Everyone talks about tahini, but not about hazelnut paste. Like sesame seeds and like other nuts, hazelnuts are rich in fat (mostly unsaturated), and if you grind them long enough, the fat is released and you will obtain a very thick golden paste, similar in consistency to raw tahini. Ready made hazelnut paste is available in baking goods stores, and it can be prepared at home.
“I actually like the coarser texture of the homemade paste,” explains pastry chef Lior Shtaygman of the Danon Culinary School in Tel Aviv. “The store-bought pastes are smoother, but at home you can control the level of roasting and grinding of the nuts, and that of course affects their flavor and appearance.”
Although hazelnut paste is most commonly used in cakes and desserts, you don’t have to stick to sweets. Shtaygman suggests adding it to gnocchi, and I like to take advantage of the similarity of hazelnut paste to tahini. I use it to prepare a dressing for an Israeli salad of chopped vegetables and seared boneless chicken thighs (pargit), and in a luscious dessert.
Hazelnut dessert with ricotta cream
Instead of the classic (and relatively fatty) mascarpone cream, I prepared a lighter ricotta cream. Between the layers of cream there are layers of gluten-free sponge cake, which can also be used in other desserts.
Ingredients (for 5 servings):
For the sponge cake:
20 gr. soft butter
3/4 cup (150 gr.) Demerara sugar
50 gr. pistachio nuts
100 gr. blanched almonds
2 tbsp. (about 20 gr.) corn
3 tbsp. (60 gr.) hazelnut paste (recipe below)
3 tbsp. (30 gr.) milk
For the cream:
300 gr. ricotta fresca
50 gr. powdered sugar
250 ml. cold sweet cream
2 tbsp. hazelnut paste
To make the sponge cake, preheat oven to 165 degrees Celsius. Using a mixer at medium speed, combine butter and sugar until a uniform grainy cream is formed. Grind the pistachios and almonds very finely. In a separate bowl, mix them with the corn flour and add to the butter and sugar mixture. Mix at medium speed. In a separate bowl, beat the hazelnut paste, eggs and milk and add to the mixer gradually, while it is working on the same speed. Keep mixing until you get a uniform batter. Place baking paper on an oven tray and spread the mixture on it; the batter should be about 1 cm. thick. Place in the oven for 25 minutes. Remove and let cool.
Prepare the cream: In a mixer with a whipping attachment, beat the ricotta and powdered sugar. Add the cold cream while continuing to mix. Stop after about a minute and add the hazelnut paste. Continue to mix at a medium-high speed for about one more minute, until you obtain a stable cream.
Assembly: The individual servings can be laid out on a tray or large serving dish, or assembled in glasses. Using a metal cookie cutter, cut out 10 8-cm. circles from the sponge cake. Pour about 2 heaping tablespoons of cream over each circle. Place another sponge circle on top of the cream and then another 2 tablespoons of cream. You can pour a milk chocolate ganache, grated bitter chocolate or a bit of pure hazelnut paste over the top layer of cream as a garnish.
Vegetable and chicken salad with hazelnut and tarragon dressing
A somewhat different version of the familiar Israeli chopped vegetable salad. Use boneless young chicken thighs, called “steak pargit” in Hebrew. Instead of tahini, the dressing is made of hazelnut paste and tarragon.
Ingredients (serves 2):
For the marinated chicken:
3 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. ras el hanout (a North African spice blend)
pinch of salt and ground
2 pargit steaks
For the vegetables:
1/2 white cabbage (or 1 small one)
1 purple onion
12 cherry tomatoes
1/4 sprig parsley
For the dressing:
2 tbsp. hazelnut paste
juice of 1 lemon
leaves from 2 tarragon
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
a pinch of salt and ground
Prepare the chicken: Peel the shallot and chop finely. Transfer to a bowl together with the soy sauce, olive oil, lemon, ras el hanout, salt and black pepper. Mix well and add the chicken pieces. Cover them thoroughly in the marinade, cover the bowl with cling wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour.
Heat a skillet (preferably a heavy grilling skillet if you have one) on a medium-high heat. When the pan is very hot, put in the chicken pieces. Grill them thoroughly on both sides (at least five minutes on each side, checking to make sure they are done). Remove from heat and set aside.
Prepare the vegetables: Rinse vegetables well. Peel the purple onion (but not the cucumber and carrot). Chop all vegetables to the size you prefer. Transfer to a serving platter and mix.
Assembly: After the chicken has cooled for at least 10 minutes, cut the pieces into thin slices and place them atop the vegetables. The dressing ingredients can be mixed in a small separate bowl (and if necessary diluted with a little water, just like raw tahini). Or you can pour the ingredients directly over the vegetables and then mix everything together.
Hazelnut paste is usually prepared from blanched nuts, but using unpeeled nuts actually adds depth and a smoky flavor. You will need 300 gr. (or more) of hazelnuts.
Preheat oven to 130 degrees Celsius. Scatter the nuts in a baking pan, and place them in the oven for about 15 minutes, until browned, but not burnt.
Remove from oven and allow to cool. If you don’t want to use the peels, you can use blanched hazelnuts. Or, after roasting, place the nuts between two towels or two sheets of baking paper and rub them with your hands. The peel will come off by itself.
Transfer nuts to a food processor and start processing. The time it will take depends on the strength of the food processor, but on average it takes about 15 minutes. As in the preparation of tahini, the objective is to grind the nuts until their fat is released and they take on the texture of raw tahini. The ground nuts have a tendency to collect on the sides of the bowl, and then the food processor is working “on empty.” So, from time to time you should stop and push the ground nuts back down with a rubber scraper. If the food processor overheats, turn it off and let it rest for a few minutes. In any case, don’t give up. In the end the magic takes place. Incidentally, some people like to add some neutral oil (like canola) when the ground nuts begin to secrete their own oil in order to accelerate the process. When done, transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator.