San Nicolas and Chestnut & Drunken Raisins Muffins

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

…are synonymous with wintery days and nights and the Yuletide season that’s upon us. For me, roasting chestnuts also brings back memories of growing up in Chipiona and my Spanish grandmother, whom we all called Tita Paca. She was one of the biggest influences in my life and someone that continues to be very important.

Today, which is the holiday of San Nicolás (Saint Nicholas), I remember her even more than other days. For Tita Paca, San Nicolás was very special. We used to do the traditional 3-Monday journey many times during the year, and on December 6th especially, we’d always try to go to church to visit him.

I’m not a very religious person, and in many ways, neither was my grandmother. Yet, she truly believed in Saint Nicholas and how he had helped many people during his lifetime, and as a saint, also helped our family steer away from harm…

Leovigildo used to travel the country roads on his horse-carriage from town to town in the provinces of Sevilla and Huelva, taking with him important items, money and foodstuff during the late 1800s. During those times, there were a lot of bandoleros – robbers – on horseback on the country roads. They were always waiting for the right moment to attack travellers and steal what they could. 

Leovigildo grew up in the town of Castilleja del Campo, in a humble home, where his mother used to have the portrait of an old man, with a white beard and a bishop’s hat on the wall. Leovigildo would ask his mother who that old man was, and she would always say, “just a saint… carry on”. And Leovigildo did, carry on. He wasn’t a religious man, in fact more of a republican and non-believer, but always an honourable and good person, never doing harm to anyone and always being just and kind. He was the father of one of my grandmother’s best friends, Carmelita. 

After Leovigildo married and already had a few children, he continued with his business. His wife used to always tell him to not travel at night and be careful, since the bandoleros were always a menace and he was always in danger of being assaulted. But Leovigildo had little choice if he wanted to keep his family afloat.

One night, whilst travelling the country roads, in darkness and all alone, he heard voices and noises… and then he saw a bright light ahead of him on the road. He thought of turning back, but couldn’t because the carriage couldn’t turn around. He used to boast that he was not scared of anything…but on this particular night, he feared for his life. He knew the bandoleros were many and very prepared, with lights and all… so he braced himself and carried on. 

Not being a religious man, he didn’t pray or ask God to help him. 

As he entered the bright lights, he saw an old man with a white beard sitting on the side of the road…and just then, Leovigildo turned to the man and said, “I know you! You’re the man in the painting that my mother has always had.” Just as he pronounced those words, the old man with a beard disappeared and so did the bright lights. 

He made his way home on that evening and many others, never, ever being assaulted or harmed…and never once telling anyone about this incident. Years later, when he was very old and agonising for days – the doctors kept saying that each day was to be his last – he found the strength to tell his granddaughter, Violeta, and my mother, who was also like a granddaughter to him, about the story. He still couldn’t really understand why that old man, Saint Nicholas, had chosen to appear to him on that dark night so long ago.. but he thought he owed him being safe all those years and wanted someone to know. 

Leovigildo died a few days later… on December 6th, the day of Saint Nicholas. 

This is a true story. One that my grandmother would tell me and my mother has told me over and over. And one that gives me goosebumps every time I remember it. San Nicolás also “gave signs” to my grandmother…and she believed that he answered all her questions that she would pose during the 3-Monday walks to see him at the Santuario de Regla, in Chipiona.

I have to admit I believe in him too, although maybe not quite the same way my grandmother did…and what I truly believe in, is his message of goodness and protection of those in need.

Today, on the day of Saint Nicholas, we should all – kids from one to ninety-two – be believers… believers in dreams and doing good to others.

I love this time of year that is approaching with the festive atmosphere, the lights, the decorations, the gathering of our family and friends, and yes, the roasting of chestnuts… the ones you find on street corners from London to Sevilla.

My grandmother is no longer with us, but her soul lingers and I remember her especially today and know that San Nicolás is somehow protecting all of us.

I remember her child-like excitement whilst opening packages on Christmas, her enthusiasm for everything in life, even the smallest things like roasting chestnuts in our fireplace.

I didn’t roast the chestnuts for this recipe, but rather cooked them on the stovetop to make them moist and supple. The muffins are a delicious combination of the seasonal flavours. I hope you enjoy and dream a little today…

CHESTNUT & DRUNKEN RAISINS MUFFINS

Ingredients, makes 9 large muffins:

350g chestnuts (about 50 chestnuts, plus some extra; I put in about 5 more)*
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup moscatel or brandy**
4 yolks
4 egg whites + 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup raw honey
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 cup almond flour

Method:

Cook the chestnuts in a large pot of boiling water, about 50 minutes. Make sure you add more water, if necessary, so the chestnuts do not burn. In the meantime, place the raisins in a bowl and cover with the moscatel.

Before the next steps, preheat oven to 180C (350F).  Prepare a large muffin tin with paper holders.

When the chestnuts are done, allow to cool before handling. Peel and purée in a food processor. Drain the raisins, reserving 2 tablespoons of moscatel. Set the raisins aside.

Add the 2 tablespoons of moscatel to the chestnuts and continue puréeing. Add the egg yolks, butter, and coconut milk and blend until smooth. Add the raw honey, orange zest, baking soda and sea salt. Pulse again until well blended.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Fold the chestnut mixture, almond flour and raisins into the egg whites until just blended.

Pour by spoonfuls into the muffin holders, about 2 spoonfuls per muffin. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean and muffins are golden brown. Allow to cool before serving.

*Tip: Since you are cooking the chestnuts without peeling, add a few extra in case they are rotten or not nice on the inside. I used about 5 extra and I ended up discarding about 6 chestnuts after peeling because they were not right inside.

**If you prefer to make the recipe without alcohol, simply soak the raisins in water, orange juice or orange blossom water to make them soft.

 *****

 MUFFINS DE CASTAÑAS Y UVAS PASAS BORRACHAS

Ingredientes, para 9 muffins grandes:

350g castañas (son como unas 50, aparte yo puse unas 5 de demás)*
1/2 vaso uvas pasas
1/2 vaso moscatel o brandy**
4 yemas
4 claras + 1/2 cucharadita crema de tartar
1/3 vaso mantequilla
1/2 vaso leche de coco
1/2 cucharadita de bicarbonato de soda
1/8 cucharadita de sal fina, como una pizca
1/4 vaso de miel cruda
1 cucharada sopera de ralladura de naranja
1 vaso de harina de almendras/almendras molidas muy finas

Como hacer los muffins:

Cuece las castañas en una olla grande de agua hirviendo, como unos 50 minutos. Si hiciera falta, añade mas agua.  Entretanto, pon las uvas pasas en un bol y tapa las con el moscatel.

Antes de empezar con los siguientes pasos, precalienta el horno a 180C. Y prepara un molde de muffins grandes con su correspondientes fundas de papel.

Cuando las castañas esten listas, deja que se enfríen antes de pelar las. Pela las y haz un puré con el robot de cocina. Escure las uvas pasas, reservando 2 cucharadas de moscatel. Añade el moscatel al puré de castañas. Agrega las yemas, la mantequilla, la leche de coco y pulsa hasta que obtengas una masa suave.

Ahora incorpora la miel, la ralladura de naranja, el bicarbonato y la sal. Vuelve a pulsar hasta que este todo bien mezclado.

En un bol aparte, bate las claras de huevo con la crema tartar hasta punto de nieve. Con una espátula, pasa la crema de castañas al bol de las claras montadas. Añade la harina de almendras (almendras molidas) y las uvas pasas. Mezcla todo bien con las espátula, pero sin batir la masa. Queremos que quede con aire, pero que no se vean las claras montadas.

Echa como dos cucharadas soperas de la masa en cada molde de muffin. Hornea durante unos 35-40 minutos hasta que esten los muffins dorados y hechos. Se puede comprobar con un palillo de dientes. Deja que se enfríen antes de servir.

*Nota: Al utilizar castañas frescas sin pelar, siempre es bueno incluir unas cuantas demás por si nos sale alguna mala por dentro. Yo puse unas 5 demás, y tire como 6 después de cocer las.

**Si no quieres utilizar alcohol, en vez de moscatel, usa agua, zumo de naranja o agua de azahar para poner las pasas en remojo.