Dicembre Dolce: Torta di Nocciole

torta nocciole 2

Welcome to the 2014 edition of Dicembre Dolce. This is the month in which I post recipes for fabulous Italian sweets. We’re kicking off the season with an elegant torta di nocciole, hazelnut cake, a specialty of the Piemonte region.

This cake has been on my mind since I enjoyed a slice a couple of weeks ago at Ristorante Filippo, in Boston’s North End. It was served warm, in a shallow pool of sauce that tasted like sweetened cream. The cake itself was tender and buttery, rich with finely ground toasted nuts. I decided I needed to learn how to make it.

Ground hazelnuts, butter, sugar, eggs. Simple, right?

Not quite. My first try, based on this recipe, tasted great but was way too dense. I tweaked it, cutting the amount of nuts and sugar, and ended up with a cake that was lighter in texture but less flavorful and slightly dry. In the third version I added back some of the nuts and mixed in another egg. I peeked at the cake as it was rising in the oven and could tell it was on its way to perfection ~  except that as I was checking on it I jostled the pan, causing it to fall  immediately in the center.

It never quite recovered, appearance-wise. Still, even slightly deflated, the crumb was tender and buttery, so I deemed it a success. The only change I made after that was to swap out a little of the butter for hazelnut oil, which really brought out that warm roasted nut flavor. Finally, torta di nocciole!

hazelnutscropped

The quality of the nuts is paramount, since they comprise most of the cake. Italy’s Piedmont region is famous for its hazelnuts (it is, after all, the birthplace of Nutella). Here in the U.S. you can find really good hazelnuts from Oregon. I like Freddy Guys, which I first came across at the farmers’ market in Portland last year. I bought a big bag and popped them in my freezer, defrosting them as needed. Months later they still tasted fresh. (You can also find Oregon hazelnuts at Trader Joe’s.)

Mixing the cake ingredients properly takes a bit of skill, patience and ~ even though it sounds contrary ~ both a firm hand and a light touch. The batter is dense ~ at one point as dense as a nut paste. Into this paste you must fold stiffly beaten egg whites without deflating them too much. I start by mixing in about a quarter of the whites, which loosens the batter some; then, with a firm but gentle hand, I fold in the rest in two additions.

hazelnut slice wtih cream

It sounds a little fussy, and I guess it is, but this cake is really worth it. It has a prominent hazelnut flavor and a certain elegance that makes it worthy of a dinner party. (Just remember not to jostle the cake during those last crucial minutes of baking.) Torta di nocciole is traditionally served with zabaglione (a dessert sauce made from eggs, sugar and wine) but you could get away with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar and, if you like, a drizzle of  heavy cream, warmed over low heat and sweetened with sugar.

Makes 12 servings

Torta di Nocciole {Hazelnut Cake}

Hazelnuts are the star of the show in this cake from Italy's Piedmont region. Be sure to use fresh nuts, and toast them before grinding (see NOTE). In this recipe, I used a combination of melted butter and hazelnut oil. Hazelnut oil is expensive, but I happened to have some in my fridge from previous recipe testing. If you don't have it or would rather not spend the money to buy it, just use butter. Dust the cake with confectioners' sugar right before serving, and serve with warm sweetened heavy cream.

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted; OR 6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons hazelnut oil (see NOTES)
  • 2 1/2 cups toasted, skinned hazelnuts, cooled (see NOTES)
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 packet lievito pane degli angeli or 2 teaspoons baking powder (see NOTES)
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Pinch of fine salt
  • Confectioners' sugar for dusting
  • Warm heavy cream sweetened with sugar (optional)

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-inch cake pan with about 1 tablespoon of the melted butter. Place a round of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan and coat the parchment with butter. Set the remaining melted butter aside.

Process the cooled toasted hazelnuts in a food processor fitted with the metal blade until they are finely ground. Take care not to let them get pasty. Transfer them to a bowl and stir in the flour and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. The mixture will be very thick and cling to the whisk. Drizzle in the remaining melted butter (or melted butter and hazelnut oil, if using), a little at a time, whisking all the while, until the butter has been fully incorporated.

Using a sturdy silicone spatula, stir the hazelnut-flour mixture into the egg yolk-butter mixture. It will be as thick as nut paste. This is fine.

In a clean, stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until stiff peaks form. Scoop about 1/4 of the egg whites into the bowl with the nut paste mixture and begin stirring and folding it in with the spatula. This will help to loosen the batter a bit. Add half of the remaining egg whites, folding rather than stirring them into the batter to prevent them from deflating too much (the batter will still be thick and sticky). Finally, add the last of the whites and continue folding until they are incorporated into the batter (there may be a few streaks here and there). The batter will be thick but spreadable. Scrape it into the prepared pan and smooth out the top.

Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, until puffed and browned on top and the center is no longer jiggling (a cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean). Be careful not to jostle the cake when you're checking for doneness!

Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and let cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Invert the cake onto a plate or another rack and peel off the parchment. Re-invert and let cool completely. Serve dusted with confectioners' sugar and with warm sweetened cream for drizzling.

NOTES
Hazelnut oil is available in many supermarkets. It is not cheap (about $8.00 for 250 ml/8.45 oz) but it really enhances the nut flavor of the cake. It's also delicious drizzled on salad greens. I happened to have some in my fridge, which is why I used it in this recipe. It's an optional splurge and the cake will still be delicious even if you leave it out.

To toast and skin hazelnuts: Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the shelled nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake 10 minutes, or until the skins have begun to crack. Wrap the hot nuts in a clean kitchen towel and let stand 1 minute. Roll the nuts back and forth in the towel to loosen and rub off the skins. Not all the skins will come off, which is fine. Let cool before processing.

Lievito pane degli angeli is a vanilla-scented powdered leavening agent used in Italian baking. It's sold in packets and found in most Italian groceries. You can substitute 2 teaspoons baking powder.

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33 Responses to Dicembre Dolce: Torta di Nocciole

  1. stacey snacks December 1, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    Domenica, can I make this with walnuts? I have a big bag of them, otherwise I will try it with the hazelnuts (which I will buy!).
    Thank you!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      Stacey, I would think that yes, you could make this with walnuts, and it would be delicious. Just be careful pulverizing them in the food processor. Walnuts are oily and you want to avoid releasing that oil and turning them pasty.

  2. stacey snacks December 1, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    PS, I am glad you tweaked the recipe, because when I have made other torta di Noci they were too dense. I am excited to try your recipe because the taste was so good!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Stacey, that was my issue as well. I will say that even the dense cake was delicious and it disappeared within a few days as it sat on the counter under the dome of the cake saver. But the lightened one is much better. Enjoy!

  3. Rosa Jeanne Mayland December 1, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    A wonderful torta! I’ll have to try making it soon…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. jamielifesafeast December 1, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Oh this cake is beautiful! And I am also glad you tweaked the recipe for us. I can only imagine how crazy good and celebratory this is with some crème anglaise or whipped cream.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      Jamie ~ I confess I was going to make a fancier sauce, a hazelnut creme anglaise, but in the end I went with simple warm cream. Next time I’ll go the extra mile because I’m sure it would be delicious.

  5. ciaochowlinda December 1, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Well, if the third time’s the charm, then you’ve enchanted me with this cake. Thanks for perservering and tweaking it to perfection.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

      Thanks Linda. I bet this cake would be a nice end to a dinner of your beautiful egg-stuffed ravioli. Cheers, D

  6. Helen December 1, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    My favorite nut! Not you, Domenica, but hazelnuts. Looking forward to baking this.

  7. Adri Barr Crocetti December 1, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Domenica, this cake is beautiful, and what an indulgence to add the hazelnut oil. I have some Pariani hazelnut oil, and I am looking forward to using it here. This will be so nice on our holiday table. Hazelnuts have become so popular. I recall that back in the sixties they were terribly difficult to find. We always had to go to the “health food store” for them, and they were marketed as “filberts.” They really were a rarity. I’m glad those days are gone.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

      Adri I remember you’ve mentioned Pariani hazelnut oil before and I will have to try it. And I also remember the days of the strange “filbert.” We always had hazelnuts in the house at Christmastime. My mother would buy bags of them whole, unshelled, and my sister and I would have to do the shelling. But it was worth it. For years my mom made the most delicious hazelnut crescent cookies; they just melted away in your mouth. I’ll have to revive that recipe one day.

  8. cristina December 1, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    Going to Trader Joe’s today to find hazelnuts (and to see if they carry the hazelnut oil too). Gorgeous cake, Domenica…can’t wait to make it! 🙂

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      Gotta love Trader Joe’s. Their nuts are really well priced. Happy baking!

  9. elisa December 1, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    I am a hazelnut lover, and I use them for everything I can create. I make Torta di Nocciole often with different recipes lost in time in the Piemonte area, including two from a convent) without separating the eggs and instead of adding hazelnut oil if too thick, I add 3 TBSPS of Fra Angelico liqueur. Also to avoid that the hazelnuts become pasty during grinding add a leveled TBSP of flour which absorbs the oil released by the nuts. And a young nun added melted chocolate instead of the liqueur. Cheers!! I will make your recipe also, I can’t have enough Torte di Nocciole!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

      Elisa, I came across some recipes that don’t separate the eggs. I’ll have to try that variation one day. This recipe does call for flour but it is added after the grinding. Next time I’ll add it during and see if it changes the texture at all. Also, LOVE the idea of melted chocolate. Because what’s better than chocolate and hazelnuts together? Nothing! Thank you for your wonderful suggestions.

  10. deirdrereid December 1, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    This sounds divine, thank you for investing your time in this recipe. Putting hazelnut oil on my grocery (and maybe online) shopping list.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 1, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

      Deirdre, thank you for writing. Hazelnut oil is a splurge, but worth it. It lasts for a long time in the fridge and is really good in both sweet and savory recipes. I also use walnut oil and pistachio oil for similar purposes (in bread dough, cakes, cookies, salads, roasted vegetables etc.). Enjoy. I hope you’ll stick around and find some other things you like here on the site. Cheers, D.

  11. Emily December 2, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    Domenica,
    Looking forward to trying this recipe as love nocciole.

    I had the most delicious walnut cake at Sextantio in the town of Santo Stefano di Sessania when we stayed there several years ago. What a special place and a friend urged me to try the Walnut cake served as part of the breakfast buffet. Spectacular local salume and cheeses too. Plain looking cake, but oh what flavor. Since that time I have been researching to find a recipe to replicate it. Even bought some walnut flour at Rinascente store 7th floor, in Milano this fall, but have yet to try it.
    Grazie mille for sharing.

  12. paninigirl December 2, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    For five years I’ve been trying to recreate a hazelnut torte that I ate in Piemonte! I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve tried. Yours may just be the answer-I can’t wait to give it a go.

  13. sippitysup December 2, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    I like to make (and remake) recipes to get them right. They start to feel like old favorites after the third or fourth try. At that point it’s easy to love them (and all the work it took to get there). GREG

    • Domenica Marchetti December 5, 2014 at 11:52 am #

      Yes, I find it a satisfying and worthwhile pursuit, even though it can sometimes be tedious. In the case of this cake it was definitely worth it. So much better after the adjustments. Did I just brag??

  14. ameliaschaffner December 4, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Cara Domenica: I am so excited to see a recipe for torta di nocciole, who is really really hard to get right!!! Brava!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 5, 2014 at 11:54 am #

      Give this one a try, Amelia. I’d love to know whether it meets with your approval. I was really happy with the final version. Thanks for stopping buy and commenting. 🙂

  15. prouditaliancook December 5, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    I’m so looking forward to making this Domenica, I’m a complete nut lover and this cake is perfect to bring to my friends house for an upcoming Christmas luncheon!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

      Hi Marie, thank you for your comment. I love nuts, too; in fact, the older I get the more I enjoy those traditional nut-filled Italian dolci. Go figure. Cheers, D

  16. Cathleen BP July 6, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    I came across your recipe from last week’s Italian Food Forever’s newsletter. She offered a variation on your recipe using walnuts, but I was more interested in the original using hazelnuts. I made your Torta di Nocciole last night and I have to tell you how FANTASTIC it was! (Actually still is, as I had it for breakfast this morning!) Well done, Ms Domenica! You have a new fan. 🙂

    • Domenica Marchetti July 23, 2015 at 8:54 am #

      Hi Cathleen, thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to write. I’m glad you enjoyed the torta. I just got back from Italy, where I made a stop in Piemonte, home of the best hazelnuts in the world, IMO. I brought back a shrink-wrapped package of them for the very purpose of making this torta. Cheers, D

  17. Timothy September 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    Thank you for this recipe. To stabilize the egg white, i beat the yolks with half of the sugar and the whites with the other half, adding 3 drops of lemon juice to the whites to keep them pliable. The cake, which i made with hazlenuts from my back yard, was fantastic! Thanks again!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 26, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

      Timothy, I’m glad you enjoyed the cake. How lucky you are to have your own stash of fresh hazelnuts! Thanks for the excellent tip. I will use your method next time I make this cake. Cheers, D

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    […] Domenica Cooks’ Torta di Nicciole (hazelnut cake) Traditional Piemontese dish!  […]

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