Prompted by replying to a post by thehomeplaceweb about horse chestnuts (known to us Brits as conkers) to write a blog including a recipe for sweet chestnut stuffing, I shall start by explaining the very special place horse chestnuts/conkers have in the hearts of the British. I make no apology for cutting and pasting from my reply to my fellow-blogger’s post as it is getting late and I am a very slow typist, being entirely self-taught at an advanced age:
‘Conkers’ is an ancient British tradition – essentially a children’s school playground game where you put a hole through the conker with something sharp like a cooking skewer or screwdriver, then thread a long piece of string or an old shoelace through and tie a knot in the end. The exciting aim of the game is to destroy your opponent’s conker by hitting it with yours, each player taking it in turns to strike their opponent’s conker. It is a very long time since I have played, but I understand there is a national, if not international, competition (for adults…) with strict rules about what you can and cannot do to the conker to strengthen it. I seem to remember my brother trying all sorts of things such as soaking them overnight in vinegar…
The game of conkers conjures up visions of Morris Dancing, skipping, Maypoles and everything that is quintessentially British – old-fashioned and just a little bit quirky, especially in this day and age. It harks back to a time when summers were always long and hot, it always snowed in winter and the world was irrefutably a wonderful place to live in… or so it seems to me looking back on my childhood. My present use for conkers is as a deterrent for spiders. I collect them each year – or, rather, I send my husband down the main road to get them for me as he is bigger than I am and can put up more of a fight for them should he encounter any small children collecting them to play ‘conkers’ – and place them along my window sills. This is supposed to deter spiders from entering the house through open windows as they are put off by the scent the conkers emit. I steadfastly maintain to my incredulous husband (who nevertheless humours me by gathering them) that we have had fewer spiders since I started doing this, and I am not alone over here – many people have commented on seeing them and say they do the same.
Sweet chestnuts are entirely different and are edible – conkers are definitely not edible. A walk into the countryside in autumn when the leaves are turning colour and falling can often discover sweet chestnuts on the ground in their spiky, prickly cases, though the nuts themselves are usually too small to use. In the UK they are primarily eaten in winter, and Christmas markets sell hot roasted chestnuts cooked over braziers in the street. Dickensian films have us believe that in Victorian times chestnuts (in the UK we usually refer to horse chestnuts as conkers and sweet chestnuts as chestnuts) were sold on every street corner in the season but they appear to be more of a gimmick nowadays. They come into the shops – or at least into my local supermarket – around November time, though Chomeuse tells me they are already in the shops in France, probably because of greater demand for them. I don’t think many Brits cook with them now, especially as it is so much easier to buy chestnut puree or peeled chestnuts in jars, though only in larger supermarkets or delicatessens. Every year, though, I buy a couple of pounds (around a kilogram) for chestnut stuffing, which I make and then freeze till Christmas to stuff into the turkey.
My recipe comes from my late mother-in-law, from whom I begged all my traditional British recipes for the accompaniments to the Christmas roast. My family being Czech/Slovak, my mother had no idea about chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce or bread sauce (which she now loves but has never made), so her take on the Christmas Day lunch, though excellent, is not traditionally British, and I wanted to cook a ‘proper’ Christmas meal for my husband. I adore my mother-in-law’s recipe for chestnut stuffing so much that I submitted it to a national newspaper for a feature on readers’ Christmas recipes and was, surprisingly, published (and received an unexpected £25 for my effort). I had not mentioned to my own mother that I had submitted a recipe (I sent in a couple) and was surprised when, on my next visit to her after the recipe was printed, she excitedly told me of a very strange co-incidence. We read the same newspaper, perhaps unsurprisingly, and she had saved the clipping of the recipe, which included a short note I had added to it, which went along the lines of my having no family background of traditional British Christmas cooking as my family are of central European origin, so I was sending in my very traditional English mother-in-law’s recipe. They published my full name at the end. My mother’s rather bizarre comment to me on showing me the clipping was that wasn’t it a strange coincidence that there was someone with my same Christian name and Surname – my Christian name is foreign and my (married) surname English – and she thought I would be amused. Indeed I was, very much so, that it had not occurred to her it might have been from her daughter. We still laugh about it every Christmas.
Here is the recipe, but I must confess to never following it precisely. I invariably add more milk as the chestnuts soak it up in cooking, and I never weigh the chestnuts properly – if I’ve too many or too little I just guess the rest.
2 lbs whole sweet chestnuts – pick fat ones and squeeze them to make sure they’re not hollow 1/4 pint milk 2 oz butter 2 teaspoons white sugar salt and pepper to taste
Cut the very tops from the chestnuts and roast in a moderate oven – 350F/180C? – for about 20 minutes (test after 10 minutes, it is not an exact science), then remove the outer and inner skins. This is an absolutely hateful job and one done exclusively by my husband if he wants chestnut stuffing. Best done in small batches as once the chestnuts go cold they are not easy to peel. You need asbestos fingers for it as it is impossible to do wearing heat-proof gloves. It does not matter if odd bits of the inner skin remain, but cut out any bad black bits you find. Alternatively, buy whole chestnuts in a jar ready peeled…
Put the peeled chestnuts in a heavy-bottomed pan with the milk and simmer till the chestnuts are soft and a knife goes thorough them easily. Add more milk if it dries out. Then either mash with a fork (not easy) or use a hand blender or food processor, but it does not want to be perfectly smooth, unless you prefer it that way. I prefer a little bit of bite, but that may have come from being too lazy to mash it perfectly. Add the butter sugar and salt and pepper to taste and mix well. It it is too stiff, add a little more milk or cream. It must be stiff enough to stuff into the turkey, but not too dry.
I put it into an old ice-cream tub and put it in the freezer until the night before Christmas as it needs to be completely thawed before stuffing into the turkey and sewing up the neck flap. I pack as much into the neck as I can and any remaining I use for soup – see below… The photo is from last Christmas and you can see some of the stuffing in the tub by the turkey, to get an idea of the consistency. No, that’s not me stuffing the bird. It is my – much-loathed (I hate getting my hands dirty) – early Christmas Day task, but last year I had broken my wrist in November and had a cast on my right – dominant – hand/arm, so for the first year I was let off the hook. Chomeuse very kindly did it for me, and she and her sister cooked Christmas lunch together, with me supervising.
You may wonder what this has to do with the theme of my blog, namely cooking with left-overs…. Probably an even better way to eat chestnuts is to have left-over chestnut stuffing and turkey stock soup. This is the ultimate Christmas treat. Just chop an onion and fry in a little oil till softened. Add left-over chestnut stuffing from the turkey and whatever did not go into the turkey (which can’t be eaten without further cooking as it will have come into contact with the raw turkey on your hands in stuffing it), cover it with left-over turkey/giblet stock/meat juices and cook till the stuffing is properly cooked. Blend (a stick blender is sufficient, straight in the pan) till lovely and smooth, add more stock if too thick (I like it fairly thick) and add some cream and salt and pepper to taste.
That is probably my all-time favourite soup.