What does the word “hazelnut” bring to mind? Do you automatically recall the famed stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth chocolate and hazelnut spread?
You’re not alone. Most people think of Nutella — the popular chocolate and hazelnut spread — when hazelnuts are mentioned. That, or in my case, the Ferrero Rocher chocolate candies my mother always received in her Christmas stocking from my grandmother, despite not caring for the confection. This treat consists of a whole roasted hazelnut with a hazelnut cream, dipped in milk chocolate and chopped hazelnuts and wrapped individually in gold paper. Decadent much?
The hazelnut, literally the nut of the hazel plant and also known as a filbert, is so much more than the chocolate spread tag-along when it comes to baking. Hazelnuts are tree nuts — much like almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. So why don’t they grace the mixed nut bowl at a party? Perhaps it’s due to their petite size, or their bitter skins — which are best removed prior to eating.
Most nuts work well in a variety of baked goods recipes, but hazelnuts have an especially satisfying bite that intensifies to a hearty crunch when the nut is toasted. And contrary to what you might believe, they don’t require chocolate to make them delicious. In fact, it’s the hazelnut doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to why people love Nutella so much.
But can the humble David — the hazelnut — rise past the Goliath which is Nutella? When comparing them simply based on average consumption, the answer is no. And truly, it’s difficult to compare. One is a highly mass-marketed spread, and the other is both a key ingredient to said spread, as well as an individual food item. Nutella, at an average of less than $5 a jar, is inexpensive, whereas hazelnuts can cost upwards of $16 per pound. That said, purchasing a few ounces of hazelnuts for a baking project or two will pay off hugely, and will leave a deeper impression than smearing some Nutella across a cookie.
Hazelnuts are wonderfully versatile: they play well with both sweet and savory flavors; you can toast them, candy them, grind them or chop them. When raw, they have a musky sweetness. Toasted for 8-12 minutes at 300°F in the oven, the sweetness intensifies with additional warm caramel undertones thanks to the Maillard reaction, also known as the “browning reaction.”
Almost any dessert recipe that calls for some type of nuts can use hazelnuts (though they don’t slice particularly well). Pralines and brittles combine the warm, toasted flavor of the hazelnut with a satisfying crunch, and if you can get your hands on hazelnut flour, you can make gluten-free desserts. Just remember that it’s not a direct one-to-one substitution of hazelnut flour for all-purpose flour, and if you’re unsure of how to substitute ingredients carefully, find a trusted source like a gluten-free cookbook or website.
If you have a particular fondness for peanut butter cookies, then why not make hazelnut butter cookies instead? Top them with a bit of cayenne and sea salt. If you can’t find a jar, toast the hazelnuts, then grind them up in a food processor with a little bit of oil and salt, and you have hazelnut butter. Start baking, or eat it straight out of the bowl with a spoon. I won’t judge – anyone who’s ever made a nut butter before knows the sticky, nutty joy of eating it as soon as it comes together. Join the party and bring a spoon.
Whether you grind them, chop them or simply leave them whole, hazelnuts deserve to reclaim their place in the spotlight, without chocolate tagging along and hogging the glory.
Hazelnut Tarts with Wildflower Honey Filling
Honey and nuts don’t have to be vanquished to the cereal shelf in your pantry. The toasty, spiced hazelnut crust and chopped hazelnut topping envelop the honey custard in this recipe, making for a simply elegant dessert. If you have a particular honey that is local to your area, or you know a honey maker, experiment with the flavors you can get from different kinds of honey, such as clover, buckwheat, orange, lavender, etc. Also, do your best not to eat the honey custard straight from the bowl; it’s definitely a challenge.
For the crust:
2 ounces ground hazelnuts
3¼ ounces (6 full-size) graham crackers
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
For the custard filling:
8 ounces wildflower honey
4 egg yolks
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1¼ cup whole milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the topping:
4 ounces toasted and chopped hazelnuts
Start with the custard filling first so it has time to cool. Combine the honey, egg yolks and salt in a medium mixing bowl and whisk to combine. (This will take a moment. Depending on your honey, it might be a sticky glob first, but keep whisking!) Add the cornstarch to the honey mixture and whisk in. Set aside.
Heat the milk over medium heat until it’s barely simmering — don’t let it boil. While whisking the honey mixture, add about one-third of the milk. Whisk for a few moment before pouring the honey-milk mixture into the remaining milk in the pan and whisking without stopping.
Keeping the heat on medium, whisk until the custard thickens. Remove from heat and press through a sieve. Add the butter to the strained custard and whisk to combine. Place a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of the custard to keep a skin from forming and place in the fridge to cool for at least an hour.
For the crusts, heat the oven to 350°F and position the racks toward the center. Combine the ground hazelnuts, graham crackers, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon and salt. Stir to combine.
Melt the butter and combine with the hazelnut mixture in a mixing bowl. Stir to combine. To check the mixture, press some of the crumbs in your hand — they should clump together.
Spray 4 small 4-inch tart pans with non-stick spray and set onto a baking sheet. Divide the crumbs among the pans, pressing them evenly along the bottom and sides. Bake until slightly dry and fragrant, 8-10 minutes. Cool completely before adding the filling.
Divide the filling evenly between the tarts and chill until you’re ready to serve. Then top with the toasted chopped hazelnuts.
Yields 4 4-inch tarts
Hazelnut Pepper Pecorino Shortbread
Don’t be alarmed if this savory shortbread cookie smells a bit like mac & cheese when baking in the oven. This may sound weird, but it’s totally normal and actually kind of wonderful. Make these ahead and then bake them up for your next dinner party. The cookies will be a unique addition to the appetizer spread, and your guests will not be able to stop eating them. Eat alone, or top with a jam with subtle sweetness, such as banana pepper, tomato, or even fig. Using a bit of hazelnut flour definitely makes a difference in flavor, while preserving the tender crumb of the cookie.
¾ cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 egg yolk
1¼ cups hazelnut flour
1 cup all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
¼ cup finely grated pecorino
Prepare the dough ahead of time, because it will need to chill for at least 1 hour before you slice the shortbread. Sift hazelnut flour, all purpose flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Stir in the pepper and set aside. Beat butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add egg yolk and beat to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure an even mixture. Slow add in the dry ingredients at a medium-low speed. Fold in the pecorino.
The shortbread dough should be fairly easy to handle, but if it’s a little sticky you can dust your hands with flour before handling. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat it gently to bring it together. Roll the dough into a log, about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
After chilling your dough thoroughly, heat the oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or baking silicone. Remove dough from the fridge, unwrap, and use a sharp knife to slice the bites into rounds, about ¼-inch thick.
Place the shortbread bites onto the baking sheets, with at least an inch in-between each one. Chill the full baking sheets in the freezer for 5 minutes (this will help keep them from spreading too much). Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. (If baking two trays at once, make sure you switch the top and bottom trays around half way through the baking time)
Leave the shortbread on the baking sheet for 5 minutes to cool and then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Yields 18-20 cookies
Chinese 5 Spice Hazelnut Brittle
Candy-making can be complicated, but don’t be afraid of brittle! This recipe is a snap — literally — providing a nutty, caramelly spiced candy that breaks apart with ease and has a good crunch. Other spices, or even herbs, can be substituted for the Chinese 5 spice.
1 cup sugar
1¼ cups toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
Heat the sugar in a pan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar melts, then turns a rich caramel color. Add the chopped hazelnuts, stirring to coat, then add the butter. Cook for an additional minute.
Add the vanilla extract, stirring carefully (the mixture may sputter). Then add the salt, Chinese 5 spice and baking soda.
Pour the brittle out onto the parchment paper, spreading as evenly as possible to your desired thickness. Cool for at least one hour, then break the brittle up into pieces and store in an airtight container.
Yields 1 pound of brittle
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski