I bought my first brown-paper bag of roast chestnuts in New York City on a bitterly cold winter night more than 50 years ago.
I’d walked from West 63rd Street and Central Park West to 51st Street and Sixth Avenue to talk to a renowned theatrical photographer, Roy Blakey, about shooting new headshots and a portfolio for me. As I walked, the ice crystals embedded in the wind gusts felt like tiny razor blades cutting my face.
I met Roy at the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. He was in the locker room lacing up his skates.
Walking back to my room at the Westside Y, I saw some folks gathered around a street cart. The vendor was selling roast chestnuts—the smell from the charcoal fire and the charring shells was hypnotizing. I joined the group, bought a bag full. As it warmed my hands, I watched how others were peeling away the shells and eating theirs. I followed their lead and tasted my first bite of roasted bliss. I’ve loved roast chestnuts ever since—my winters aren’t complete without them.
Even without a fire, you can make roast chestnuts at home that taste very much like the New York ones. And the secret is soaking them for two or three hours before roasting and high heat to char the shell. Here’s the process I use:
- Starting with fresh chestnuts and a very sharp knife, cut a X on the pointed end of each nut—going through the outer and inner skin—and about a quarter of the way down the sides. There are chestnut knives available that make the process easier.
- Soak the chestnuts in a bowl of water for a few hours. The soaking helps them steam and makes peeling them easier.
- Spread them in one layer flat side down on a sheet pan and then into a preheated 450 degree oven.
- In on layer, spread them flat side down on a sheet pan and into a preheated 450 degree oven. Rest for 10 minutes wrapped in a kitchen towel.
- As soon as cool enough to handle, peel, eat, and enjoy!