brown sugar, whole eggs, egg yolk and vanilla to the food processor. Process in long pulses until the mixture is very smooth and the chestnuts are broken down. It’s okay if there are some chestnuts bits.

Add the flour and 1 teaspoon salt to the food processor and pulse a few more times just until mixed in. Remove the lid and fold the batter a couple of times with a spatula to make sure it’s evenly mixed. Scrape into the prepared pan and smooth the top in an even layer, spreading into the corners.

Bake until the edges are puffed and the center is firm to the touch but still shiny, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan 20 minutes, then use the foil to lift the blondies out of the pan. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Make the glaze: Cook 2 tablespoons butter in the reserved saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk until the butter turns golden, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Add 2 ounces white chocolate to the saucepan and whisk until melted and the mixture is smooth. Set the saucepan aside to cool, whisking occasionally, until the mixture is lukewarm and thickened but still liquid.

Whisk in the powdered sugar and pinch of salt until smooth, then pour over the surface of the blondies. Sprinkle with decorative sugar or sprinkles and chill until glaze is set, about 30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.

Makes 36.

Source: Adapted from incredibleegg.org.

Chestnut and Sweet Potato Hash

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 golden delicious apple, cored and cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces roasted, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped

½ cup raisins

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Add olive oil to a large skillet set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add sweet potatoes. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes, or until starting to soften.

Add apples and chestnuts, season again with salt and pepper, and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until apples are soft and everything is nicely browned.

Stir in raisins, mustard and vinegar, and cook for a couple more minutes until everything melds together.

Remove from heat, top with parsley, and serve.

Serves 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Chestnut Stuffing

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, divided, plus more

10 cups coarsely torn sourdough bread, preferably dried out overnight

2 tablespoons plus ¼ cup olive oil

½ cup chopped roasted chestnuts

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

2 medium onions, chopped

4 celery stalks, chopped

1 large Pink Lady apple, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

¼ cup finely chopped fresh sage

½ cup dry sherry

2 large eggs

3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 3-quart baking dish and a sheet of foil. Place bread in a very large bowl.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add chestnuts, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until chestnuts are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer to bowl with bread with a slotted spoon.

Heat remaining ¼ cup oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add sausage and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until browned and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with slotted spoon.

Add onions and celery to skillet, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until onions are translucent and soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add apple, garlic, and sage and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown and apple is soft, about 5 minutes. Add onion mixture to bowl.

Reduce heat to medium and add sherry to skillet, cooking and scraping up any browned bits, until almost all evaporated, about 1 minute. Add ½ cup butter; cook, stirring, until melted. Drizzle over bread mixture.

Whisk eggs and 2 cups stock in a medium bowl; pour over bread mixture. Season with salt and pepper and toss, adding more stock as needed (you may not use it all), until combined and bread is hydrated. Transfer to prepared dish and dot with remaining ¼ cup butter.

Cover with buttered foil; bake until a paring knife inserted into the center comes out hot, 30 to 35 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees. Uncover and bake until top is golden brown and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appetit

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