Among my favourite treats that seem to be available only at Christmas are marrons glacés. I'm normally very generous when it comes to sharing the contents of chocolate boxes that find their way onto my desk at this time of year (thank you, La Maison du Chocolat), but when it comes to marrons glacés, it's a different story.
Whoever figured out the process of combining chestnuts with sugar and making the ingredients into a heavenly confection was a culinary genius - the dense, hard nut is completely saturated with sugar, so it becomes tender, rich and luxuriously delicious. Yes, it is very sweet - it is candy, after all - but because it is so rich, one (or perhaps two, if you're being greedy) is enough to satisfy.
The problem is they're pretty expensive - about HK$50 per piece. Plain chestnuts, by comparison, are relatively inexpensive. So, because I'm a curious cook and I love to give home-made treats to friends, I took a stab at marrons glacés. I didn't think it would be that difficult - after all, I make candied kumquats every year and the process is similar. The trick to both confections is letting the kumquats (or chestnuts) simmer and rest in increasingly dense sugar solutions so the syrup penetrates them completely. The process with kumquats takes about 14 days.
After one unsuccessful attempt, however, I figured out why marrons glacés are so expensive. My first mistake was deciding to "experience" the whole process, which starts with shelling and peeling the chestnuts. If you've ever done this, you'll know it's a lot of work. You need to cut a slit in the hard shell, then boil the nuts before removing the shell and papery skin, which come off easily only when the nut is very, very hot - they both stick maddeningly when the chestnut cools. It took me more than two hours to shell and peel about a kilo of chestnuts, and many of them had broken by the time I'd finished. I boiled some sugar with water and added the chestnuts, and allowed them to simmer briefly. Then I removed the pan from the heat and let it all "rest" for a couple of days so the syrup could penetrate. After that, I removed the chestnuts from the syrup, reboiled it with more sugar, added the chestnuts, simmered them and let them rest again. I repeated this process four more times. At the end of 12 days, I tasted the chestnuts - and they were decidedly unimpressive. Less than a quarter had survived the process intact and, rather than being tender and rich, they were hard, dense and leathery. I threw them away.
I haven't given up on home-made marrons glacés, although I'm too discouraged to attempt them again in the near future. Next time, I'll start with peeled chestnuts - probably the dried ones sold in Chinese shops - and boil them until they're completely tender before proceeding. Cooking them for just brief periods in the sugar syrup doesn't seem to soften them much.
Hopefully by this time next year I'll have perfected marrons glacés and can give them as gifts.
Truc: (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.