The first fall that my family lived in Portland was magical. We were escapees from Southern California and everything about the changing leaves, chilly nights, and morning frost was novel and thrilling to me. I was also innocently astonished by the new varieties of edible bounty around us.
Across the driveway, Mrs. Gosling grew raspberries and a wild herb garden. On the other side, Jan and Guy had pumpkins, beans, and apples on their tiny city plot. We had had plums and guava trees in Los Angeles, but the food of the Pacific Northwest felt sturdy and sustaining.
One day, we discovered a clutch of chestnut trees on the lawn of a high school (ultimately, the very school I’d end up attending years later). My parents, caught up in my excitement over the idea of roasted chestnuts (Christmas songs made them sound so romantic), let me fill a partially closed umbrella with my haul (we had yet to learn that true Portlanders never use umbrellas).
We brought them home, gave them a cursory rinse and piled them onto a baking sheet. Never having had anything to do with chestnuts, we had no idea that there were multiple varieties or that you needed to make a little cut in the shell to prevent them from exploding once heated. It was, after all, in the days before we had the internet to help us with such research.
Soon enough, the kitchen filled with smoke and the chestnuts began to explode in the oven. The inside of the oven ended up covered with a sticky, green nutmeat (turns out that these were the non-edible horse chestnuts) that had to be scraped off with an old butter knife. Our time as chestnut eaters was over before it got a chance to begin.
It was a good 20 years before I tried chestnuts again.
In recent years, I’ve returned to the chestnut. Wiser and armed with better information, I’ve found that as long as you have the edible variety, those hard shells contain flesh that is sweet, tender, and has a texture much like the bean paste you find inside many Chinese buns and baked goods.
There are a number of classical applications for chestnuts, including soups, stuffings, puddings, and roasted whole for snacking. Less common, but my favorite, is a chestnut spread. I tried a version made by Bonne Maman a few years back and was totally smitten. I’ve bought it occasionally since then, but it’s long been on my list of things to make at home. This was the week!
This time of year, a number of grocery stores and farmers’ markets carry chestnuts. If you have the option, sort through them and select nuts that are firm, heavy, and that don’t feel like the nutmeat is rattling around inside the shell. Unlike most other nuts, which seem to last forever in their shells at room temperature, chestnuts are highly perishable and need to be stored in the fridge. If the chestnuts are pre-packaged, make sure to get a few more than you’ll need, to compensate for the few that will inevitably be moldy inside.
To prepare the chestnuts to make this spread, you cut an ‘x’ into the shell and then boil them for 20-25 minutes, until the spot where you cut begins opens up on its own. Once the time is up, you drain them and run them under cold water to stop the cooking. Then you peel. Peeling chestnuts can be a time consuming task, because there’s both a hard outer shell and a papery skin that need to be removed. But it’s that kind of pleasing, mindless work that goes well with a good podcast.
When you make this spread, you have to be diligent and puree until it is intensely smooth. I made mine in the Vitamix, because I knew it would eventually give me the texture I wanted, but there was a lot of starting, stopping, and scraping involved. It also needs a goodly amount of water, adding in small increments, to achieve silkiness. I imagine it would also work using a food processor or even an immersion blender, though I did not try it this time around.
Like so many nut butters, this one is good smeared on toast or crackers. It’s also a nice filling for small shortbread cookies or as an addition to a platter of cheeses (I was talking to Madame Fromage earlier today and she suggested pairing with the goat cheese called Robiola. It’s wrapped in chestnut leaves, so they’d compliment each other beautifully). It’s also a wonderful homemade holiday gift for chestnut lovers, as it’s unusual, seasonal, and delicious.
Honey-Sweetened Chestnut Butter
- 1 1/2 pounds whole chestnuts
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 vanilla bean scraped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups water
- Bring a medium sized pot of water to a boil.
- While it heats, cut a small x into each of the chestnuts.
- Once the water boils, carefully lower the chestnuts into the water and cook at a low boil for approximately 25 minutes.
- When time is up, drain chestnuts and rinse with cool water.
- Peel away the hard outer shell and the inner papery layer. You should have approximately 2 1/2 to 3 cups of peeled chestnuts.
- Place peeled chestnuts in a blender or food processer with the honey, vanilla seeds, and salt.
- Add 1/2 cup of water and pulse to combine.
- Continue processing/blending, scraping down the sides regularly, and adding water until you've achieved a smooth, not too thick consistency.
- Scrape into small jars and refrigerate.
Oh, you are a genius! I think I’ll be stopping by the store tomorrow morning. I had my first chestnuts (outside of dressing, where I honestly could never taste them) on a trip to Istanbul a couple years ago. They still roast them in little stand, all over the city; I’ve honestly never had anything so delicious on the street!
~grin~ speaking of classical chestnut recipes, there’s one from an ancient roman cookbook that was possibly my first foray into experimental cooking (it makes a rich savory spread that’s good for appetizers)
I would note that you’ll be happier boiling the chestnuts in a dark pan because they can stain.
And if you boil even longer 45 minutes to an hour, then you can smooth them mostly to a paste just by mashing with a spoon. They’re probably more waterlogged, but the recipe I just mentioned has additional cooking after and liquids added, so it’s not a problem for that use.
The only time I make that recipes these days, though, is if I’m teaching a roman cooking class and can con the students into peeling the chestnuts.
Wow, this looks insanely good! I am a chestnut virgin, therefore I must try!
I grew up in Japan and there I often ate a cake called Mont Blanc that could be purchased at the bakeries. I’ve googled the recipe and it calls for chestnut paste (the recipe is originally French – makes sense…) – I think your spread would work beautifully for it. I’m gonna try it! 🙂
How long do you think it will keep safely in the fridge? If I wanted to make some for gift giving without doing it last minute and tell people when they need to use it by.
It should keep safely for weeks.
I’m going to make this for xmas presents… could you tell me, if I want to make 6 jars of it, how many pounds of chestnuts will I need? I’m from the UK and get a bit confused with cup measurements!
Thanks and happy christmas,
If you want to make six jars that hold approximately 1 cup/8 ounces/250ml, you’ll need around 5 pounds of chestnuts. It’s essentially 3 batches of the butter as the recipe is written.
“Soon enough, the kitchen filled with smoke and the chestnuts began to explode in the oven.” — This is a perfect first line for that novel you’re writing!
Oh, this looks wonderful!
It’d be extra nice to enjoy this for months! I’m curious whether you think pressure canning with the addition of citric acid or something would work. I’ve added chestnuts to winter jam but chestnut butter is a different story.
If you were to pressure can this butter, there’d be no need for citric acid (you either acidify or you pressure can. There’s never need to do both). But I don’t know how it would hold up to that. Nut butters tend to keep for ages in the fridge, and I don’t believe this one will be any different.
Call me crazy, but I’ve looked over this post at least a dozen times, and I don’t see an actual recipe anywhere. I’ve read through the text several times as well, and while it contains tips, there are no ingredients, amounts or instructions other than the peeling and blending until super-smooth.
Help. I think I’m going senile!
Lynne, I’m so sorry! I use a plugin for my recipes and it’s having issues. I corrected a typo in the post and it erased the workaround I used to make the recipe appear. I’ve fixed it again and so you should be able to see the recipe now.
Where is the recipe?
Oops, so sorry Heather! It should be fixed now.
I’m curious how this holds up as a nut ‘butter’, given chestnuts’ low fat content. I’ve always turned them into a delicious jam, boiling the peeled chestnuts with water, brown sugar, and vanilla, and then puréeing them with some dark rum. Good enough to eat with a spoon (and crazy on vanilla ice cream).
It doesn’t have quite the same consistency as a traditional nut butter, but it does hold together and remains quite spreadable. And your jam sounds amazing!
Would you share the recipe for chestnut jam?? that sounds amazing!
(Marisa, I hope you don’t mind my barging in here…)
Chestnut Rum Jam
To make about 4 cups of chestnut jam, start with:
3 lbs. unpeeled fresh chestnuts
2 1/2 cups of light brown sugar
3 cups water
1 whole vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 tbsp dark or blackstrap rum
Peel the chestnuts. Weigh the peeled chestnuts, then place them in a large (3- or 4-qt.) saucepan, and for each pound of chestnuts, add: 1 cup light brown sugar, 1 1/4 cup water, a pinch of salt, and the vanilla bean.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stir well, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the chestnuts are very soft, even falling apart (about half an hour). Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor, or use a stick blender right in the pot, and purée until no lumps remain. For a perfectly smooth purée, work it through a fine sieve.
Return the mixture to the pot, scrape in the seeds from the vanilla bean, and simmer – stirring often – until thickened (about the consistency of applesauce), then add the rum and simmer for a few more minutes. Taste, and add more sugar or rum if desired.
The jam will keep in the refrigerator, in an airtight container, for about a month, or can be water-bath canned for long-keeping and gifting.
How do you peel the chestnuts *before* cooking them? It seems as if you’d break your fingers trying to do so! Do you use a nutcracker?
Well, yes, you need heat to peel them, but you don’t necessarily have to cook them. I peel them by cutting a slit in the shell, then wrapping 6 or so at a time in a moist kitchen cloth and microwaving them on high for about a minute. Then I use the tip of a sharp knife to pull away the peel (I wear rubber kitchen gloves to protect my hands for the heat and slippage). It’s not a fun or easy task, but (for me, anyway) the payoff is worth it.
I wonder if boiling the chestnuts until soft first (cut a slit in each chestnut before boiling them), would do the trick? They peel pretty easy after cooked, but I can imagine them being a bear to peel raw…
Cecilia, if you read the recipe, it instructs you to boil the chestnuts before peeling. I can’t imagine trying to peel them raw.
May I substitute pure vanilla extract for the vanilla bean?
You won’t get nearly the same flavor, but it won’t do any harm.
This was a nice recipe although is it possible to add a hint of rock salt and more honey? The nut is pungent and could have used more sweet. Perhaps I measured 3 large cups versus the average….
Charisse, you can always adapt recipes like this one to suit your tastes. And just so you know, I had closer to 2 1/2 cups of nuts, so those were the honey and salt measurements that I used for my batch.
This sounds great.
Also, I noticed on the apple butter link that you often say, “recipe is available after the jump.” I’m not sure if you mean this for your feed readers or for the readers from the home page on the site, but I have noticed lately with your newer print recipe plug-in that recipes are right there at the bottom of the post in the feed. So if you’re counting your traffic based on people who click through to see the recipe, those in your feed are seeing it already. Thought you’d like to know, and thought the give away post wasn’t the best place for you to see it 🙂
Emily, thanks for the feedback. That “after the jump” note is for people who are viewing the blog from the main URL. I honestly don’t worry about the traffic part of the equation, I just don’t want to put the recipe in the main feed of the blog. I publish a full feed for people who subscribe via feed readers and email because my husband is entirely against partial feeds and he’s my tech support.
Oh, this looks glorious! Growing up in Portugal, chestnuts were a special fall/winter treat that we looked forward to all year, and I am only too happy to extend the tradition to my kids here in New England! I do have to say, though, I have never tried to peel the chestnuts raw like the other reader… that seems like a whole lot of work! I either roast them or boil them for whatever purpose we’re using them for… to each its own, though… I also love the recipe for the chestnut jam up there! I do like the idea of being able to can it to make it less perishable and not take up space in my fridge… I think you’re right about nut butters not holding up well to pressure canning, though… this butter does sound incredible and only two jars does not take up much space in the fridge (and would taste great on a slice of no-knead cranberry walnut loaf bread, yummy!). Oh, now I have to get chestnuts and make some bread… 🙂
I live in Brittany France and have chestnut trees all around me. The chestnuts tend to be small but sweet. Having followed other recipes that tell you to boil the chestnuts and then peel them hot/warm for ease of peeling, I was dubious about peeling raw but on the basis of never argue with the expert I did as the recipe said. I was truly amazed at the amount of brown inner skin that came away after boiling and how easily this peeled off. So yes bite the bullet and peel them raw before boiling it’s worth the effort.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I cant wait to try this recipe. Although is not chestnut season I am hoping to be able to find them. Could you please let me know how long does it last in the fridge? can I freeze it? Many thanks
I am a lucky guy. While growing up our family tradition was to have roasted Chestnuts for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I can remember my dad sitting for hours pealing the chestnuts. Unfortunately , they were totally gone after the meals. Thirty years ago I purchased two chestnut trees from a catalog. One made it through the second winter here in PA and is now about 25 feet tall and 35 feet in diameter.
Last year I went out morning, noon and at night and picked the chestnut while chasing the squirrels
away. My wife writes notes on our Christmas cards about my exploites against the squirrels. Last years I filled a five gallon bucket and a standard bucket with them, without the husk.
My family is always very appreciative of the gift packages I send just before the holidays.
I boil and peal them and my wife uses my mothers recipe for creamed Chestnuts and we all chow down on them. We also take a dish of creamed chestnuts as our hostess gift when visiting friend during the holidays.
All she uses is pealed Chestnuts, light cream, and a little real vanilla. If there are any leftovers they are easily reheated. They breakdown a little more during the reheating but they are still well worth it.
We usually make extra and freeze them in zip lock bags. They are still good six or eight months later and a reminder of next falls harvest.
Did anyone try canning the chestnut butter. How did it go?
It cannot be canned. It’s too low in acid.
Hi!! I am a vegan . I am currently on DR.Esselstiens plant based diet to reverse heart disease. In his book he says that nuts of any kind are not good for people because of their fat content. He then goes on to say that Chestnuts are the only nut that is o.k. Since I am a lover of peanut butter, and cannot indulge myself. I am going to try your recipe for Chestnut spread. It sounds great. Thank you for sharing.. Jim Fray a 78 year old Vegan
Ohhhhhh…. THANK you! Just made this and it’s so good I’m unsure whether I want to eat it or roll around in it!
Hi can the butter be processed and kept for a longer period? Can it be frozen? Thanks for your response.
You could pack it into small containers and freeze it. It cannot be canned.
Chestnuts have a wonderful flavour, and very much associated with Christmas. This paste is a lovely idea for a homemade gift. So easy to make.
Granted that I’m several years late to this party, but I think something is missing from the ingredient list. 1/2 teaspoon of what? I’ve decided it must be salt.
You are correct! Thanks for catching that!
Can you preserve the chestnuts in honey without pureeing them? Would it work to just roast them, leave them in chunks and pour honey over them in the jar? I’ve been looking at candied chestnut recipes, but don’t want to use sugar to preserve them.
I’ve not tried it, so I really can’t speak to it. This chestnut butter has a relatively short shelf life, so I don’t know how well it would work.
Simple, easy & delicious! I doubled the honey, used vanilla extract and added cinnamon and pumpkin pie spices. The bad news is….I can’t stay out of it!! So good!!!
So glad you like it!