Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
A non-alcoholic chestnutmeggnog recipe for the holidays, however you celebrate
I want to say hello and thank you to the sudden influx of new followers that I have to assume came here via my piece on the head of Wine Proxies at Acid League on the Zero Proof this week!1 Without that new measure of responsibility, I don’t think I would have made it through editing and sending out this week’s recipe.
Because I’m sick.
The kind of sick that is really scary to be right now, especially when you can’t get an appointment for a test and you can’t stand outside in the cold for more than two and a half hours at a walk-“in” mobile testing site in New York, which is what I did today before giving up and coming home. I just couldn’t wait another 2 hours, as sick as I was feeling and as cold as I was. I had already canceled my Christmas plans two days ago, because I just didn’t feel like it was responsible to get on a plane right now. Who knows what I might have carried to the family I haven’t seen in 2 years even if I weren’t feeling sick? And since I can’t get a test, that “who knows” is not just theoretical… I literally don’t know.
This past week, even before I started to feel bad, the habit of apologizing whenever I talked about something so trivial as literally anything unrelated to this relentless pandemic (and which I feel like I had just broken) returned with a vengeance. It again feels embarrassingly indulgent to talk about anything else (and this is an indulgent drink, make no mistake!). But the reason every single one of you has signed up for this newsletter is for non-alcoholic cocktail recipes, and the stories that led to their existence, and while we may be rethinking and rearranging our plans to be with friends and family, the holiday season is still here. Frankly, making yourself a rich, non-alcoholic cocktail at home may be the safest way to celebrate.
So let’s take a moment to think about something else, and talk about holiday cocktails, now that my birthday has passed.
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I knew I wanted to make something eggnog-ish, because I love it and it was always a part of my Christmases growing up. My mom would buy a quart of Mayfield’s Eggnog as soon as it was available and we would sip little glasses of it as a reward after a long day of Christmas dinner prep, decorating the house, and wrapping presents. When my little brother, Artie, discovered that he had a taste for the stuff, she stopped buying it so early in the season, because he would literally demolish a newly bought quart of it overnight before anyone else had a chance to have some. So you see, I come by my love of the stuff quite honestly.
And, if I’m being totally transparent, I wanted to make a drink I could show off to my mom and Artie. Someday, soon, we all will be together (if the Fates allow), and hopefully soon enough that it will still be somewhat seasonally appropriate for me to share this with them (but not because another year has passed!). I miss them so, so much.
What I didn’t want was to just publish the eight millionth online recipe for non-alcoholic eggnog, with the only change being the addition of some Ritual Zero Proof Rum Alternative (though please feel free to track down one of those 7,999,999 recipes and try this, because it will probably be delicious). While I don’t want to say I will never do it, I’m not that interested in sending you all sober versions of the classics; I want to drop the remix. I’d toyed with the idea of a mashup of eggnog and coquito, a coconut and condensed milk rum drink that is often called “the Puerto Rican eggnog” despite having no egg in it, but the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like adding an egg to coquito, or replacing the condensed milk with heavy cream.
And then last week, Helena gave me a Parisian chestnut hot chocolate kit for my birthday, and after eating the sweetened chestnut cream out of the jar with a spoon, I realized I had the answer to what I was going to do with this week’s drink to make it special. Here was evidence, from the French, no less, that you could make a chestnut drink!
I’m not sure when I first tasted chestnuts, and surely it must have been before I was 26-years-old, but the first time I remember tasting them was in December or January of my second year of grad school. One of my classmates (we’ll call him Tim, because that’s his name) invited me over to his new Artist Boyfriend’s place for drinks one night. I got off the train somewhere in East Bushwick, and it was an additional 10 minute walk through completely empty streets against a face-flaying wind to the address Tim had given me. In those days, the abandoned factories and warehouses on the outer edge of Bushwick weren’t even populated with first wave gentrifying artists living in illegal loft apartments; they weren’t populated at all. Huge, cracked windows started ominously black eyed at me, alone; I didn’t encounter a single living creature, not even a rat, the entire walk. Artist Boyfriend’s address was an empty looking factory distinguishable from the others only by the building number illuminated by a single, caged lightbulb above the heavy, riveted door.
It crossed my mind that I didn’t actually know this classmate of mine all that well, and that it was entirely possible that I was about to end up in a dumpster, but I was shaking so hard from the cold that I was willing to risk having my kidneys stolen just to get out of the wind. I called him on my phone to come down to let me in, as there was obviously no buzzer or anything, and after a frigid eternity, he hauled open the door and led me into a garishly lit hallway. The only elevator was the huge kind used for freight, with horizontal doors made of unfinished wooden slats that opened and closed with the pull of a frayed rope. The boyfriend’s “apartment” was behind another riveted steel door, a former factory floor with 25 foot ceilings and more space than I had realized could exist in the 5 boroughs anymore. The amount of space was amazing, but the roaring wind that rattled the glass in the 15’ windows, some of which were already missing panes, made most of the place entirely inhospitable. I was no longer directly buffeted by the wind, but it wasn’t any warmer inside than it had been outside.
“Was the heat shut off?” I asked my friend.
“Oh, [Artist Boyfriend]’s landlord is the worst. He hasn’t turned it on this year,” my friend replied.
In retrospect, I wonder how credulous Tim was about this, because I had very quickly figured out that Artist Boyfriend either did not have a landlord (at least not one who knew that they had him as a tenant), or that landlord was renting to Artist Boyfriend under the auspices of an art studio space and not a residence.
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My friend gestured into a smaller room off of the massive, industrial kitchen. “It’s warm in here,” he said, slightly lying; it was the tiniest bit less cold but certainly not anything approaching warm. The ceiling was lower in this room, the bottom of a lofted area where Artist Boyfriend had built out a platform that acted as a bedroom. Strung through the buttressing 2x4s were multi-colored Christmas lights that cast a warm glow over three mismatched chairs, all in various states of rickety disrepair, arranged around an old-fashioned wood burning stove. It was lit and radiated heat in about a two foot circumference, and I ran toward it with my arms stretched forward as if greeting my sweetheart come back from The War. Right on the metal top where one could set a kettle to boil, were a dozen chestnuts, happily hissing as they roasted in their shells.
Artist Boyfriend joined us from somewhere in the cavernous, largely dark apartment, with rapidly cooling mugs of cider. In addition to living illegally in a windy old factory building, where he had built a loft of untreated wood directly over a woodturning stove, Artist Boyfriend was part of a group of performance provocateurs who did things like staging a fake press conference pretending to be the CEO of an oil company and successfully tricking the media into covering it— so exactly the kind of 40-year-old boyfriend a New Yorker in their mid-20s is likely to have. He didn’t talk much, leaving Tim and I to gossip about our classmates, leaning intimately close to one another as we almost fought over the pitiful warmth from the stove, talking and trembling with laughter and shivers. To the boyfriend’s credit, he kept a steady stream of chestnuts on the stove, slicing Xs into the shells and laying them down to roast almost as fast as we could pry them out of their shells and pop the sweet meat into our mouths.
When I left at who-knows-what o’clock in the morning, Tim walked me back to the train, and as soon as we’d walked the 10 minutes in the dark, empty streets, exclaimed. “Oh my God, I should have met you at the station! I’m so sorry!” I hugged him and said we should do this again, soon, and we didn’t, and I don’t know when he and Artist Boyfriend broke up, or what the circumstances were, but they did. Tim moved to Mexico City, and the last I saw him when he was visiting New York several years ago, he was living quite happily as a working artist.
Because of this, chestnuts have always had a rather romantic appeal for me, and for a long time I didn’t try cooking with them because I had somehow categorized them as a food that was only acceptable roasted over either an open fire or on a wood burning stove. I’ve since gotten over that, though the few times I’ve made anything that has chestnut in it, I’ve honestly wished I’d just roasted them to eat by themselves.
Until I tried making a chestnut rum flip, or, as I like to think of it, a chestnutmeggnog.
Purists will point out that this isn’t, actually, an eggnog, because there is no cream in it. After last week’s whole milk and heavy cream combo I wanted to stay away from dairy so as not to feel like I was repeating myself, and I had a lot of leftover coconut cream from testing out various vegan versions of the Grinchhopper. Make sure that you’re using unsweetened coconut cream (I used Native Forest Organic Unsweetened Coconut Cream) and not the sweetened stuff like Coco Lopez that you put in a piña colada. If you can’t find coconut cream at your grocery store, you can make your own by putting full fat coconut milk in the freezer overnight; the cream will rise to the top, and you can then carefully scraping it off of the frozen coconut water below. You could also skip making your own chestnut puree and buy some of the fancy imported French stuff, but you will definitely be paying for the time you save.
To make a vegan version of this, use Fee Brothers Fee Foam as an egg replacer, and up the sweetened chestnut puree or the coconut cream to give the drink enough heft, but do understand that the body will not be as silky as the version made with an egg.2 The molasses not only compliments and deepens the flavor of the Ritual Zero Proof Rum Alternative, but brings out the almost meaty, umami flavor of the chestnuts, distinguishing it from other eggnog analogues. You want to use unsulfured molasses here, not the blackstrap kind, or it will be super bitter. I used Grandma’s Robust Molasses, because that’s what was in the cupboard, but I’ve never noticed a real difference between the robust and the original.
Unless you have an allergy, though, please do not skip the nutmeg, even if you think you don’t like it or it doesn’t add anything in other instances. In this case, it really makes the drink, as you get the woody spice aroma before you even take your first sip. You can substitute cinnamon or leave it out if you are allergic, but to do so will give you an entirely different flavor profile. And please, for the love of Santa and all his reindeer, grate it from a whole nutmeg. Never use the pre-ground stuff in a jar, and in fact, this is me giving you permission to dump it in the trash, wash the jar, and use it for some better purpose, like storing your homemade booze-free cocktail syrups.
RECIPE: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (a non-alcoholic chestnutmeggnog)
For chestnut puree
1 pound whole, raw chestnuts
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
2 ounces Ritual Zero Proof Rum Alternative
4 ounces (½ cup) chestnut puree
1 tbsp coconut cream
1 tsp unsulfured molasses (NOT blackstrap molasses)
1 whole egg
nutmeg, to grate
To make chestnut puree:
Using a knife, cut two lines in an X shape on the flatter side of each chestnut. Make sure to cut pretty deeply, as you want to cut through both the hard shell and the fuzzy covering between the shell and the flesh of the chestnut.
Put the chestnuts in a small saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then partially cover with a tilted lid to vent, and reduce heat to low.
Simmer for 30 minutes, until the cut part of the shell curls away from the opening, and it’s relatively easy to peel the shell and fuzzy skin away from the meat. (Tip: remove one chestnut from the simmering water with a slotted spoon or tongs, rinse under cold running water until it’s cool enough to touch, and try peeling it before you take all of the chestnuts off of the stove. If it’s too hard to peel, you can throw it back in the simmering water, even if some of the shell has already come off.)
When chestnuts are cooked enough to peel easily, remove pan from heat and immediately run cold water into the pot until the chestnuts are cool enough to touch. Drain in a colander.
Peel the chestnuts, making sure to remove the shell and the dark outer skin. (Tip: it’s totally OK if you break the meat, here, since you’re going to turn it into puree, anyway. Just get that skin off however you can!)
Once the chestnuts are peeled, return them to the saucepan, along with the water and sugar, and return to heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid just begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to low, and break up the chestnuts into smaller pieces with the back of a wooden spoon to help release their flavor. Cover the saucepan and let simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, but keep it covered. Let the chestnuts rest in the syrup for 30 minutes to an hour.
Pour the chestnuts and syrup into a blender, and keep a little measuring cup of water nearby. Blend the chestnuts, adding a very little water at a time, as needed, to create a smooth puree. It should not be a liquid, but should be slightly thinner than a nut butter. Think apple sauce without the grainy texture.
Pour into a container with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate until ready to use. Should yield enough for 6-8 drinks, or one drink and eating the rest of it out of a jar with a spoon.
To mix drink:
Add rum alternative, chestnut puree, coconut cream, molasses, and egg to cocktail shaker. DO NOT ADD ICE YET.
Give the drink a thorough and vigorous dry shake, until egg and coconut cream are fully emulsified into the drink. It should foam up a bit, be one viscous consistency. (Tip: use your bar spoon to reach down to the bottom and mix up any larger bits of coconut cream that have escaped emulsification. A few little white dots are fine, but it should be mostly incorporated into the rest of the ingredients before adding ice.)
Add ice to the shaker and give it another vigorous shake until fully chilled.
Strain into a double old fashioned glass.
Grate fresh nutmeg over top (about 5-10 scrapes of a whole nutmeg over a zester).
There are a lot of Christmas movies that, probably deservedly, are dismissed as cloying, overly sentimental nonsense wrapped around some blatantly obvious and superficial moral about it being better to give than to receive, or the family is the reason for the season, or that the spirit of Santa is totally real if you just believe.
But despite the fact that it is frequently invoked as THE hokey Christmas movie, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is decidedly NOT deserving of this reputation.
I first watched it in May of this year because that was when it came up for Screen Test of Time, the podcast that I do with my friend David, where we are watching and reviewing every movie ever nominated for Best Picture. (You can listen to our review of it here on the website or listen here and subscribe on Apple podcasts.) Maybe watching it in the spring had a different effect on me than it would have had I watched it in December, but it’s not really a Christmas movie, even though the framing device occurs on Christmas Eve. Yes, yes, it’s a movie about community and how you may feel unimportant while having more of a positive impact on the people around you than you know, which is probably what you’ve heard about it if you’ve never seen it. But what distinguishes it from every other Christmas movie-with-a-moral is that it’s also about how the anxiety of wanting to and not being able to protect and support the people you love can sometimes lead you to treat them poorly, and while it might be understandable, it doesn’t make it acceptable just because it comes from a place of love. It would take a miracle to find a message that nuanced and grown-up on 34th Street.
If you’ve never seen it before, make this the year you finally watch it, whether you celebrate Christmas or not (because, again, I really don’t think this movie is about Christmas, except maybe the best possible interpretation of Christmas, which is about forgiveness and sacrifice and mercy). And if you have seen it before, watch it again, and then read my dear friend Helena’s heartbreaking essay about it (and a lot of other sad Christmas things) that she wrote last year during the bleakest of bleak midwinters, over on Griefbacon— though be prepared to cry about seven different times while you read it.
I’m planning on sending out another 5PM Eternal before Christmas, but in case it ends up in your inbox on or after Boxing Day, I wish all of you who celebrate, however you celebrate, a very happy holiday. Whether you’re gathered around a tree with your family, eating takeout Chinese food on the sofa with Netflix and your partner, or just spending a silent night by yourself, I hope you enjoy a Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire or (begrudgingly) a Grinchhopper— or both!
Until next time, keep your indulgent holiday drinks zero-proof and your 5:00s eternal!
If you haven’t read the piece, yet, it was really fun to chat with the head of this incredible (and incredibly ambitious) non-alcoholic wine alternative program, and you can read the piece here.
Someday, I am going to take some time to experiment with egg replacers so that my vegan friends have something, or a combination of things, better than this for their sours and flips— it’s on the list of 5PM Eternal New Year’s resolutions!