by Gina Depalma
If it is at all possible for a nut to be enigmatic, in my opinion the hazelnut is the best candidate. Traveling incognito, it goes by two names. I remember the day one of my assistants repeatedly told me that we were out of hazelnuts, but that there was a can marked “filberts” on the shelf (luckily we cleared that up). Open a can of Planter’s Mixed Nuts and you will find that hazelnuts are by no means dominant, like the peanut, nor are they coveted, like the treasured cashews. Always a little hard to find in mass quantities, one surely must to search beyond the bags of walnuts, almonds and peanuts in the supermarket to find hazelnuts, in or out of the shell. And speaking of the shell, it is downright frightening. Seemingly impenetrable, my mother would not let me even attempt cracking open a hazelnut, whisking it out of my hands if I dared to dig it out of the bowl of nuts she would bring out after dinner on Sundays.
Demystified, hazelnuts are now a part of my daily routine, as I have bags of fresh, imported hazelnuts from Italy at my disposal. Every day around noon, I pop a few in my mouth for a midday treat. I love their succulently sweet tinge and their rich, roasted aroma. Perhaps it is because they seemed so mysterious to me as a child that I now think of them as an indulgence, and I love to lavish them in cookies, cakes and gelato.
The origin of hazelnut cultivation in Italy dates back to Roman times, but exactly when the hazelnut found its way from Asia to Europe remains a murky debate. We know that Apicius included a recipe for hazelnut candy in his cookbook, and that Romans would burn torches of hazel wood at wedding ceremonies as a symbol of fertility. Pliny claimed that they were native to Damascus, yet ancient Chinese manuscripts dating back 5000 years reveal that hazelnuts are one of the five sacred foods bestowed upon humans by the gods. Hazelnuts received their pseudonym as a consequence of their annual harvest, which takes place in the month of August, conveniently timed with the feast of St. Phillbert on August 22nd. If August seems like a peculiar harvest time, you are correct. Unlike any other fruit-bearing tree, the hazel blooms and pollinates in the winter. The blossom remains dormant until the early spring, when the nuts begin to form and eventually ripen in late summer.
Hazelnuts are grown in several regions of Italy, and some of the best come from in and around Alba in Piemonte. Although Turkey provides about 70% of the hazelnuts consumed worldwide, Italians prefer to use their own crop, as well as exporting some of their treasures to lucky worldwide consumers such as myself. I have tasted hazelnuts from the United States, Turkey, Israel, Spain and even Australia. Call me a snob, but I think those produced in Piemonte are the best, with an unmistakably rich aroma and deep golden color. Consequently, hazelnuts pop up in many of the traditional sweets of Northern Italy, including two of my favorites, torrone, or nougat candy, and panforte. When hazelnuts are paired with chocolate, otherwise known as gianduja, the combination is irresistible, as millions of fans of Nutella can attest. I happen to be a big fan of hazelnuts and raspberries; try substituting your regular pb&j with nutella and raspberry jam and I think you will agree.
I am thrilled to see that hazelnuts are a much easier find these days than they were a few years back. Do yourself a favor and forgo the hazelnut-flavored coffee and opt for some reality in the form of whole, roasted hazelnuts. The first place to look is in your local gourmet or specialty shop. Health-food stores are also a good source. L’Epicerie, a website devoted to hard-to-find pastry ingredients carries both the unsweetened hazelnut paste and the hazelnut flour used in the recipe below.
I love the pure, direct flavor of hazelnuts in my Hazelnut Cake from The Babbo Cookbook. A simple dusting of cocoa powder or confectioner’s sugar is all that is needed to adorn this gem; all the better to let the rich, heady aroma of hazelnuts shine through.
Preheat the oven to 325 F degrees. Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust with flour, shaking off the excess.
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the hazelnuts and ¼ cup of the flour until the nuts are finely ground.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar until very light. Beat in the hazelnut paste, then add the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula and beat in the vanilla extract. In a small bowl, mix together the nut and flour mixture, the remaining cup of flour, the salt, and baking powder. Beat the dry ingredients into the batter.
Spread the batter evenly in the cake pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cake springs back lightly when touched and cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then gently remove from the pan. When cool, sift cocoa powder over the top.