Contributing editor and award-winning food writer Diana Henry indulges in some autumnal baking this month, with three hazelnut-based recipes
Diana Henry’s hazelnut bakes
My favourite chocolate bar when I was a child was a Topic. It was the most solid block of pleasure – nougat and caramel studded with hazelnuts and coated in milk chocolate. The advertising slogan for it was ‘a hazelnut in every bite’ and I used to get cross if my bar didn’t honour this promise.
The combination of hazelnuts and milk or dark chocolate is still one of my favourites, so much so that I always have a stash of good hazelnuts and decent chocolate on hand. It’s my grown-up equivalent of the Topic. A handful of nuts and a few squares of chocolate is a pick-meup at four in the afternoon. I like it at the end of a meal as well, in place of a pudding. It’s the soprano-like sweetness of the hazelnut against the dark bitterness of plain chocolate that’s so good. No other nut has this. Pecans have a lower tone, a more woody sweetness; they’re the tenors of the nut world. Walnuts are the bass, their bitterness always undercutting and subduing any higher notes. I’m not sure who sings alto – probably the almond – but when I cook with nuts, this is the way I think about them. You probably think you’ve had good hazelnuts. Spain has a reputation for producing good ones, as does Turkey, but you’ve never truly tasted great hazelnuts until you’ve had those grown in Piedmont. The first time I visited, the village where I was staying had a Sunday market. Chief among the stallholders were the hazelnut vendors. They sold sweet hazelnut purée in jars, a chocolate and hazelnut spread (nothing like Nutella) and, best of all, shelled hazelnuts in vacuum packs. Everything I love about the hazelnut was, in these Piedmontese nuts, ramped up to the max. I haven’t been to Piedmont for a while and I daydream about those hazelnuts. They’re not just good in sweet dishes. Hazelnuts and cheese – especially beaufort and gruyère, which have their own milky, hazelnutty tones – are perfect together, too. They can also be toasted and crushed with bread and garlic to make picada – used as a thickener for braises in Spain – or blended with olive oil and garlic to make Turkish tarator, a kind of nut pesto that’s used as a dip. You can buy hazelnuts all year round, but autumn is when they’re harvested. Let these little sopranos sing.