Nuts I Love

The great hazelnut becomes yet greater with chocolate

I'VE never wondered why practically anything that is delicious toasted is called "nutty." The natural sugars and fats in nuts when heated provide the definitive taste of caramelization, against which seemingly everything else cooked with dry heat--even meat--is compared. Vegetarians, of course, often use nuts as meat surrogates, for their high protein content. But their high fat content has made them seem a poor choice for the weight-conscious.

I recently heard welcome news at a conference on nuts and legumes conducted by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, where a series of respected nutritionists and weight researchers heartily endorsed nuts as an everyday part of the diet. The fats in nuts are mostly monounsaturated, the kind now in favor for their cholesterol-curbing properties. And in several trials people who ate even as much as half a cup of nuts every day in place of other fats not only improved their blood-cholesterol levels but reported that they felt sated and thus less tempted to overeat. Also, the subjects did not gain weight.

I didn't press the assembled experts to bless what is probably confectionary's finest marriage: hazelnuts and chocolate. I'd already heard other good news about hazelnuts, which to my mind have, along with pecans, the most distinctive and elegant flavor. Among all nuts hazelnuts are especially high in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, currently much in favor for its properties as an antioxidant. I didn't push my luck by bringing up ice cream, either, whose finest forms include hazelnuts. ("Hazelnut" seems to have taken over from "filbert" as the general name. The difference was always only etymological; "filbert" probably derives from the French Saint-Philibert, whose feast day falls in late August, a few weeks before the nut's harvest; "hazelnut" is an Anglo-Saxon word.)

nuts picture In the past year I have conducted a worldwide hazelnut hunt, prompted by my desire to duplicate a kind of biscotti unlike all others I've tasted in Italy. The best hazelnuts, I had heard, grow in the Piedmont, the region in the northwest of Italy that has always been the country's chocolate-making capital and is the home of gianduia, the ingot-shaped chocolate-hazelnut candy. But I needed different nuts for these biscotti, which are called tozzetti for their squat (tozzo), thumblike shape, and which are softer than the usual biscotti, because they include olive oil (and lard, if the baker knows the farmer who killed the pig). The cookies are native to a more southerly region that produces hazelnuts--the part of Lazio around Viterbo, north of Rome, where a friend's mother makes them every year after her family harvests the nuts in their small orchard.

I found a grower in Lazio, Carlo Torre, who is eager to export to America and who agreed to send me samples. For comparison I obtained Piedmont hazelnuts from the one U.S. importer who sells them. At local shops I bought hazelnuts from Oregon and Turkey, the two kinds commonly available here. Then I got serious, calling botanists in several countries to learn more about why the nuts I tried tasted so different from one another. By this time I was gearing up for my annual flourless baking at Passover, for which I always buy quantities of nuts. I also buy chocolates for friends who celebrate Easter, and the best chocolates rely on hazelnuts to complete their flavor.

Like many matches that in retrospect seem destined, the combination of hazelnuts and chocolate was a result of accident--wartime shortages. At the start of the nineteenth century, naval blockades imposed by the English against Napoleon reduced the supply of cacao arriving from the Americas. The chocolatiers of the Piedmont, which was under French occupation, used roasted and ground hazelnuts to extend their short supplies of cocoa solids. In the 1860s the company Caffarel, which still exists, wrapped the candies in gold or silver paper and gave them the name of a popular local marionette character, Giandoja, known for his merry gluttony. Their slim flatiron shape is said to recall the puppet's cap, but it was probably adopted out of practicality--the paste is too viscous to be molded in any detail. Now every Italian chocolatier produces what have become known generically as gianduiotti. Few labels bear the character's mask anymore, as the originals did, but the shape and the foil wrapping remain.

Today the world celebrates the marriage by eating Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that has become something of a mania in Italy, where children use it as frequently as we use peanut butter, and that has caught on in the United States, too. The brothers Ferrero began making the spread immediately after the Second World War, probably in response to renewed shortages of cocoa solids: the kilogram loaves in which Nutella was originally sold cost a quarter as much as the same weight of chocolate. Ferrero also had great success with its gold-wrapped chopped-hazelnut-and-chocolate "rock" (Rocher), similar to the famous silver-wrapped "kisses" (Baci) from the rival company Perugina. (Nothing, to my mind, rivals the star-strewn charm of the Baci wrapper, which encloses little sentimental messages in the spirit of those on pastel-colored candy hearts.) Ferrero says that today worldwide sales of Nutella exceed those of all brands of peanut butter combined, which to me seems only natural. Mars, unsurprisingly, has begun selling its own hazelnut-chocolate spread, named for its Milky Way bar; the dense brown-and-white cream comes striated.

LAST Christmas I had a chance to visit the family orchard that supplies the nuts for those irresistible tozzetti my friend's mother makes. I was surprised at how small a hazelnut tree, a member of the birch family, is--like a modest lilac. The trunks are seldom thicker than a forearm (U.S. trees are much larger), and the wood is said to be excellent for shepherd's sticks, because it doesn't splinter. There were still nuts on the trees, each tightly clustered with two or three distinctly lobed leaves, which are technically husks. The clusters look like beaten-gold oak leaves and acorns in Greek jewelry; I expect Martha Stewart to be gilding them soon.

The ground beneath the trees had been carefully cleared, because hazelnuts are collected after they fall. (Large growers use machines that catch the nuts in canvas hammocks.) In late August and early September, a few weeks before the nuts are ripe, the ground is raked--or, in recent times, sprayed with herbicides. Because hazelnuts grow best on hills near water, the use of herbicides has resulted in polluted aquifers, especially in the area around Viterbo; pollution and the need to return to older methods of clearing the land are currently much discussed.

In my taste comparisons I understood why Piedmont hazelnuts have retained their reputation. The flavor of Viterbese hazelnuts is very fine, but that of Piedmont nuts is more intense. Also, the skins of Piedmont nuts come off more easily after heating (skin adheres more or less tightly by variety), something that is crucial for candymakers who want to use whole nuts.

Any home baker knows how tedious it is to skin hazelnuts--an essential task, because the skins are high in astringent tannins. The usual trick is to enclose the roasted nuts in a clean dish towel and rub them together vigorously, which will remove most but not all of the skin. Another technique is to boil the nuts with a bit of baking soda in the water, which evidently loosens the skins enough so that you can rinse them off, but then you have to wait for the waterlogged nuts to dry thoroughly, or else roast them longer and with special care. The pastry chef and teacher Jim Dodge, of the New England Culinary Institute, instead mists hazelnuts with water before roasting them to loosen the skins. Flo Braker, the author of several definitive books on baking, offers a skinning tip I like: freeze hazelnuts after they are roasted, she says, and the skins will flake off easily. "That way you don't keep eating them while you're rubbing off the last pieces of skin," she says. "I always used to have to roast a good third again as many as I needed, because I knew how many my husband and I would eat while they were still hot."

In my taste comparisons I also learned how easy it is to over-roast hazelnuts. Since I like toasty flavors so much, I usually think the darker the better. But the almost pungent taste of hazelnuts--which is much more assertive than the taste of almonds--is easily obliterated by a minute or two too long in the oven. Best to roast the nuts in a slow oven, 325 degrees, for about ten minutes, just until you begin to smell them and they color very lightly.

Unfortunately, the taste I encountered more than any other was rancidity. This was a problem especially with the nuts I bought locally, because stores have a tendency to keep nuts on the shelf far too long. The oils oxidize and go rancid so quickly that the only safe place to store nuts is in the freezer. (This is why I no longer buy hazelnut oil, whose flavor I love; it has usually been pressed in France, and by the time I get it the oil has gone off completely.) You'll have far better luck if you buy unshelled nuts rather than shelled ones, because they resist oxidation longer. But then, of course, you face the chore of both shelling and skinning the nuts.

I was disappointed by Oregon hazelnuts. Most are of a variety called Barcelona--handsome round nuts practically as big as macadamias and with nearly as little taste. The risk with any hazelnut is a kind of dead woody flavor along with the characteristic one. Turkish and Oregon nuts, I found, had the highest proportion of wood flavor, Piedmont the highest proportion of hazelnut flavor. You can make your own comparison, buying Oregon nuts from a local store--or mail-ordering them from a reliable company such as Gahler's Hazelnuts (800-524-8201), to ensure that they're fresh. De Choix, a gourmet importer in New York, will sell you a four-kilo vacuum-packed bag of shelled and roasted Piedmont hazelnuts, or will tell you if a store near you sells them in smaller amounts (800-332-4649).

The Piedmont variety would probably have great difficulty growing in American soil, according to Cecil Farris, an amateur botanist I discovered through the Internet who claims to have one of the world's most diverse collections of hazelnut genetic material at his home, in Lansing, Michigan. It would quickly succumb to eastern filbert blight, he says. But Farris has worked on blight- and cold-resistant hazelnut varieties that have great flavor and loose skins, and he wouldn't mind at all if Oregon growers used them instead of Barcelona, which has "a woody old kernel and a thick, ugly shell with a kind of pubescent fuzz at the apex--it hasn't got anything I'm interested in." Farris has his eye on other wet temperate regions that he thinks would be ideal for hazelnuts: he describes the Appalachian region between Bristol, Virginia, and Knoxville, Tennessee, as a kind of latter-day Fertile Crescent, and dreams of using them like the mighty almond in Hershey bars.

HAZELNUTS are used in more than sweets, of course. The people who live in areas where they grow usually serve them as they are, with fruit, letting guests do the shelling. In the area around Naples hazelnuts are served before and not after a meal, as a complement to the local Fiano wine. Pliny the Elder described the Roman practice of grafting grapevines with hazelnut stock, to strengthen them; the wine from such vines is said to taste of hazelnuts. The Mastroberardino family, whose vineyards are in the hills near Avellino, where hazelnuts grow, make an excellent Fiano that is available in the United States.

The writer Paula Wolfert says that picada sauces used in Catalan dishes for final flavoring are thickened with toasted and pounded hazelnuts and almonds mixed with garlic and hot pepper. She recently told me that in Istanbul those who can afford them substitute hazelnuts for walnuts in the famous Turkish dish Circassian chicken, which is scented with saffron, allspice, and red pepper (a recipe for it appears in her recent The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean).

In Flatbreads and Flavors, a wonderful culinary tour of the Mediterranean and Asia, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid give a simple recipe for dukka, an eastern-Mediterranean nut-and-spice dip: in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, finely crush a half teaspoon of black peppercorns and add a quarter teaspoon of fresh or dried thyme leaves and a teaspoon of coarse salt. Pound this together with sixteen finely chopped hazelnuts, which you can toast or not beforehand. The mixture will keep for several weeks in an airtight container; just before serving, mash the paste against the sides of a bowl to release the aromatics. The dip is good with any flatbread, particularly if it has first been dipped in olive oil, and is especially good with sesame-dusted bread rings or breadsticks.

Perhaps the ultimate way to taste the caramelized flavors of toasted nuts is actually to caramelize them, so that they are dramatically shiny and deliciously toasty. Flo Braker offers a method that is easy but requires a candy thermometer. Roast very lightly four ounces of shelled hazelnuts (about a cup) and remove the skins. In a small heavy saucepan combine three tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon of water, and, if you have it, a one-inch piece of vanilla bean. Melt the sugar over low heat and then cook over a medium-high flame until the mixture reaches 248 degrees. Remove the syrup from the heat, fish out the vanilla bean, and stir in the nuts. Mix well, return the pan to a medium flame, and heat until the sugar darkens (don't allow it to turn black). Off the heat stir in one teaspoon of unsalted butter, which will keep the nuts from clustering. Spread the mixture onto a baking sheet to cool, separating the nuts with a fork.

This Passover I'll be using a recipe for chocolate-hazelnut meringues, crisp around the edges and chewy inside, from my book, The Joy of Coffee. (The book also contains the recipe for tozzetti; the lard is optional.) I call them gianduia cookies; in my mother's day they were plain chocolate kisses, named perhaps for their shape, and reserved for special occasions because of their delicacy.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a baking sheet toast a cup of shelled hazelnuts for ten minutes or so, until they just start to scent the kitchen. Rub off the skins, trying to resist sampling. Finely chop enough nuts to make a third of a cup. Lower the oven to 325 degrees, place a rack in the middle, and lightly grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper.

In a mixer on medium speed or with an electric beater beat three large egg whites until soft peaks form (if you prefer a crisper, less chewy cookie, use four egg whites). Gradually beat in three quarters of a cup of sugar, scraping the sides of the bowl; add a teaspoon of vanilla extract and whisk just until blended. Drizzle in three ounces of semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled, and add three tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder. Whisk or beat at medium speed only to combine the chocolate and meringue. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the chopped and whole nuts. Drop the batter onto the baking sheets by tablespoonfuls, about two inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the cookies are firm. Let them cool completely before removing them with a spatula.

You don't have to bake to enjoy hazelnuts and chocolate. Gianduiotti made by Peyrano, the best in Turin, aren't sold in the United States at the moment, but many other kinds are. And two of my favorite U.S. chocolate makers make and will send hazelnut chocolates: Fran's, in Seattle (800-422-3726), and Richard Donnelly, in Santa Cruz, California (408-458-4214).

The rich medieval spice bread panforte combines nuts with citrus peel and honey; honey (to which I will devote my next article) and nuts is an ancient combination thought to be medicinal. The best panforte I know comes not from Italy but from the Cafe Beaujolais, in Mendocino (800-930-0443)--potent and deeply satisfying. The café makes a version using hazelnuts only, rather than the usual combination of nuts. It's a purism I advocate.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; Nuts I Love; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 108-111.