There are Chestnut forests in a number of areas around Spain, and we pick mushrooms in one such forest in Galicia every year. Probably not too surprisingly to most, chestnuts have been a staple food for as long as people have lived in in areas where they grow. While these days many people think of them as a seasonal treat in the late fall, historically they were often a primary source of calories for local populations for several months every year. They were dried, processed, and used much like cereal grains. This means that besides being used whole, they ground them into flour, which could be stored longer and more efficiently. The chestnut flour was then made into porridges, breads, cakes, crepes, and all kinds of other day to day foods. Because of how luxurious chestnut flour and the items made from it have come to seem in today’s world, we tend to forget that chestnuts were peasant food and famine food throughout much of history.
Chestnuts are rather strange nuts in many ways, as they contain very little protein and fat, nutritionally consisting primarily of starches and sugars, along with a surprising amount of moisture when fresh. Unlike other nuts, fresh chestnuts behave much more as fruit, being quite perishable. They need to be processed before they dry out or spoil. As popular and delicious as they are, they can be a major pain to shell and peel, and newcomers often find them bewildering to work with.
This is a slightly updated take on a traditional recipe that Rosa found flipping through some Galician sources. You see flan all over Spain, typically made with a simple milk or cream base. This version adds such a rich, earthy, nutty depth to the standard version, making worthwhile all the extra effort of processing the chestnuts.
In our household, we always prefer to do individual flans. There’s something so elegant and satisfying about getting your own perfect little complete, round indulgence on the plate. But, if you prefer making one large one to slice and serve from, this recipe will work just as well for that. There are special “flaneras” designed specifically for cooking flan, in individual and large sizes. You can find them in specialty stores or online. In our house we have some large 5 or 6 ounce ramekins that work really well.
These chestnut flans really don’t need any garnish, as they have so much flavor and depth on their own. They pair amazingly well with a simple cup of coffee, or a glass of Madeira.
Ingredients (makes 6 individual flans)
350g (12oz) raw chestnuts in shell
500g whole milk
For the caramel
50g water (about ¼ cup)
Small squeeze of lemon juice
1. Prepare the chestnuts: Using a sharp knife, carefully cut an X in the flat side of each chestnut. Make sure to cut all the way through the shell and into the skin below. Place the chestnuts in a pot and cover with a generous amount of water. Bring to a boil on a high flame, then reduce heat to simmer for about 30 minutes to soften them up. Remove the pot from the heat, and leave the chestnuts in the water. Pull out a few chestnuts at a time, and use a paring knife to peel away the shell and the skin beneath, leaving just the nut. Leave most of the chestnuts in the hot water and peel them when they are just cool enough to handle. If they get cold, they become very difficult to peel.
2. Prepare the Caramel: Before beginning this step make sure your ramekins or flaneras are cleaned and nearby, lined up and ready to be filled. Combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a small sauce pot. Bring to a boil on a medium flame, and reduce the heat to simmer. Swirl very gently, trying to not get the simmering liquid up the side of the pan (the sugars stuck to the side will burn). As the water reduces away, you will see the color start to get a little bit yellow, then brown. Once the strong yellow-orange color appears, the process will take only a few seconds, so be vigilant and pay attention! When the color of the caramel gets to a light golden brown, work as quickly as possible, pouring an even amount into each of the ramekins, tilting as you go to spread it evenly around the bottom. The caramel will keep cooking in the pan even after you remove it from the heat, so you need to work quickly so that it doesn’t burn.
Note: Do not walk away from the caramel at any point. It needs to be watched constantly. It can go from not done to burnt in only a few seconds.
3. Make the flan base: Measure out 250g of the prepared chestnuts, and combine in a heavy-bottomed pot with milk and sugar. Bring up to a boil on medium-high heat. Lower the flame to keep it at a gentle simmer. Use a hand blender to blend the contents as smooth as possible, then simmer for another five minutes. Through this entire step, stir regularly to make sure the bottom does not burn.
4. Temper in the eggs and finish: Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Pour about ¼ of the hot milk and chestnut mixture into the beaten eggs while aggressively whisking. While still whisking, pour in the rest of the mix. As soon as it is thoroughly combined, pour or ladle it into the prepared flaneras or ramekins.
5. Bake the Flan: Place all of the filled flaneras in a large, deep baking dish. Use a measuring cup or pitcher to fill the baking dish with hot water, to about 2/3 of the height of the flaneras. Place the baking dish in a preheated 325F oven, being careful to not splash the water over into the flans. Bake until they set up. This will take about 45-50 minutes. You can tell they are done when a toothpick inserted inside comes out clean. Remove from the oven and carefully remove the flans from the baking dish to cool down. When cooled to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge.
6. To Serve: Remove the cold flans from the fridge and let them sit at room temperature. Fill a large pot about 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep with water. Get it to almost a simmer, and then turn the temperature to low heat. Place the flaneras or ramekins into the hot water, being careful to not allow any water to spill over the rim into the flans (remove a little water from the pan if necessary). Let them sit in the hot water long enough to heat the container to melt the solidified caramel at the bottom. If you are using a thin metal flanera this may only take about 30 seconds. If you are using a heavy ceramic ramekin it may take as much as 2 minutes. When hot enough on the bottom for the caramel to be melted, remove from the hot water bath, use a towel to dry off the bottom of the ramekin, and run a small knife around the inside, to separate the edge of the flan (all the way to the bottom) from the container. Turn the flan over onto the serving plate, and gently tap the bottom a few times. Let it sit for a few seconds before lifting up the container. Sometimes they can get a little suction, so give gravity a few seconds to pop them out. If they still don’t pop out, place them back in the hot water bath – the caramel is probably not totally melted.