Chestnuts are among my favorite culinary oddities, partly because they inspire such confusion. I have heard them referred to as nuts, vegetables, fruits and legumes, sometimes in the same sentence. The truth is, chestnuts do not easily fall into a particular category. Like its cousin the beech tree, the Castanea sativa or Italian chestnut tree produces a seed pod, and the uniquely fleshy and flavorful interior has inspired philosophers and poets from Homer to Nat King Cole. While they may be difficult to classify, chestnuts are easy to love for their many virtues. High in complex carbohydrates and low in fat, with a starchy-sweet flavor and chewy yet soft texture, chestnuts have provided comfort and sustenance through the ages. A staple of the Mediterranean diet for centuries, chestnuts were coveted for their nutrition and flavor by peasants and nobility alike. Blessedly versatile, they may be dried, ground into flour, as well as eaten fresh, either raw or roasted.
Every year during the long winter months, I look forward to featuring chestnuts in their many forms on the Dolci menu at Babbo, and if I am lucky, I can usually get my hands on imported fresh chestnuts from Italy when they become available. Chestnut trees have long been present on the Italian landscape, and in Umbria, chestnut trees have thrived, steadfastly defying the steep, mountainous slopes and flourishing among the green pastures and forested hills of the “Green Heart” of Italy.
Over half a dozen varieties of fresh chestnuts can be found in Italian markets, but here in the United States you are likely to find only two. Castagne are smaller, rounded on one side and flat on another; Marroni are larger, plump and voluptuously rotund. You should only purchase fresh chestnuts from a market that displays them in the refrigerated produce department, since they are perishable and should be handled with the utmost of care. They should be plump, firm and posses a breathtaking sheen. Press the chestnuts to ensure there is no air pocket between the shell and the flesh underneath, and be wary of a mottled or spotty appearance, which may indicate the presence of mold.
In the world of pastry, chestnuts are sometimes candied in sweet, vanilla-infused syrup, or made into a sweet puree for mousse and gelato. Chestnut flour may be baked into cakes and muffins, or mixed with eggs, milk and a bit of sugar for a sweet crespella, or crepe. Despite this boundless potential for magical desserts, roasting fresh chestnuts remains my favorite way to enjoy them. The intoxicating aroma of roasted chestnuts instantly takes me back to my childhood. Around the holidays, I would watch with awe as my aunts and uncles would make their way through piles of piping hot chestnuts, splitting them between a starched, linen napkin while they chatted and enjoyed their espresso.
To properly roast chestnuts, you must first score them, making an “x” across the center with a sharp paring knife. Place the scored chestnuts in a single layer in a shallow metal baking dish, and sprinkle them with a little water. To further enhance their flavor, toss in a few strips of orange or tangerine zest. Chestnuts should be roasted in a hot oven, 400 to 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Be sure to shake the pan every 5 minutes or so to prevent them from charring in one spot. They are perfect when the scored “x” has flowered open, curling back to reveal a bit of the chestnut flesh, which will appear golden brown and toasted. Above all, serve and enjoy them while they are still hot. They are well worth a few burned fingers.
Italian Chestnut honey is another joyful gift from the chestnut orchard. Unusually dark, with a spicy, almost savory quality and heady perfume, chestnut honey is complex and mysterious; it begs you discover its many nuances. Smooth, rich and slightly bitter, chestnut honey is splendid in baked goods, and makes an excellent partner for piquant blue cheeses, such as Mountain Gorganzola from Piedmonte. Numerous chestnut honeys are imported from Italy, varying in intensity of color and flavor. These differences are dependent upon the methods by which the bees are moved amongst the blossoming chestnut trees, as well as how or even if the honey is refined after it is harvested. A decade ago, chestnut honey was a rare find on this side of the Atlantic, but today it is available through a number of online retailers and at local specialty food shops. After you buy your first jar, I recommend the following way to enjoy it for the first time: Slightly toast a slice of Italian semolina bread, spread it liberally with sweet, unsalted butter, and drizzle the surface with just enough of the amber chestnut honey to make it glisten. I guarantee you will never want for a better breakfast.