I remember the first time I ate a chestnut. I was 7 years old, it was a cold December day in Vancouver, and the sight and smell of roasting chestnuts on a street corner lit up a fire in my soul. I was in complete awe of the magic and warmth of them in my hands.
One of my favourite things about late fall in Toronto is that baskets of chestnuts start appearing at all the neighbourhood fruit stands. I love roasting them up at this time of year, it's so easy and such a delicious treat with egg nog or a cup of tea. And it's a healthy one at that! They are the only nut that contains vitamin C, they also contain folate (so they're great to eat during pregnancy), and they have cancer-fighting tannins. To roast them, all you have to do make a cut down the side and put them in a 400 F oven for about 20 minutes. Easy.
For a long time, I thought edible chestnuts couldn't grow here and that we only had imports. But The Big Carrot has beautiful shiny Ontario-grown organic chestnuts. They are double the price of the Italian imports, but it's worth it because they are as fresh as can be!
Now, here is the thing about chestnuts that truly makes my heart skip a beat: crème de marron. This is the French chestnut purée that is cooked in syrup and vanilla, so that it turns into a thick, gooey jam. Whenever I spend time in France or Italy, I pack as many cans & jars of the stuff as I can fit in my bags.
My mom used to mix equal parts crème de marron and whipped cream as a special dessert. No big deal you're probably thinking, but if you're like me, this combination will have you down on your knees. I can't even find the words to say how much I love the rich velvety mixture of these 2 things put together. And it takes 5 minutes to make. Open the can, whip some cream, mix the 2 and voilà! Instant gourmet fast food. One Easter, my mom served it in goblets made of dark chocolate. It was exquisite. For this version, I decided to make little cups out of lemon thyme shortbread since it felt kind of festive, and we have some thriving lemon thyme in our garden.
But making this recipe turned into an epic adventure because I decided to make the crème de marron from scratch for the first time ever. It was very satisfying to make on my own. However, a word of caution: it took me a whole afternoon to remove the chestnut meat from the shells, so it was a long tedious process. (Next time I think I will just roast them instead of boiling them). If you're pressed for time, I recommend you buy the store-bought stuff if you can get your hands on it.
250 ml whipped cream
1 cup creme de marron (for recipe see below)
LEMON THYME SHORTBREAD CUPS
(Note: if you don't have time to make these, you can instead opt for waffle bowls, chocolate cups, meringue nests, basically anything sweet and yummy that will serve as a vessel for the chestnut & whipped cream, but be sure not to overpower it, the flavours are subtle and you won't want to miss out)
1 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp grated lemon rind (make sure it's organic, they spray nasty stuff on citrus)
fresh lemon thyme leaves
Beat the sugar and butter. Add the flour with thyme & lemon rind and mix into soft dough. Roll out to 1/2 cm thick and cut into large circles. Carefully press into muffin tins and bake at 350 F oven for about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from muffin tin and cool fully. Spoon in the chestnut mousse and garnish.
CREME DE MARRON
1 kg chestnuts
600 grams sugar
Make a long cut on the side of each chestnut. Boil in several litres of water for about 10 minutes. (Or roast in the oven). Here is a good video showing one particular cutting-boiling technique. The main thing is to be able to remove all shells and skins so you are just left with the nut. Once all the chestnuts are skinned, put them in a big pot with a cup of water (add more later if it gets too dry). Cook the chestnuts and water until you can crush them easily with a fork (about 25 minutes). Cool and purée them with hand blender. Weigh the purée. You should have about 1kg. Use 600 grams of sugar for each kilo of chestnut puree. (Traditional recipes say more but I find them too sweet). Boil the sugar with 1 cup of water until a syrup is obtained that forms a soft blob when dropped in a glassful of water. (Just before the candy stage). Mix in the chestnut puree at this stage with your vanilla beans. Simmer for about 20 minutes and remove the vanilla. Your crème de marron should be very thick. You can bottle it up as you would jam (or if you're going to use it right away, simply store it in the fridge).