It took me years ~ no, decades ~ to appreciate gelato alla nocciola. Chocolate, not hazelnut, was my flavor when I was a child and it kept on that way for years, through visits to gelaterie from Venice to Palermo and at our favorite parlors in Rome and Silvi Marina, where we spent our summers: cioccolato, in a cone or in a cup, crowned with a swipe of fresh, unsweetened whipped cream from the gelataio’s hand-wielded paddle.
Eventually I moved on to gianduja, which is sort of like chocolate for grownups ~ an inspired combination of mostly chocolate with a dollop of hazelnut paste mixed in to round out the flavor; after that came granita di caffè con panna (coffee granita with whipped cream), and granita di fragole (strawberry granita).
Finally, two summers ago in Puglia, I ordered a small cone of plain, unadulterated nocciola and found out instantly what I had been missing. The rich flavor of toasted nuts freshly churned with cold milk and cream was heaven, especially on a sweltering day in mid-July on the streets of Lecce.
One of the nicest things about gelato alla nocciola, though, is that it hits the spot at any time of year, whether July or January. Truth be told, I have been craving this ice cream since September, when during a trip out west I bought a bag of freshly harvested Oregon hazelnuts at the Portland farmers’ market. I used most of them to test biscotti recipes. But I had a couple of handfuls left over and so I packed them tightly and put them in the freezer. When a new ice cream machine appeared magically beneath the tree on Christmas day (my old one had conked out some time ago and I guess all my grousing about that finally paid off) I headed straight for that freezer.
I used the pistachio gelato recipe from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian as my starting point–it calls for grinding the nuts yourself in a food processor rather than buying expensive nut paste. I took a bit of a detour after I spied a jar of Nutella on a kitchen cabinet shelf, so that in the end the gelato wasn’t pure nocciola but more like an inverted gianduja recipe ~ mostly hazelnut with a dollop of chocolate mixed in.
If the idea of eating ice cream in January makes you shiver, let me offer this alternative: Brew yourself a nice strong cup of espresso. Sweeten it with sugar and, while it’s still hot, drop in a small scoop of your gelato alla nocciola. Now you’ve made yourself an affogato al caffè, and I can’t think of a better, more Italian way to warm up to the New Year. Wishing you all a dolce 2014.
Nocciola, or hazelnut, is a classic gelato flavor in Italy, one you will find in any gelateria. But it's easy to make at home, too. This simple recipe calls for grinding toasted hazelnuts in a food processor rather than using a more expensive hazelnut paste. A few tablespoons of hazelnut oil further enhances the toasty nut flavor. Remember that your hazelnut gelato will only be as good as your hazelnuts. Nuts turn rancid fairly quickly, so use recently harvested nuts if you can. If you don't use them right away, store them in your freezer.
- 1 cup shelled hazelnuts, toasted and skinned (see Note)
- 3 cups whole milk, plus 8 tablespoons
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup Nutella
- 6 large egg yolks (reserve the whites for another use)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil (optional)
1. Place the hazelnuts in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in 6 to 8 tablespoons of milk, enough to form a creamy paste, about 1 minute. Scrape the nut paste into a bowl.
2. Heat the 3 cups milk and 1 cup cream in a saucepan over medium heat. When the mixture is hot (but not boiling) whisk in the nutella until completely melted. Remove from the heat.
3. Combine the egg yolks, sugar and salt in a bowl and whisk until thick and pale yellow. Whisk in the hazelnut oil 1 tablespoon at a time, if using. Slowly dribble in a ladleful of the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from curdling. Whisk in another ladleful of the hot milk mixture, then slowly whisk the egg mixture back into the hot milk. Stir in the hazelnut paste and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for 15 to 20 minutes or until a custard forms that lightly coats the back of a wooden spoon or spatula.
4. Strain the hot custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. Freeze the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. When thickened, spoon the gelato into a container with a tight-fitting lid, cover, and freeze until firm, about 4 hours. To serve, remove the gelato from the freezer and let sit for about 5 minutes before scooping into bowls.
NOTE Many supermarkets carry packages of hazelnuts that have already been toasted and skinned. But it's not hard to do it yourself, and it's usually less expensive to buy them raw (and even less expensive if you buy them in the shell and shell them yourself). Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the shelled hazelnuts out on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast for 10 to 15 minutes, until the skins have started to crack and the nuts are fragrant. Wrap the nuts in a clean kitchen towel and let them sit for 1 minute. Then rub the nuts in the towel to loosen and remove the skins. Let cool completely before using.