“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” starts the classic American holiday tune, but it’s the French who really know how to make chestnuts sing.
Crème de marrons is not a cream at all; it’s a conserve, really, made of chestnuts and sugar with a little bit of vanilla. It is very, very sweet. Initially (at least according to Clément Faugier, the most famous maker and self-proclaimed inventor of the stuff), it was a bi-product of marrons glacés, the glistening candied chestnuts that pop up everywhere around the holidays. Only pristine, whole marrons glacés make the cut to be wrapped and sold (for a small ransom), and so the the company used the broken pieces to make the crème.
So what does one do with a jar of crème de marrons? It can be served simply with fromage blanc, as a filling for crêpes, or added to whipped cream or crème pâtissiere to fill a classic bûche de noël or other cake. Stir some into an ice cream base or use it in a pear tart. You could also, of course, give it away.
Like making any preserves, this is a bit of a project, mainly because chestnuts are somewhat tedious to peel. But for me, the process is as important as the product; if it weren’t, I would never cook for myself at all.
You can use any amount of chestnuts you like for this recipe, though I suggest doing at least 1 kg (a generous 2#) to make it worthwhile.
Crème de Marrons
1 kg (2.25#) chestnuts
pinch of salt
First, peel the chestnuts: Preheat the oven to 180°C (350° F). Use a sharp paring knife to (carefully) score a deep X in the shell. Put the nuts on a baking sheet and put in the oven for several minutes, until the shells start to curl open. (I actually like to use two sheets: When I’ve scored half the nuts I put them in the oven to roast while I score the rest.) Remove the nuts from the oven, and as soon as you can handle them comfortably, peel away both the hard outer shell and the papery inner shell. If they are still very hard to peel, put them back in the oven for a few minutes and try again (and work on the second sheet while the first reheats). It’s OK if the nuts break.
Place the peeled nuts in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook until the nuts are tender, about 35 minutes. Drain well.
Next, purée the nuts. If you have a food mill, this is the time to use it. A food processor will work as well.
Weigh the chestnut purée, put it back into the pan, and add an equal weight of sugar. For every 1 kg of sweetened purée, add 100 ml water (or for every 16 oz add 3.25 fluid oz). Split a vanilla bean and add it to the pot, along with a pinch of salt.
Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula, until it has thickened so that it starts to pull away from the pan as you stir. Be sure to keep your spoon going along the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching.
Remove the vanilla bean and pour into clean jars. The crème will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks. If you wish to store it long term, follow these canning guidelines.
Recipe adapted from Larousse Gastronomique (Clarkson Potter)