A Season in Hell: Preparing Chestnuts (a Rebuttal to Cracking Acorns — and Remembering the American Chestnut)

Incarcerated men volunteered for the dreaded Treadwheel, rather than peel chestnuts. Photo courtesy of http://www.sportsci.org/news/history/smith/smith.html

Being in Merry Old England and surrounded by chestnut trees, I decided this summer I’d try to prepare some.Since I didn’t find many to collect on the city streets, I bought a pouch from the local Tesco. Once I got them home, they lost only a small bit of their romance, as shadows from the past began to play in my mind. Flashes of burned fingers, sharp skins…

Beguiling by chestnuts; Photo by Alice

First, a Bit of History
Chestnut peeling was banned as punishment for imprisoned criminals in 1859 as cruel and inhuman punishment. Anyone who has ever gone mad over a pile of these red-hot nasties will attest to the torture involved in getting to their delicious interiors. Slightly less cruel, but still significant, is the manner in which only a few nuts fill the stomach and expand to discomfortable proportions.

The Day Comes

The occasion for preparing the nuts never seemed to arrive. There was always something else to do, or we’d just eaten. A couple of weeks later, we found chestnuts marked down for clearance. They still looked good, no discoloration, no holes, so we bought a second package. Why not? We’d just make a double batch. If we’d only known…

On a cold November morning, after a long night of work, I decided chestnuts would be the perfect snack. Only the night before, Jimmy posted his article on chestnuts, a wonderful coincidence that fueled my enthusiasm. Yes! Chestnuts! Natural treasures! And we could celebrate while trying out his new-found steam method of preparation.

The untested advice involved steaming halves for ten minutes. Photo by Alice.

I decided we’d cook half of the nuts the old way, by baking them in the oven, and half of the nuts the new way, by steaming them. We made one cut along the top of the oven-bound nuts and cut the ones to be steamed completely in half.

Chestnut knives score
chestnuts safely.

The first stumbling block came when I read the label’s instructions for scoring the nuts. “Cut across the top of the chestnut…” The top. Hmm. Across…where, exactly? How far? Then my weakened wrist wouldn’t bear up to the work, so the Englishman took over and made the remaining cuts.

As there was no steamer, I had to construct my own. I did so by placing a pizza tray over a pot of water, putting the nuts on top and covering them with a pan lid. The ones in the oven were placed on a second pizza tray. Each cooked for roughly 10 minutes.

The improvised steamer worked well. Photo by Alice.

The Horror
Knowing that timing is everything in the peeling of chestnuts, I rushed to get the nuts into a bowl. We sat down together and began peeling, steamed ones first. Surprisingly, a tantalizing few popped right out of their skins, easily separated with almost no effort. Others stuck, but were still easier to free than ones I’ve skinned before.

In many cases, though, the skins were just as hard as ever to separate from the nuts. It took only a few skins under the nail before I realized there had to be a better way to separate the two. I got a butterknife, which offered just enough extra scraping power and proved a good pick for digging trapped bits from the shells. I was sure I’d end up with a blister from the knife, my hands were that sore.

It took two of us, peeling frantically for an hour, to produce this many nutmeats.

Chestnut pans roast
chestnuts on stovetop
or campfire.

We were exhausted by the time we finished the first batch, and the second one was waiting, rapidly cooling. I raced to get the nuts into the bowl. We began to peel again. Interestingly, the baked batch was remarkably different. Where the steamed nuts were soft and yellow as butter, the baked nuts were hard, too hard to bite, and nearly orange. The skins of the baked nuts were dry and, while still difficult to peel, could be scraped and made to flake off easier than the wet peels.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you whether we baked the older one or new, as in my rush I forgot to note the bag from which I prepared each batch. I doubt the nuts were remarkably different, as we likely bought them from the same shipment at the same store. Theirs sat out in the store, ours were on the counter at home, both in net bags. Nuts from the baked batch had far more mold in them and more nuts were discarded from it.

My Conclusions

Fast cooking by steam. Photo by Alice.

If I ever want chestnuts in the future, the Englishman and I agree: they sell them in the store, all ready made and in a jar. If you ever want them again, I’d advise using the steam preparation method. You can easily see mold and other unpleasantness in the nuts if you halve them before they cook.

I haven’t eaten more than a couple of the nuts since we hulled them. I couldn’t even bear to look at them after what we’d gone through. I’m considering that rich chestnut soup recipe for them.

Jimmy’s Comments Afterward

“I laughed and laughed after reading this, because chestnuts taste so good to me that I forget about the work and the burning and the little slices of chestnut skin that separate your fingernails from your fingertips like the ancient bamboo sliver torture. I’m also constantly upset that I’m paying high prices for chestnuts that aren’t in good condition, part of why I wrote my article. In the States, people should complain to the management whenever they get bad chestnuts, take them back and explain how you store these expensive nuts.  But yes, it’s work, and it has to be done quickly while the nuts are still steaming hot or the inner peel welds to the nut. I’ve often wound up as the only person in the group who would peel the things and that quickly depletes my reserves of generosity when serving them. Alice followed the directions on the package of chestnuts for roasting, cooked them for ten minutes, and that’s why they came out hard and raw. I bake them on a metal pan, covered lightly with aluminum foil, for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F, and then check to be sure they cooked thoroughly. I don’t know why anyone would say they cook in ten minutes, unless they’ve never cooked chestnuts in an oven.”

Alice’s Followup

I should have listened to Jimmy’s instructions, even over the package. I’d be sending the company an email if I’d saved their information. To resolve the issue, I simply placed the peeled, mostly raw chestnuts inside the same steamer contraption I used on the first batch and steamed them for 10 minutes. They kept their golden, syrupy color, but came out moist and chewy.

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