Once you’ve roasted a chestnut over an open fire, what do you do with it?
Are sugar plums really good enough that visions of them would dance in your head? Why would anyone want to go a-wassailing? And just what the heck is a figgy pudding?
This Christmas, we decided to look at the edible side of Christmas carols and poems. We all know the words, but do we ever think about what they mean?
Chestnuts, for instance. Nat King Cole made the act of roasting them over an open fire an iconic part of the holiday. And this time of year in New York, vendors roast them on almost every corner.
But what good are they?
Chestnuts actually taste wonderful by themselves. They are nutty, of course, but slightly sweet and with a mild, mellow flavor. Their texture is also unique; light and softer than other nuts.
But chestnuts by themselves are not festive enough for the holidays. So I decided to make candied chestnuts, known to the French as marrons glaces.
These are delicate marvels of creamy, nutty sweetness. You make a fragrant simple syrup of water, sugar and vanilla, briefly boil peeled chestnuts in it, and you wind up with a treat that one famous mail order company has the gall to charge $45 for a box of eight.
But yes, they’re that good.
It does take a few days to make them, but you only boil the chestnuts for a couple of minutes each day. The rest of the time they soak in the syrup, so it takes very little effort.
The only difficult part involves peeling the chestnuts. There is an easy way and a hard way to peel chestnuts. I did it the hard way. I greatly recommend the easy way.
The easy way involves cutting a horizontal slit in the shell with a sharp knife, splashing on a bit of water and cooking in a microwave for one minute. And if you peel them while they’re still hot, the inner membrane comes right off with the shell.
Next up, wassail, the prime focus of (and best excuse for) going wassailing.
Wassailing goes back to the time of Saxon England, more than 1,000 years ago. One person would raise a tankard of a spiced ale punch with apples and say “waes hael,” which meant “good health” or “good fortune.” His drinking partner would raise his own tankard and respond, “drinc hael.” And then they would take a lusty swig of their punch.
By 1600, the punch itself was being called wassail. Revelers in England would take a big bowl of it and knock on people’s doors, singing carols and sharing the wassail – sometimes expecting to be paid.
To make my own wassail, I turned to Alton Brown, who adapted an ancient recipe. It begins with a base of ale and madeira wine, into which a number of baked apples are added. The punch is then flavored with spices (cloves, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg) and topped with a layer of whipped eggs.
The taste is marvelous and surprisingly complex. Beer and wine don’t sound as if they would go well together, but when seeped with the right spices and a healthy hint of apple, they turn into a deliciously hearty punch.
The other two carol-inspired treats seem to fall right along the fruitcake fault line. Though I don’t have empirical evidence as proof, it appears that people who like fruitcake will also enjoy sugar plums and figgy pudding. But those who hate fruitcake would probably be happier staying away from them and quaffing more wassail.
Sugar plums are not what you may think they are. There is no plum in them at all, except in the sense that “plum” used to be the word for all dried fruits. In this case, the sugar plums are made with apricots and dates, chopped fine along with almonds, sweetened with honey and spiced with the flavors we have come to associate with Christmas – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and orange.
In other words, they are kind of like a fruitcake, without the cake (and without citron, which, let’s face it, nobody likes). The ingredients are rolled into little balls and topped with powdered sugar.
They are certainly worthy of dancing visions.
Figgy pudding also has a definite fruitcake vibe to it. And just as sugar plums aren’t plums, figgy pudding isn’t pudding – except in that the British call this type of thing “pudding.” Figgy pudding is more like a dense cake, a cake that is cooked with steam.
But the figgy part is accurate; it uses quite a lot of chopped figs, plus raisins and currants. These are mixed with dark brown sugar, self-rising flour, bread crumbs, grated apples and allspice.
And brandy, of course. Brandy goes into the batter, making it even more like fruitcake. And then, if you really want to put on a show, you can pour heated brandy over the finished product and set it ablaze.
That is the traditional way to serve it. But for an extra-special treat, you could also serve it with a caramel-flavored sauce. It’s easy to make – no actual caramelizing necessary – and it goes great with figgy pudding.
Your friends will want you to bring the figgy pudding to them, and bring it right there.
Recipe adapted from Rebecca Franklin on about.com and inthenet88 via YouTube.
2 pound chestnuts
2 1/2 cups water
2 pounds granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. To peel the chestnuts, use a sharp knife (such as a steak knife) to make a horizontal cut across the shell of each nut. Place in a bowl, cover with water and then drain out the water (you just want a little water to get inside the shell). Microwave the nuts for 1 minute and peel; it helps if you pinch the shell at each end of the slit. It is best to do this in small batches; when the chestnuts are still warm, the inner membrane comes off easily with the peel.
2. In a large pot over medium high, combine the water, sugar and vanilla, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Once it is boiling, continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chestnuts, bring back to a boil, and cook 7 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
3. Pour the chestnuts and the syrup in a large container, and cover loosely. Allow the chestnuts to soak in the syrup for 12 to 18 hours.
4. Add the chestnuts and syrup to a clean pan and repeat the process; this time boiling them for 2 minutes, and then soaking the mixture, loosely covered, for 18 to 24 hours.
5. Repeat the entire process every 12 to 24 hours for a total of 3 to 4 times, until the sugar syrup has been absorbed by the chestnuts. If the syrup is not all absorbed, drain it before proceeding to the next step.
6. Preheat an oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the candied chestnuts in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Place the baking sheet into the oven, prop the oven door open a notch and turn off the heat. Allow the chestnuts to dry in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until they have firmed up and the surfaces of the nuts are dry.
7. Store in an airtight container.
Per chestnut: 68 calories; 0 g fat; 0 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 0 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 14 g sugar; 0 g fiber; 2 mg sodium; 3 mg calcium.
Yield: About 65 chestnuts
Recipe by Alton Brown, via the Television Food Network
6 small Fuji apples, cored
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
72 ounces (a six-pack) ale – not too hoppy
1 (750ml) bottle madeira
10 whole cloves
10 whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, separated, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Put the apples into an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish. Pack the brown sugar into the center of each apple, dividing the sugar evenly among them. Pour the water into the bottom of the dish and bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
3. Pour the ale and madeira into a large slow cooker. Put the cloves, allspice and cinnamon into a small muslin bag or cheesecloth tied with kitchen twine, and add to a slow cooker or a large pot over medium-low heat, along with the ginger and nutmeg. Set the slow cooker to medium heat and bring the mixture to at least 120 degrees. Do not boil.
4. If desired (some people dislike the texture of the eggs), add the egg whites to a medium bowl and, using a hand mixer, beat until stiff peaks form. Put the egg yolks into a separate bowl and beat until lightened in color and frothy, approximately 2 minutes. Add the egg whites to the yolks and, using the hand mixer, beat until just combined. Slowly add 4 to 6 ounces of the alcohol mixture from the slow cooker to the egg mixture, beat with the hand mixer on low speed. Return this mixture to the slow cooker and whisk to combine.
5. Add the apples and the liquid from the baking dish to the wassail and stir to combine. Ladle into cups and serve.
Per serving: 346 calories; 3 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 93 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 47 g carbohydrate; 32 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 52 mg sodium; 41 mg calcium.
Yield: About 3 quarts
Recipe by backtoherroots.com
2 cups almonds
1/4 cup honey
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups whole dried apricots
1 cup pitted dates
Pinch of salt
Zest of 1 orange
Powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread almonds in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until almonds are roasted and slightly brown.
2. Add almonds to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chopped into fine pieces, about the size of a match head. Add honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, apricots, dates, salt and orange zest to the almonds. Pulse until mixture is well chopped and beginning to clump.
3. To form sugar plums, pinch off a tablespoon of the mixture and roll into a ball. When all sugar plums are formed, dust the top with powdered sugar.
Per serving: 84 calories; 4 g fat; 0 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 5 mg sodium; 27 mg calcium.
Yield: About 33 candies
Figgy Pudding With Sauce
Adapted from recipes by bbcgoodfoodshow.com and the Food Network
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened, plus extra for the bowls and waxed paper
1 3/4 pounds dried figs
5 ounces brandy
1 1/2 pounds mixture of raisins and currants
3 apples, peeled, cored and grated
3/4 pound dark brown sugar
2 cups bread crumbs
1 3/4 cups self-rising flour
1 tablespoon allspice
1/2 cup brandy, optional
For the sauce:
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups heavy cream
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 cup) butter
1. Butter a 2-cup, a 4-cup and an 8-cup heatproof bowl, then line the base of each with a circle of parchment paper (you can use other-sized bowls, but you will have to adjust the cooking times accordingly). Butter 3 large sheets of waxed paper and lay each on a sheet of aluminum foil, butter side up. Fold a pleat in the middle of each waxed-paper/foil combination.
2. Roughly chop 1/2 pound of the figs and set aside. Put the remaining figs, butter and brandy into a food processor and process until smooth-ish, then transfer to your largest mixing bowl. Add the chopped figs, raisins and currants, grated apple, brown sugar, bread crumbs, flour and allspice. Stir everything together, divide among the bowls (don’t fill them to the top) and smooth the surfaces.
3. Cover the bowls with the buttered waxed-paper foils and tie with string. Place in separate saucepans with upturned saucers or scrunched-up bits of aluminum foil in the bottom (so the bowls don’t touch the bottom), then fill each pan with enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the bowl.
4. Cover with a lid and simmer the 2-cup bowl for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, the 4-cup bowl for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, and the 8-cup bowl for 3 hours, adding more boiling water as needed to keep the level about halfway up the bowls. Cool to room temperature, or a little warm, before serving.
5. To make the sauce, combine the brown sugar and heavy cream in a medium saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer 5 minutes. Add the butter and stir until incorporated.
6. To serve, unmold the bowls. If desired, heat the optional brandy in a small pan over medium high heat until fragrant. Pour over the puddings and quickly set afire. Or cut an X into the top of the puddings and pour the sauce over the tops and down the sides.
Per serving: 1150 calories; 45 g fat; 28 g saturated fat; 122 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 182 g carbohydrate; 137 g sugar; 11 g fiber; 420 mg sodium; 313 mg calcium.
Yield: 12 servings