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Chestnuts, a festive treat

  • Chestnuts waiting to be shucked and sold at the Amherst Farmers Market harvested at Sunset Farm owned by Connie and William Gillen. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen holds chestnuts from her trees on Sunset Farm in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen demonstrates how she and others get the Chestnuts to fall from the trees on Sunset Farm, owned byshe and her husband William. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chestnuts bagged and ready to be sold at the Amherst Farmers Market harvested at Sunset Farm owned by Connie and William Gillen. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen stands in a stand of Chestnut trees on Sunset Farm owned by she and her husband William. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chestnuts fallen from one of the trees on Sunset Farm in Amherst owned by Connie and William Gillen. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen looks at bins of bagged Chestnuts and ones waiting to be shucked on Sunset Farm in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen looks at a stand of Chestnut trees on Sunset Farm owned by she and her husband William. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bagged Chestnuts and ones waiting to be shucked on Sunset Farm in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Gillen pulls the Chuestnut covering off the nut on Chestnuts from her trees on Sunset Farm in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles made by Claire Hopley. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles and chestnut puree are shown Nov. 10, 2017 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles made by Claire Hopley GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles made by Claire Hopley GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles made by Claire Hopley GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chocolate chestnut truffles made by Claire Hopley GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Bulletin
Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holiday parties lead us into temptation. Nuts are a major lure. Think of those beguiling bowls of cashews and peanuts, and cookies studded with almonds, pecans and walnuts. But of all the enticing sorts of nuts, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” are the ones that Nat King Cole highlighted in his classic song, placing them alongside Jack Frost, carols and reindeer as festive icons. And that’s a bit surprising because though chestnuts are a traditional winter treat, most other nuts are more common.

Chestnuts used to be common, too. Early European colonists marveled at America’s chestnut forests, which Thoreau described as “boundless.” For millennia, Native Americans had cooked chestnuts in stews and bread. Deviled chestnuts became a colonists’ favorite, and by 1896 “Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook” was giving recipes for croquettes, gravy, soufflé and stuffings made with chestnuts. New England Shaker recipes include chestnut soups and stews, and a chestnut gravy tagged as “excellent” with winter vegetables. In 1915, the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge had boiled chestnuts on its menu.

Then disaster struck. A blight carried by Asian chestnuts felled America’s trees, which lacked immunity to it. By the 1950s they were all dead. Today most chestnuts are imported from Europe or China.

But a few American growers are planting them again. Among them are Bill and Connie Gillen of Sunset Farm in Amherst, who planted 121 saplings from Florida in the mid-1980s. About 20 survived to grow tall and magnificent.

Harvesting chestnuts, which ripen in October, presents problems. “The trees vary as to when the nuts are brown,” explains Bill Gillen. “Picking is every day or the squirrels either eat or bury them in our vegetable field.” He cuts the grass under the trees so pickers can beat the squirrels to the spiky green burrs that protect the nuts. “As for the high nuts, you have to climb up and jump on the branches so they fall,” he says. Gloves and a hat are a must because the prickles leave splinters. Usually the farm produces between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of chestnuts, with Gillen estimating 2017 as “a good year: judged by the size of the nuts.” The couple sell the nuts at their farm, the Amherst Farmers Market and to some local stores. Their supplies were sold out by the middle of last month.

In Europe chestnuts are sold both in the shell and in numerous prepared forms. They come ready-cooked, either whole, pureed or as a vanilla-flavored cream. Dried chestnuts and chestnut flour are also available.

This variety reflects a multiplicity of uses. Unlike other nuts, chestnuts have as much carbohydrate as wheat and potatoes, so they were staples in places where these won’t grow. People ate them in porridges or soups, or used chestnut flour for pancakes and pasta. Though nowadays expensive, such dishes of the poor were once despised.

In contrast, the marrons glacées of France have always been prized. It requires 16 processes to make these candied chestnuts so they are costly, yet indispensable for Christmas in France. Japan also has chestnut confections, and chestnuts feature in New Year celebrations because they symbolize mastery. In England Brussels sprouts with chestnuts are often served at Christmas dinner, and chestnut-spiked stuffings and purees accompany Christmas game and poultry in many European countries.

Most supermarkets here stock fresh chestnuts. “They must be refrigerated,” Bill Gillen says. “They will keep months in a vented plastic bag in your crisper drawer.”

Imported prepared chestnuts are available from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s of Hadley, while Atkins Country Market in Amherst has bags of organic peeled chestnuts from Italy in the produce section.

CHESTNUT PREPARATION

To get chestnuts out of the shell, cut through on the domed side, then simmer the nuts in water for about 8 minutes. Remove them 4-5 at a time and peel off both shell and the inside skin while they are still hot. This will give you mostly whole chestnuts.

If you don’t mind broken nuts — for a puree or garnish for example — cut them in half with garden clippers and roast them in a microwave for about 3 minutes.

To serve as a vegetable, cook gently with chopped onion and a garlic clove in butter or milk. Season with salt and pepper, and a little thyme. Cook until the chestnuts are tender. Puree or not as you prefer.

CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT
TRUFFLES

Classic truffles are made with a rich and velvety mixture of butter, chocolate, and cream. You can get the same smoothness with fewer calories by using chestnuts instead. Look for chestnut puree or fully cooked prepared chestnuts.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

4-5 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

6 ounces (¾ cup tightly packed) chestnut puree or same weight cooked chestnuts

1½ ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips (¼ cup), melted

1 tablespoon dark rum or liqueur

1-2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Cream the butter and 4 tablespoons sugar. (Use an extra spoonful if you want more sweetness.) Put this mixture in a food processor with the vanilla extract and the chestnut puree or chopped chestnuts. Process until smooth.

Add the melted chocolate and the rum or liqueur and process again. (If you have no processor, do this by hand or with a hand-held electric mixer.)

Spread the mixture in a half-inch layer on a plate and chill for 30 minutes.

Put the cocoa powder on a plate. Dust your hands with cocoa, too. Using the large end of a melon-baller or a teaspoon, scoop small portions and roll into balls about the size of a large marble. Roll them in the cocoa and place on parchment paper in a covered container. Chill for several hours before serving. Chilled, they keep for a week, but as time passes they absorb the cocoa so dust them with extra for serving.

Makes 20-24.

CHESTNUT CROQUETTES WITH BACON AND APPLE

This recipe was developed for store-bought chestnut puree, which comes in 10.5-ounce jars. (Make sure you get puree, which is pure chestnut, not chestnut cream, which is sweetened and flavored with vanilla.) Using puree these croquettes are quickly made and cooked. They jazz up a simple pasta dish or a vegetable medley with holiday luxury.

If you can’t find puree, use cooked and mashed canned or fresh chestnuts. For vegetarians replace the bacon with extra diced apple or mushrooms.

4 strips thick-cut lean bacon

1¼ cups (1 jar) chestnut puree

1½ teaspoons dried thyme

1 teaspoon powdered allspice

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon cream or milk if needed

About ½ cup cortland or golden delicious apple, finely diced

About ⅓ cup panko or dry breadcrumbs

Olive oil for frying

Fry the bacon in a lightly oiled frying pan over moderate heat until golden but not crisp. Cut in ½-inch pieces and set aside.

In a bowl, stir the chestnut puree with the allspice and thyme plus salt and pepper for seasoning until it is perfectly smooth. Add the cream or milk a little at a time as needed to make a smooth mixture. Don’t let the mixture get sloppy because it will be harder to handle.

Mix in the apple, which should be in tiny dice, and then the bacon. Adjust the seasoning.

Sprinkle the panko or breadcrumbs on a chopping board or plate. Divide the mixture into 8-9 equal portions and roll each in the breadcrumbs to make a sausage shape about 2½ inches long. Let rest for 10 minutes. To finish, pour a quarter-inch layer of oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Cook the croquettes for 4-5 minutes, turning to brown all surfaces.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH CHESTNUTS AND CORIANDER CREAM

Chestnuts and Brussels sprouts are a favorite Christmas combination in Britain. This version adds a coriander-flavored dressing that weds the main ingredients in a happy marriage.

About 1-pound Brussels sprouts, stalks and outer leaves trimmed

1 cup vacuum-packed or canned whole chestnuts

¼ cup milk

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons heavy or whipping cream

1 teaspoon or more to taste powdered coriander

Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Drop in the Brussels sprouts, and simmer for about 8-10 minutes or until crisp tender. Drain and keep warm.

Put the chestnuts in a small pan with the milk. Cook gently for 3-4 minutes to heat them. Drain and reserve the milk. Keep the chestnuts warm.

In a shallow pan that can be taken to the table, melt the butter, then stir in 1 tablespoon of the reserved milk and the cream. Cook briskly, stirring to mix, then add the coriander. Taste and add a little more if you like.

Gently stir in the Brussels sprouts, then the chestnuts to lightly coat them with the creamy mixture and heat through. It’s fine if the chestnuts break into pieces, but don’t let them disintegrate.

MONT BLANC

Named after the Swiss mountain and imitating its shape, this is one of the world’s classic desserts and one of its very best chestnut dishes. It’s often made in individual sizes, usually with the chestnut mountain sitting in meringue shells.

This recipe makes a large and dramatic Mont Blanc for a party. Crystallized violets are a traditional garnish. They’re hard to find, so use whatever makes it look festive.

1½ pounds prepared cooked chestnuts or commercial chestnut puree

1 cup milk

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons dark rum

⅓ cup grated dark chocolate

1 cup heavy or whipping cream

2-3 commercial or home-made meringues (optional)

Put the chestnuts and milk into a saucepan. Simmer for about 15 minutes or until tender. (The time depends on whether or not you are using commercial ready-prepared nuts). Stir in the sugar, vanilla and rum, and cook until as thick as cake batter.

Pass it through a food mill or ricer or a piping bag onto a shallow dish or plate. This will give a spaghetti-like pile, which you should let pile into a pyramidal shape. Scatter on the grated chocolate. Whip the cream and pile it on top of your mountain, leaving the bottom exposed.

Crush the meringues into chunks and scatter them so they look like fresh snow. Decorate with sugar flowers or any pretty little things.

CHESTNUT AND RAISIN SWIRL HOLIDAY LOAF

This recipe follows the holiday food tradition of spiffing up something basic — in this case bread — with luxury ingredients — chestnuts and rum-flavored raisins. It’s a showstopper for brunch and delectable with coffee or tea.

1 tablespoon (1 packet) active dry yeast

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup milk

⅓ cup light brown sugar

½ stick (4 tablespoons) butter

For glazing: 2 tablespoons milk and 1 tablespoon white sugar

For the chestnut raisin swirl

½ cup golden raisins

3 tablespoons dark rum

1 cup (about 8 ounces) chestnut puree

⅓ cup white sugar

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, then turn it off.

Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer. Set in the warmed oven for 10 minutes. Meanwhile mix the yeast into ¼ cup warm water. Set aside for 10 minutes or until it is frothy.

Warm the milk, sugar and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter melts. Let cool to lukewarm.

Make a well in the center of the flour. Pour in the milk mixture, and then the yeast. Mix, then knead, adding about ½ cup of lukewarm water a little at a time to make a dough that clings neither to your hands or the bowl. Form it into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm draught-free spot until doubled in bulk – about an hour.

Meanwhile, soak the raisins in the rum in a small bowl. In another bowl, mix the chestnut puree, sugar and vanilla into a smooth paste.

When the dough has doubled, bang it down firmly on a work surface, knead briefly and roll it into a 10-by-5-inch rectangle. Spread the chestnut mixture over it leaving ½-inch border all round. Scatter the raisins on top.

Now starting with the narrow side, roll up the dough firmly as if making a jelly roll. Tuck in the sides as you go to seal in the filling and press the end firmly to seal. Place seam-side down in a greased 9-by-5-inch bread pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let double again — 45-60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the loaf for 10 minutes then reduce the temperature to 350 and bake for another 15-20 minutes or until the base sounds hollow when rapped. Remove to a cooling rack.

Immediately, make the glaze by boiling the milk and sugar in a small pan for a minute over high heat. Brush it on the hot loaf. It will set to a shiny glaze.