Roasted chestnuts are a staple of German Christmas markets. I know what you’re thinking: “Why are you writing about Christmas markets again? It’s January for goodness’ sakes!” Well, my answer to you my dear reader, is I’m not writing about Christmas markets. I’m writing about chestnuts. Of course, this does remind me of the time I was at the Christmas market with my brother in law and we were walking through the stands on some secret mission or other, discussing in English what perfect present it was we were looking for. There was a man standing next to his barrel of chestnuts roasting on an open fire calling out “Heiße Maroni! Heiße Maroni!” He noticed we were speaking English and so he cried out, with a beautiful German/British accent, “Hot Maronis! Hot Maronis!” Unfortunately, neither of us really liked chestnuts, so we passed the stand with a smile and good cheer.
Years later, I was in Paris with my friend Kait (which is why I’m posting this now, since this was almost exactly two years ago, on her birthday which was just last week). It was a wonderful whirlwind weekend tour (like the alliteration?), and on our last evening, Kait insisted we eat crêpes. So we found ourselves in a crêpe restaurant and ate savory crêpes that were simply divine. For dessert, we passed a crêpe stand on our way to the train station (I was taking the night train with my friend Briana back to Hamburg). Although we were stuffed, we still bought some of the divine sweet confections. For some reason my French skills failed me in the moment and I thought that crème de marron meant crème d’amande. I was excited when I ordered what I thought would be a marzipan crêpe. Kait was surprised [and made some comment, for the sake of the story she said this, which is a lie because she really likes them:] – “I don’t like chestnuts” she said as we watched my precious marzipan crêpe was smeared with chestnuts, rolled into a cone, and filled with incredibly fluffy pastry cream. That’s when my heart sunk and I realized what I’d ordered. I wanted to say “Neither do I, I want a different one” and then I thought the better of it (why make yourself sound more stupid than you have to?) Instead, I swallowed and said “Well, I thought I’d give it a try – I can’t get this in Germany.” Very diplomatic, yes, that’s me.
After one bite I knew this was the right purchase – it was delicious. I was so surprised. The chestnut cream was far from being grainy, mealy, or bitter, all reasons I don’t like chestnuts. The pastry cream was just the right sweetness paired with the chestnuts, and I ate the whole confection without even thinking it was something I didn’t like. “Perhaps,” I thought, “I just haven’t found the right kind of chestnuts. Maybe the quality in German Christmas markets is just bad.”
Thus, upon discovering chestnuts in grocery stores this winter, I decided to take it upon myself to recreate my Parisian experience. By this point I’d completely forgotten the pastry cream: I was obsessed with finding good quality chestnuts to turn into a cream. I studied many different recipes, and came up with one I thought might work. I had it all planned, the only missing link was the chestnuts. And then I found them. My mom and I spent a week with my aunt Inge in Berlin in early January, and on our last day we decided to visit a farmer’s market where one of Inge’s friend’s brothers sold cheese and cured meats. The market was amazing – the whole time I couldn’t help but wish that this was in Dresden. I am still determined to find something similar here, but have yet been unsuccessful. There were stands and stands of fresh produce, most of it sold by farmers from just outside Berlin (not distributors like at the Radeberg market). This is where I found these beautiful chestnuts and decided that my time had come.
At home the next weekend, my friend Heather came over. It was the first time in almost a month that we’d seen each other, as she’d been in the States for the holidays. I was so excited to see her, and I decided to make crêpes for brunch for the two of us. I started out with savory crêpes with a zucchini-champignon filling, which I’d sautéed in olive oil until the juices had almost cooked off and then seasoned with salt and pepper. The crêpes themselves proved a bit more difficult to make, but about halfway through the batter I’d gotten the hang of it. Of course, by this time, Heather had already been sitting in my Amelie kitchen for an hour – my timing was way off. Nevertheless, we were very happy to catch up with each other dipping little Nüssli biscuits from Switzerland (grâce à Inge) into cups of cinnamon coffee. We discussed everything from her trip to Washington D.C. to Bush’s recent address on Iraq, and how he said that if we pull out now it would turn into a disaster. … uh, turn into one?
After the chestnuts had soaked, roasted, been peeled, and cooked in milk for half an hour, it was time to purée them. I took my woosh-woosh thingy and began. I had to keep adding milk and more milk because the starch kept sticking to the blades. Finally, I got a creamy consistency, sifted some powdered sugar in to taste, and folded some whipped cream in to make it fluffy. I proudly placed the cream on the table with the left-over whipped cream as filling, and we dug in.
At first, we both said “Mmm, it’s not bad.” One of us may have even said “Quite good!” However, neither of us attacked these crêpes the way we had the savory ones. The cream wasn’t very smooth, it tasted a bit mealy, and definitely had a slightly bitter flavor. What had gone wrong? Probably everything, but in retrospect I think the main problem was a lack of sugar. I’m almost positive the crème de marron I had in Paris was loaded with sugar (and most likely other nasty preservatives and chemicals), and with the pastry crème on top it naturally would have been difficult to taste the flavors of the chestnuts. My heart sank as I realized that perhaps I really didn’t like these precious, optically beautiful nuts.
In the end, as Heather and I were cleaning up the kitchen, I debated whether or not to save the crème. I finally decided to scrape it into a plastic container. “Perhaps I can save this disaster,” I said, “Of course, we all know what happens if someone tries to save disasters…” Heather looked at me, “Did you just compare your crème de marron to the Iraq War?” I looked back at her and smiled, “I think I did…” We had a good laugh as I stuck the container in the fridge and we started attacking the dishes.
A week later the container is still in the fridge, and I haven’t touched it. I haven’t come up with any brilliant ideas to save the cream. It’s hard for me to bring myself to throw away such beautiful treasures, but I should be an example for our dear president and let go of my failed brainchild.
1 cup cold water
1 cup cold milk
½ tsp salt
2 cups flour
¼ cup (½ stick) melted butter
Blend the wet ingredients in a blender, or with a wire whisk, and then slowly add the dry ingredients. In a nonstick pan of desired size (8”-10” is ideal), pour a small bit in. The batter should immediately begin to set and steam. This will take some time and practice to get it right. When the crêpe has become golden brown on the bottom, you may choose to deftly flip the crêpe in the air, or use a spatula to turn it over. Brown on the other side, then place on an oven-proof plate, cover with aluminum foil, and keep warm in an oven until the rest of the crêpes are done. Serve sweet or savory. A traditional, and in my opinion very tasty, sweet method is lemon juice and sugar. Other options are nutella, apple sauce, cinnamon and sugar, or even liqueurs (such as Baileys or a vanilla or chocolate liqueur). Savory options include spinach, lightly cooked tomatoes with herbs and garlic, asparagus, etc…