I remember the first time I ate dessert in France. I was living with a host family in Paris, and we had just finished our end-of-meal salad. I had very high hopes—one of the reasons I was drawn to French culture was because of their affinity for baked goods and sweet nothings of all stripes. My host mother reached into the fridge, and pulled out… yogurt? Plain yogurt?
I deflated with disappointment. (Life abroad in Paris can be so hard, you know?) I could get plain yogurt in America! And I didn’t even eat it there, not even when there was fruit-on-the-bottom! Where were the endless bonbons and macarons of my dreams?
My skepticism didn’t last for long. Set on the table, next to the individual packages of yogurt, were two jars: one of a homemade pear jam, the other of a brown paste that I didn’t recognize. It was labeled crème de marrons.
Never one to shy away from tasting the unknown, I scooped a hefty spoonful into my yogurt and stirred until the whole thing turned a light tan. It tasted sweet and nutty and almost starchy. I asked my host family what it was. After much pantomiming, they eventually resorted to the internet and showed me a photo of… a chestnut tree. Chestnut paste?
Now that was something that I couldn't get in America. I questioned why we were depriving ourselves of such a delicious spread. For a country that has entire supermarket section devoted to peanut butter, how have we not puréed every nut under the sun? And especially those as naturally prone to desserts as chestnuts?
From then on, I always reached for chestnut purée to stir into my evening yogurt. I also discovered that crème de marrons was a mainstay filling for crêpe vendors, so it instantly become my go-to order. Ditto for Mont Blancs, a dessert of puréed chestnuts piped into a towering swirl.
Sadly, when I returned to America, I lost touch with chestnut paste. I limited my interaction with chestnuts to street vendors hawking bags during the holidays, and their chewy, stale flavor always left me disappointed.
During the recent Christmas season, once again assaulted with the sounds of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” at every turn, I was reminded of my brief love affair with crème de marrons, and decided to re-create the lightly sweet paste at home.
Here’s how I did it:
- 2 pounds chestnuts, in shells
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
The hardest part, by far, is finding a way to peel the chestnuts. Some methods tell you to score the nuts and then roast them, while others preach that boiling or steaming is a shortcut to success. I found that roasting was the easiest, but feel free to use any tricks you have up your sleeve (and share them in the comments, please!):
First, score your chestnuts with an “X” deep enough to cut through the outer skin. Place about ten at a time in a 400° F oven (per Melissa Clark, I worked with relatively small batches of chestnuts, as it's easiest to peel the nuts while they're still warm). Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the skin starts to peel back around the “X.”
Transfer chestnuts onto a towel and peel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. If the skin is stubborn or difficult, return chestnuts to the oven for a few minutes.
After the chestnuts were prepped, it was a simple matter of boiling them until tender, puréeing them into a smooth paste, and cooking over low heat with sugar and water until they reached the perfect texture.
I played around with my measurements, preferring to let the light sweetness of the chestnuts shine through, but if you like a sweeter or thicker purée, feel free to make adjustments!
Finally, serving suggestions: I like to use crème de marrons anywhere I would use Nutella or almond butter: stirred into plain yogurt or oatmeal; dolloped on vanilla ice cream; or spread onto pancakes. Chestnut cream is also a key ingredient in some pretty fancy-pants French desserts.
I fully encourage you to let your chestnut creativity run rampant. If you come up with any more awesome ways to use crème de marrons, please share in the comments! I am always looking for more ways to enjoy it.