Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What's Winter Without Chestnuts?

There's something about chestnuts that just screams "Winter" and "Christmas". I mean, come on - there's a reason it's called "The Christmas Song"! It just so happens that we also have a chestnut tree in our backyard, though it isn't producing quite yet... it's only a baby, so we're still buying ours (albeit locally). While I'm not a huge fan of nuts myself, my stepdad loves them and when chestnut season rolls around you had better have your share under lock and key, because he'll sniff them out in a heartbeat! His birthday falls on Christmas Eve, which is also the Feast of the Seven Fishes for the Italian clan, and it was up to me to make the dessert (mostly because I knew that if I didn't, it would be storebought and impersonal, and come on, it's an excuse for me to bake!). Because of his insatiable love for roasted chestnuts and citrus, I knew they would have to find their way into the dessert. Anything whipped-cream was out due to most of the family's loathing for the ingredient, but if it was Italian in any way... well, I'd be pretty much awarded the Nobel Prize from them.

My secret weapon was the fact that I knew almost everyone in the family likes loves cheesecake... of any kind. Chestnuts... citrus... cheese... I had an interesting project! I scouted around the internet and through my cookbook library, and came across a rich, decadent cheesecake made with ricotta, rum and caramelized chestnuts in Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table (and huzzah, found it online too!). Buuuutttt... I can't leave anything well enough alone. Instead, I used the recipe as my diving board and began to play with this "tester cake" (I didn't want to get to the big day without a bang-on recipe!).

Rum morphed into Grand Marnier, some of the ricotta changed into mascarpone, and even the candied peel became fresh-grated. I even dropped one of the four eggs from the custard, replacing it with a cornstarch-water slurry (like I use in cookies). After sticking it in the oven, I crossed my fingers and waited. And waited. And smelled... And I was not disappointed! The results looked divine, and I couldn't wait to serve it to the intendeds. The first round of slices had a good third of the cake gone in a flash - and my mom had to stop Cel from taking a second huge slice! Even Andrew (who normally eschews chestnuts) had a piece, declared it awesome, and took two more slices home! I think I'm in the good books... don't you?

I can't eat nuts of any kind anymore because of the fat content, though chestnuts in general are a good choice for dieters because they are fairly low in oils (but high in starch, if you're watching carbs there are 12.5g / oz!). Per 1 oz of raw chestnuts, there's only 55 calories and 1/2 g of fat, but also 19% of your RDA of Vitamin C! Of course, covering them in sugar and alcohol before baking them into high-fat cheese kind of negates any health claims, but it's good to know nevertheless!

You can see from the photos that this is a full-of-stuff kind of cheesecake... a chunky one, if you will. Lucky for me, that's exactly the theme of the November Cheesecake Challenge at Life's Too Short For Mediocre Chocolate. It's a little unconventional, but that's what makes it fun! Thanks also to Kevin from Closet Cooking for the roasted chestnut tutorial!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and may we all find things to be thankful for in the coming year.

Candied Chestnut Christmas Cake
Serves 16
*Note: This cake should be served room temperature, never cold, so when you've just served dinner pull it out of the fridge to warm up*
1 pound fresh, in-shell chestnuts
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Grand Marnier
1 tbsp vanilla
3 cups smooth, whole-milk ricotta
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
2 tbsp grated orange zest
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp cold water
1 tbsp cornstarch
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Score the shell of each nut halfway around and spread in a deep roasting pan.
  3. Roast 25 minutes, until tender.
  4. Peel away the shells and the inner skin, chop roughly and set in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan.
  5. Add sugar and Grand Marnier.
  6. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook 12-15 minutes, stirring constantly, until very thick. Add 1-2 tbsp of water if required to prevent burning.
  7. Remove from heat and beat in 1 tbsp vanilla, then allow to cool 15 minutes.
  8. Mash the nuts slightly against the side of the pot until they are the consistency of chopped peanuts. Set aside and cool completely.
  9. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 10" springform pan and line the bottom with parchment.
  10. In a large bowl, using electric beaters, combine cheeses, brown sugar, eggs and orange zest until fluffy.
  11. Combine vanilla, water and cornstarch in a small dish until smooth, then beat into the cheese mixture.
  12. By hand, using a spatula, slightly fold in the candied chestnuts. Do not mix thoroughly, it should look like a ripple.
  13. Scrape mixture into the pan and smooth the top.
  14. Bake for 45 minutes, then cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake a further 15 minutes.
  15. Turn off oven, leaving cake inside, and let sit 1 hour.
  16. Remove from oven, run a knife around the edge of the cake, and chill completely before unmoulding.

Amount Per Serving
Calories: 253.1
Total Fat: 13.7 g
Cholesterol: 77.4 mg
Sodium: 67.7 mg
Total Carbs: 20.4 g
Dietary Fiber: 0.0 g
Protein: 7.9 g


  1. This sounds like a great way to enjoy chestnuts! I am going to have to pick some up soon.

  2. I love chestnuts too. I'm just REALLY curious as to why you can't have nuts. Yes, you said because of the fat content, but the fats in nuts are GOOD fats, and they should be part of a healthy diet, when eaten in moderation. Your picture doesn't look as though you're overweight, so I'm just curious. It seems as though so many Americans are making fat the villain of every health problem. I'm sorry to sound so nosy, but this is one of my 'pet peeves'.

  3. @ Carolina:

    It's not just nuts I can't eat, it's all oils and fats - even the good ones. I can't eat meat, cheese or egg yolks because of it either. Without being overly gross, the bathroom is my kingdom after I eat something high in fat and I'd be essentially on a painkiller drip too. I've been in and out of the hospital a couple times for it and they have no current cause label for it. I'm far from being overweight (though I used to be) but I'm not "fit" either... I do have to be very careful to avoid a reaction with my meals.

    I totally agree with you over the "fat is not the enemy" stance. I totally support those who can eat small amounts of the good fats without adding them to everything (like Susan @ FatFree Vegan). Believe it or not, I was the BIGGEST fast food junkie when I was younger.

    Thanks for your concern! I'd have replied directly but you didn't give me an e-mail or blog to post to.



Thanks for the feedback!