Friday, August 26, 2016

Chocolate-hazelnut spread (a homemade, far better Nutella)

I could say a lot of things about this spread. I could give you a myriad of reasons why you should make it. Do I really need to, though? Is there anyone in this world, except of course those who are allergic to nuts, who doesn’t want to eat this? Who doesn’t drool at the mere mention of chocolate-hazelnut paste?

I won’t say Nutella because this is not Nutella. Far from it; and I mean this in a good way. Nutella, as much as I like it, is not the best representation of a hazelnut spread. It only contains 13% hazelnuts and tonnes of sugar. I want the real thing. I want something that has the flavor, the texture of hazelnuts and chocolate, and I want real ingredients. Good quality ingredients.

What are those? Hazelnuts and almonds, milk and honey, sea salt, three types of chocolate. Best quality and not the cheap stuff. Believe me, it makes all the difference, and by omitting the sugar from the list of ingredients, you really get to taste the nuts and the chocolate, and it’s truly fantastic.

This spread is addictive, as much as the regular Nutella is, if not more, and the texture, for me, is far better. It may not have that super smooth texture of Nutella but it is airy, somewhat like a very dense mousse, it is slightly granular (which greatly depends on the power of your food processor) and it melts in the mouth, it doesn’t stick to it or to the back of your throat like Nutella does; you know the feeling. This one coats your tongue delicately and dissolves in the mouth, with those tiny granular nuts clinging just a little bit longer, giving you a glorious aftertaste of hazelnuts.

It’s not too dense when refrigerated and it’s perfectly spreadable; on your bread, your croissant, your cake. It’s soft and creamy and particularly fluffy because when you beat it in the food processor, a lot of air is incorporated into it which makes it mousse-like. You will notice that when you finish preparing it, it will be runny, something which shouldn’t worry you at all because firstly this means that you can easily sieve it if you want a completely smooth paste, and secondly because after a few hours in the fridge, it firms up to the ideal consistency.

I followed the recipe by monsieur Lebovitz who in turn adapted it from the book Encyclopédie du chocolat. I have to say, the first time I made this, I wasn’t quite sure the almonds really make a difference, but I love the slight hint of them in the background. It enhances the flavor profile of the spread. Or it could be because I love Greek chocolates so much. In case you don’t know, chocolate bars with whole or ground pieces of almonds are among the most popular and beloved chocolate bars in Greece.

The flavor of this paste is undeniably nutty and chocolaty without being too sweet. It has the full flavor of the chocolate and of the nuts that have been toasted in the oven for maximum flavor. The milk chocolate adds sweetness whereas the two dark chocolates with different cocoa percentages add depth of flavor and balance that sweetness, while the ever-so-slightly salty undertone enlivens the chocolate and intensifies its flavor even more.

Please tell me you’re gonna make this as soon as possible?!

Chocolate-hazelnut spread/paste (a homemade, far better Nutella)
Barely adapted from David Lebovitz

Use the best quality chocolate you can afford, it makes a difference. Also, what really makes a difference is the freshness and quality of the nuts. (Read here some tips on how to store nuts properly).

The best way for me to enjoy this homemade Nutella is to spread it on my favorite dark, mutligrain bread and sprinkle it with sea salt flakes. Perfection! I have more ways to use it, in several recipes, one of which is perfect for when the weather is warm and which I will share with you soon.

*Update: Many of you asked me about the powdered milk (which, incidentally, is not the same as the one babies drink). Powdered milk is commonly used in pastry-making instead of fresh milk because it binds recipes better (for example ice creams, various creams/puddings, etc.). I haven’t tried this recipe without it but I suspect that by omitting it you will end up with a somewhat less firm spread. I plan on trying the recipe without the milk powder in the next couple of weeks so I will return with my verdict.
Don’t substitute the milk powder with any other ingredient.

Yield: 4 medium-sized jars (net weight of the spread: 900g)

160 g unsalted whole hazelnuts
40 g unsalted blanched almonds
400 g fresh whole milk
60 g powdered whole milk (see note/update above*)
40 g runny, clear honey (mild-flavored so it doesn’t affect the flavor of the spread)
A pinch of sea salt
140 g good quality milk chocolate (at least 33% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
100 g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
70 g good quality dark chocolate (55-60% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces

Special equipment: rimmed baking sheet, large food processor (the stronger the better), glass jars with lids

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Add the hazelnuts and the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet, keeping them separate, and place them on the middle rack of the preheated the oven. Toast them for 7-8 minutes (stirring them every a couple of times) or until they are fragrant and have taken on a golden color. Be careful not to burn them. Nuts catch easily.

In the meantime, add the fresh and powdered milk, the honey and the salt in a small saucepan and warm them, stirring to dissolve the ingredients. When it starts to boil, remove from the heat and put on the lid.

Place all three kinds of chocolates in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain marie) and keep stirring until they are melted. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the chocolate is smooth, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside.

When the nuts are toasted, remove them from the oven. Transfer the hazelnuts in the center of a large, clean tea towel, fold up the ends of the tea towel to create a pouch and rub the hazelnuts with your hands to remove the skin. It’s okay to be rough when doing this. Not all skins will come off, but most of them will.

Transfer the hazelnuts to your food processor (leaving the skins behind in the tea towel) together with the almonds and grind them until they liquefy. This will take approximately 15 minutes in total (my processor is a strong one). As you are processing the nuts, you will notice their transformation from coarsely ground, to liquid form with small specks of nuts. Take a look at the photos. As I mentioned in the main body of my post, how finely ground your nuts will get, solely depends on how strong your food processor is. While you’re processing the nuts, stop from time to time to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

When they reach the desired consistency, add the melted chocolates and process to incorporate and to create a smooth mixture, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl when needed. Then, add the warm milk mixture and process until everything is well combined and you have a light, smooth mixture. It will be liquid, not paste-like.
At this point, you can sieve the mixture to get rid of the small pieces of toasted nuts and have a smooth spread, but I never do this because I enjoy their slightly granular texture.

Transfer the mixture into sterilized glass jars and put on the lids. (See here how to sterilize glass jars).
Place the paste in the refrigerator. It will take about 8 hours to properly firm up.

The paste/spread can be kept in the fridge for 1½ to 2 weeks at most.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Charred eggplant with tomato, tuna and quick-pickled onions

Succulent, plump summer tomatoes and eggplants. Good, firm, meaty tuna in olive oil. Lightly pickled, sweet and sour red onions. Fresh flat-leaf (always) parsley, lots of it.

The tomatoes are grated and that glorious, sweet, red pulp is spread on a platter.

The eggplants are put straight on the flame of the gas stovetop —or on an open grill or bbq if you have it— until they are charred and blistered and wrinkled all over. Until they are meltingly soft and start to ooze out their juices.

They are peeled and their smooth pulp is chopped up. It gets tossed with extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice, sea salt and piment d’espelette, a Spanish red chilli pepper, adding a mild heat and flavor.

Red onions are lightly and quickly pickled in some honey, good white-wine vinegar and salt. They are scattered on top of the eggplant, and then the tuna is flaked over the top. Lots of flat-leaf parsley is sprinkled over the whole lot, followed by some salt and a good grinding of pepper that complements the tuna so well. The whole thing is then drizzled with more extra virgin olive oil.

Sweet, intensely smoky and savory eggplant, juicy, ripe, redder than red tomatoes, robust tuna, tangy, sweet and sharp onions, rich, fruity olive oil, and herby parsley added not just for show but to bring freshness to the dish. Perfect play of summer flavors.

Have your grilled bread ready. This is going to be the best bruschetta you’ll ever make. Enjoy!

Charred eggplant with tomato, tuna and quick-pickled onions
Adapted from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij

The quality and flavor of the eggplants and tomatoes will make all the difference in this dish. You won’t have any problem sourcing good produce because it’s summer! Now is the time for eggplants and tomatoes, so make the most of them.

Eat this as a main dish together with lots of grilled bread to dunk in the juices or scoop up the mixture, or eat it as a bruschetta, topping your grilled bread with it.

Yield: 4-6 servings as a light lunch

2 large eggplants (about 250 g each)
Juice of 1 medium-sized lemon
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
2 good pinches of piment d’ espelette (or other mild red chilli pepper)
1 red onion (about 100 g), peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tsp white-wine vinegar
1 tsp runny, clear honey (I used Greek wild thyme honey)
4 fresh plum tomatoes (300-350 g in total)
250-300 g (net weight) good quality canned/bottled tuna in olive oil
A large handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
Sea salt
Freshly ground black or white pepper

Special equipment: box grater

Rinse the eggplants well under cold, running water and strain them.
Using a gas stove-top, sit the eggplant on the flame of the gas burner, set at a medium heat, and allow to cook, turning the eggplant around from time to time. They’re ready when the eggplant has collapsed, start to ooze out juices, the skin has blackened, wrinkled and charred, and the flesh has softened. This will take 15-20 minutes.
Using an open grill, place them whole on direct heat and char-grill them, turning them around periodically with tongs in order to char them evenly all around. In the end, they should have a blackened skin that crackles and falls off when you touch it and they should be soft inside.
Using the oven, preheat it (on the grill setting) on 200°C. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the eggplants on it. Prick them in a few places with a fork. Place baking sheet on the upper rack of the oven and grill the eggplants for about 50 minutes, turning them over regularly, until their skins are charred and they are soft inside.

When ready, place them in a large bowl until they’re cool enough to handle. Remove the skin with your hands (it’s okay if there are some stubborn little pieces of skin stuck to the flesh), discard it and place the flesh on a chopping board. Chop it roughly and place back in the bowl. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, a little salt and the piment d’ espelette and mix through with a fork.
The prepared eggplant can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days, covered with plastic wrap.

In a small bowl whisk the honey, vinegar and a little salt, and add the sliced onion. Mix through and set aside. You can do this a day before and keep the onions in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. They keep for 3 days in the fridge.

Grate the tomatoes on the big holes of a box grater. Empty them in a large platter (it’d be better if it has a small rim) and sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper. Spread the eggplant on top and flake the tuna on top of the eggplant. Sprinkle with some pepper and scatter the onions over the top followed by the chopped parsley. Sprinkle some salt and drizzle with some olive oil.

Serve immediately with lots of bread. Serve in individual dishes, scoop the mixture with your bread, or make bruschette.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Blueberry cake

Traveling, especially during the summer when the days are long and the nights are soft, is amazing. Tasting new foods, seeing new places, experiencing different cultures and countries, discovering things about myself along the way, is everything that I love about traveling.

There’s nothing like coming home to my familiar surroundings, making a cup of good, strong coffee, cosing up in the kitchen and cooking or baking something inspired by those travels.
This time, it was cake. A blueberry cake.

Blueberries are all over Northern Europe at the moment. They are at their prime, especially wild blueberries that I love. I couldn’t find any wild ones at the market, but these were exceptional nonetheless. Sweet and plump, juicy and shiny; they were perfect.

They made my cake not only flavorful but beautiful as well, with that purple, deep-blue hue of theirs. And it was a warm, fluffy and soft cake, intensely aromatic and elegant, with the juiciness and freshness of the blueberries, the slight acidity from the lemon and the warming cinnamon.

Blueberry cake

Choose plump and juicy blueberries and make sure to remove any stems that are attached to them before adding to the cake.

If you can’t find fresh blueberries, use frozen. Defrost and drain them, and add to the cake as you would the fresh ones.

Yield: 1 cake / 10 pieces

130 g all-purpose flour, plus 1 tsp for tossing the berries
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp sea salt
115 g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
160 g caster sugar
2 large eggs
Freshly grated zest of 1 small lemon
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
300 g fresh blueberries
1 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Special equipment: 22 cm round springform pan, baking paper, fine sieve

Butter the bottom and sides of the springform pan. Line the bottom with baking paper. See here how to make a round piece of baking paper.

Preheat your oven to 175°C.

Sieve together in a bowl the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the softened butter and sugar, and beat on medium-high speed, using the paddle attachment (or a hand-held mixer), until light and fluffy, for about 4 minutes.
Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Then add the lemon zest and the vanilla, and beat well to mix through.
Add the sieved flour mixture and beat on low speed until it is just incorporated and you have a smooth batter.
Empty the batter into your prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.

Rinse and drain the blueberries, add them in a medium-sized bowl together with the 1 tsp of flour and the lemon juice, and toss to coat them. Add the blueberry mixture on top of the cake batter, making sure to distribute the berries evenly.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

When ready, remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Then remove it from the pan (run a knife around the outside to ensure the cake hasn’t stuck to the pan) and allow it to cool completely on the rack.

Transfer to a cake platter, berries side up, and serve cut into pieces.

You can keep it at room temperature, covered, for 2-3 days.

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