Despite Nat King Cole's best efforts every year around this time, I've not once eaten any sort of chestnut, fire-roasted or otherwise. In fact, until very recently I've never even seen a chestnut. But while shopping at my local Asian market just a few days ago, I came across a woman who was handing out free samples of boiled chestnuts. I took one of the warm chestnuts into my hand more out of curiosity than anything else. After plopping it into my mouth, I was immediately hooked. In its boiled state, the meat of the chestnut was creamy, nutty, and surprisingly sweet—and I imagined that if roasted, these flavors and textures could be intensified.
So, I scooped up a few pounds of fresh chestnuts that were conveniently displayed behind the free sample lady and off I went. When I got home with my bounty, my first inclination was to actually roast the chestnuts over the flames of my grill, but I figured the oven would be best for this application—since grill weather is different around the country, but a hot oven is a hot oven.
After some internet sleuthing, I found that roasted chestnuts are often enjoyed with a snifter of brandy or cognac in parts of Europe (i.e. Spain and France). Chestnuts, it seemed, were right up my alley. But before any drinking, there must first be roasting.
Prior to roasting chestnuts, it's important that the outer shell be slit with an "X" in order for steam to escape and to prevent the chestnuts from exploding in the oven. Venting the chestnuts in this way also makes for easier post-roast peeling. A serrated bread knife works great for slitting the chestnuts. After quickly blanching the slit chestnuts in boiling water, I transferred them to a pre-heated cast iron pan in the oven and roasted them until the shells and skins started to curl away from the nut meat. I then transferred the roasted nuts to a cutting board and covered them with a kitchen towel just until they were cool enough to handle. While still warm, the nuts can be peeled, and if any brown skin still clings to the nut, a paring knife can easily remove it.
Not wanting to waste the heat of my cast iron pan, I threw in a cinnamon stick, a half stick of butter, along with a pinch each salt, sugar, and nutmeg, to make a simple dipping sauce for the nuts, though they are also great on their own without any butter.
Served as is, or dipped in melted butter, warm roasted chestnuts are indeed creamy, nutty, and sweet. And when paired with a snifter of brandy, or even a shot of whiskey, roasted chestnuts can make for a wonderfully warming winter snack.