I’ve been trying to include some rather more unusual ideas in my Twelve Days series this year, so with that in mind, today’s recipe looks East, to Japan, for some inspiration. I came across a recipe for simple wagashi sweets made from fresh chestnuts called kuri kinton, and which are also pure whimsy, looking like little chestnuts!
Chestnuts have a strong association with Anglo-Saxon Christmas traditions, from roasted chestnuts sold in the street, to turkey stuffing, and of course the romantic idea of toasting them on the fire in your own home. I figured that kuri kinton would be a great idea for the festive season, with all the flavour of chestnuts but without all the heaviness that usually goes with how they are served.
This recipe is very simple – fresh chestnuts are steamed, them lightly sweetened with sugar and formed into a chestnut shape. Very simple but very clever. As there is only some sugar in this recipe, and no oil or fat, the flavour is light and you get the real intense flavour of chestnuts. This means, of course, that you should try to use the best chestnuts that you can get hold of. I have no idea if you could use tinned or vacuum-sealed chestnuts for this recipe, but I suspect that if you make these, freshness will also be your ally here. The use of canned chestnuts would also seem to run counter to the idea of making wagashi where freshness is important, and seasonality of the ingredients highly prized.
I used a batch of plump, shiny Italian chestnuts for this recipe, and they were easy to prepare using a steamer. However, I also had some slightly older chestnuts which I added to the steamer. After cooking, it was immediately apparent which were which – the fresh chestnuts were tender and easy to remove from their shells. They also had a texture like cooked potatoes and a sweet, rich aroma. The older chestnuts were rock hard and useful. So be sure to go for fresh.
If you wanted to, I’m sure you could jazz these up with a hint of spice or chocolate or some other flavour, but I think they are best enjoyed on their own, so that you can just appreciate the delicate flavour and silky-smooth chestnut that makes up these wagashi. This also seems to be to be truer to the concept of wagashi. And as a Christmas treat, they are unusual, and rather sophisticated.
The original recipe for making these kuri kinton suggested using around 70g of white sugar to 550g of chestnut. However, my naughty Western sweet tooth did not think this was sufficient, so I ended up using nearer 200g. Yes, rather a lot, but I think it is necessary. My advice would be to add as much sugar as you think you need, but remember you don’t want to overwhelm the delicate chestnut flavour with too much sweetness.
It is also recommended to pass the chestnuts through a sieve to ensure a smoother result. However, as I prepared the chestnut mixture to form the wagashi I found the mixture to be too coarse. So…I threw the chestnuts into a food processor and blitzed it until completely, perfectly, utterly smooth. Then the whole lot went back into a saucepan and I cooked it until the mixture was very thick. The result? Perfectly smooth sweet chestnut paste that could be moulded into the shapes you see below. Maybe not authentic, but I liked the result.
Now, the big question – what are they like? If you’re a fan of chestnuts, this is a nice recipe to try, and they look very unusual and attractive as part of the festive selection. I think they would also be fun if made as smaller sweets, and used to decorate the top a chestnut gateaux.
Just one final word of warning – these kuri kinton need to be fresh to be enjoyed. I made the chestnut mixture the night before, and then shaped them the next day. I think they were at their best on that day, and I’d be cautious about storing them for any length of time. They will dry out if left to stand for too long, and if you keep them in the fridge, the delicate flavour of the chestnut will be dulled.
So, if you can cope with the complexity, the quirks and all the fiddly work with the chestnuts, enjoy making these little chestnut sweets!
To make Kuri Kinton (original recipe here):
Makes around 30 pieces (a lot – you might want to try a smaller batch!):
• 1kg fresh chestnuts
• 200g white caster sugar
• still mineral water
1. Place the chestnuts in a steamer (I used a colander placed above a large pan). Steam for 30 minutes.
2. Turn off the steamer. Take three or four chestnuts at a time (leave the rest in the steamer to keep warm). Cut each chestnut in half and scoop out the inside. Watch out for any bad chestnuts – you’ll know them if you see them, and they should be thrown away. If in doubt, don’t use! If you find the nuts get hard to scoop out, warm them again by steaming for a minute or two.
3. Once all the chestnuts have been scooped out, put the pieces into a sieve and press through with a spoon. This will break up the flesh, and remove any bits of skin or lumps.
4. Once all the chestnuts have been done, weigh the amount of chestnut (I got 550g from 1kg of chestnuts).
5. Put the chestnuts into a blender with the sugar (I used 2/5 the amount of sugar to chestnuts – 200g of white sugar for 550g of chestnut flesh). However, go with what you think tastes good, so if you like less sugar, use less sugar. Add as much water as is needed to make a perfectly smooth puree (if should be smooth but thick, not runny).
6. Pour the chestnut mixture into a saucepan, and cook on a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking on a low heat until you have a very thick mixture. You should be able to take a piece and roll it into a firm ball. If too soft, keep cooking. If the ball cracks easily or seems dry, add some water and cook for a moment before re-testing. Cover the mixture with cling film and leave to cool overnight.
7. Time to make a chestnut! Take a ball of the paste (around 30g, or the size of a large chestnut) and place in the middle of a damp piece of muslin cloth. Gather the cloth on top, pinch the ball lightly and twist the top of the cloth. Carefully unwrap the sweet, and you should see a chestnut shape. Remove from the cloth and press lightly onto a plate (this will flatten the base and allow the chestnut to stand up). Serve at room temperature with Japanese green tea.
Worth making?If you like chestnuts, this is a great recipe, and very unusual at Christmas time.