Marrons Glacés – Home Made At Last!
Sorta – These velvety sweet chestnuts in a crunchy sugar shell aren’t quite as light-textured as the real deal, but they’re good enough to be a variation instead of simply an earnest attempt, and now that the candied chestnuts of my childhood have hit about $5.00 each they’re a variant well worth making. (Assuming, of course, that marrons glacés are on your list of “wish I could afford more.”)
Although fresh chestnuts can be used, it’s far easier to start out with IQF peeled chestnuts (see below). The processing that delivers them whole, absolutely skinless and in a neither-cooked-nor-raw state is probably something we don’t want to know too much about;* but whatever it is has the happy side-effect of making them much more receptive to candying and much less likely to break.
As you know if you’ve ever tried this or been on the Christmas list of somebody who has, all those recipes floating around the internet are lying: starting with fresh chestnuts is fraught with difficulty, most of it starting after you get the nuts peeled and skinned. They have to be cooked before they go into the syrup or they turn to leather. Cooked chestnuts have a deep-seated need to fall apart. And then turn to leather, often as not.
The website of Clément Faugier, source of the marrons glacés of my youth – and that of most other people born after 1882 – describes a method of manufacture that cannot be emulated at home. Never mind the number of steps (16), one of which is wrapping the cooked nuts in little squares of tulle to keep them from falling apart, the real problem is that home kitchens are not equipped with the stainless steel baskets. giant vacuum cookers, mobile grills and drying tunnels used by the professionals.
All that being the case, it’s kind of amazing how close you can come – and it doesn’t take days and days, either.
Home made marrons glacés
lots of simple syrup: equal volumes sugar and water, the former dissolved in the latter and simmered for 3 or 4 minutes. Let it cool to room temperature before proceeding.
4 or so inch length of vanilla bean, split
Chestnuts, the bigger the better. Some will break and a few will have to be broken for testing so be sure to start with plenty
(Egg white, for en chemise, or
A candy thermometer, for glazed)
With IQF chestnuts:
1. Thaw and rinse. Place in a deep, heavy saucepan with the vanilla and about 4 times as much syrup as nuts (by volume).
2. Slowly bring to barely a simmer, cover the pan and cook over the lowest possible heat until the nuts are semi translucent and seem to be soft when poked with a toothpick, about an hour and a half. If they’re not ready, keep cooking until they are.
3. Cut open and taste a sample nut – it should be completely soft and sweetened right to the heart. It may or may not be completely translucent.
4. Drain the nuts and place the whole ones on a rack over a shallow pan. (Reserve the bits and the syrup.) Heat oven to 300, turn it off, put in the chestnuts and let them dry, turning once or twice. The goal is a dull surface that is not tacky, produced as quickly as possible without actually baking the nuts and toughening them. Repeat the oven routine if necessary.
5. Store the dry nuts in an airtight container in a cold place. After 10 days or so they’ll form an uneven sugar coating that’s too thin to be really crunchy. For that, finish en chemise or with glaze, any time after they’re dry but shortly before serving. Pieces can stay in the syrup in the fridge or canned, ready to pour over ice cream or whatever.
With Fresh Chestnuts:
1. Begin by piggily standing there in the store choosing the very largest, firmest chestnuts in the bin – Faugier uses nuts that run 45 to 60 a kilo.
2. Soak the chestnuts in cold water for a few hours to soften the shells, then score the shells in several places with a sharp knife – in addition to the traditional x on one side, give them a few slits all the way around. Be careful to avoid cutting into the nut itself.
3. Put the nuts in cold water, bring just to the boil and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on size. The goal is to loosen the shell and skin and soften a very thin layer of the actual chestnut.
4. Peel the chestnuts with a very sharp knife, not only removing shell and skin but also exposing most of the inner flesh, as though you were peeling a potato. For some reason exposing them this way lets you cook them – carefully! -in syrup without getting the leather effect. While you’re at it, try to trim so they’re all about the same size and can cook in the same amount of time. This matters more with the fresh ones than the IQF’s (as far as I can tell).
5. Place in a deep, heavy saucepan with the vanilla and about 4 times as much syrup as nuts (by volume).
6. Slowly bring to barely a simmer, cover the pan and cook over the lowest possible heat for 45 minutes. The surface should remain placid throughout this time; do not let them boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and let them sit overnight.
7. Again bring to the bare simmer and keep cooking super slowly until the nuts are semi translucent and seem to be soft when poked with a toothpick, about an hour and a half. Proceed as in steps 3-5 above.
CANDIED CHESTNUTS EN CHEMISE
Probably tastier than glazed and a great deal easier to make, just less impressive visually.
1. Start in the evening. Heat the oven to 300. Stir some egg white just to loosen, trying to avoid introducing air bubbles. Put a sheet of tinfoil shiny side up on a cookie sheet and set out a plate of sugar or vanilla sugar.
2. Dip each nut or large nut piece in egg white, draining it well so it’s barely coated. Roll in the sugar to coat completely and place on the foil. Put them in the oven, turn off the heat and let them dry overnight. Store uncovered in a dry place for up to a week. How long the coating lasts in its crunchy state is a function of residual moisture and ambient humidity, so if you want these for a party it’s a good idea to coat them only a day or two ahead.
GLAZED CANDIED CHESTNUTS
Sugar work. Oh joy. But it isn’t really that hard; just be sure to choose a dry day and someone you really need to impress.
1. Prepare: Put a sheet of tinfoil shiny side up on a cookie sheet. Have the dry whole chestnuts sitting on a rack. If you have a candy dipping fork, find it. Otherwise use a carving fork. (Plain forks work fine, but the close tines get gummed up with syrup quickly so you’ll probably need more than one). Find or make a double boiler with a deep upper pan. Fill the bottom pan with boiling water then keep it hot.
2. Remove the vanilla bean from the reserved chestnut syrup, pour the syrup into the upper pan and insert the candy thermometer. Add enough additional syrup to generously cover the bulb of the thermometer. Boil to just below hard crack, @290 degrees. ( Temperature will keep climbing after pan is removed from heat)
3. Put the syrup pan in the waiting hot water to keep warm. Dip the chestnuts and place them on the foil – you can do about 10 before the foreign material makes the syrup sugar up; make an extra pan of clean caramel if you want to do a lot of them. They should keep at least overnight if the chestnuts were dry enough to begin with and there’s not much moisture in the air but if you’re going to all this trouble it’s probably safest to make them no more than a few hours before serving, just to be on the safe side.
Chestnut or Marron – is there a difference?
Not botanically or at least not at the grocery store. American chestnuts are Castanea dentata, and a lot of commercial chestnuts grown in the US are Chinese chestnuts, C. mollissima, but anything coming from Europe is likely to be C. sativa, the European chestnut, or a hybrid thereof. And that’s where the marrons come in. Just as a perfect Red Delicious apple has come quite a way from the wild thing by the roadside, so the marron types have been bred to be bigger than other chestnuts, less inclined to have 2 nuts in the shell and, bless them, be smoother, with fewer deep folds for the skin to get wedged into.
The price for all this is a tree that bears later and produces smaller crops when it’s finally old enough, which helps explain why marrons are the priciest chestnuts.
The Clement Fougier site promises an English version shortly but meanwhile the translated version is a lot of fun in its own way.
Buying IQF chestnuts
The ones I used are from Chestnut Growers Inc. and the reason I buried them all the way down here is that the ones I used were sent to me by a chef friend, so I can’t vouch for Chestnut Growers’ customer service or the quality of its chestnuts compared to other brands.
More about Chestnuts
* Update: Just got the call to Chestnut Growers returned: Representative Corey Allen says the ( imported from Italy) peeling machine uses a combination of intense heat, steam and brushing to peel and skin the chestnuts.