Marrons glacés are chestnuts which are candied in a syrup solution and then dried. They are extremely popular in France, a nation of avid chestnut consumers, and they can be found in other regions of the world as well, especially during the holiday season. A true marron glacé takes several days to cook from start to finish, making it an expensive delicacy, although some people cheat on the cooking process; fans of this traditional French food claim to be able to taste the difference.
People have been eating chestnuts for a very long time in Europe. During the Middle Ages, chestnuts were ground into flour in many parts of Europe, and the nuts were a valuable source of protein for people who could not afford meat or raise animals. The rich, nutty flavor of chestnuts continued to be popular after more nutritional foods became more accessible, and roasted chestnuts are a common offering in many European countries today, along with gelato flavored with chestnuts, desserts with ground chestnuts, and the marron glacé.
The recipe for the marron glacé appears to have emerged in the 16th century, around Lyon. To make this dish, chestnuts are peeled and blanched to remove their fibrous membranes before they are soaked in a sugar syrup. The syrup and chestnuts are periodically heated to encourage absorption of the syrup, and when all of the syrup has evaporated or been absorbed, the chestnuts are dried. The finished product is a chestnut with an outer coating of sugar and a rich, candied interior. A marron glacé can be a delicious food as-is, and these candied chestnuts are also used as garnishes on desserts, especially during the holidays.
To make marrons glacés, start by peeling around two and a half pounds (one kilogram) of chestnuts, and then blanch them in lightly salted water to loosen their membranes. Peel the membranes off the chestnuts, discarding the water, and set them aside. In a heavy saucepan, heat one quart (one liter) of water along with two heaping cups of sugar and a crushed vanilla bean until all of the sugar has dissolved, and then simmer for five minutes. Add the chestnuts, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes. Then cover the saucepan and allow it to sit undisturbed for 12 hours.
After 12 hours, heat the mixture again, bringing it to boiling for one minute and then covering the saucepan and allowing it to sit for 24 hours. At the end of this time period, heat again, hold at boiling for a minute, cover, and let sit for 24 hours again. Repeat this process until all of the syrup has been absorbed, and then lay the marrons glacés out to dry in a warm oven. Allow them to cool completely, and then use as desired; after all this work, you can see why a single marron glacé can fetch a high price at a Parisian candy shop!