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Make homemade Nutella with Oregon-grown hazelnuts

Surely you’re familiar with Nutella, that hazelnut and chocolate spread made famous in Medford's sister city of Alba, Italy. The original recipe calling for the blending of ground hazelnuts, cocoa, sugar and oil can be traced back to 1906.

Of course, Nutella is to my homemade hazelnut spread what Chef Boyardee spaghetti is to Mario Batali’s linguine with toasted breadcrumbs and oregano. That’s how delicious a homemade hazelnut spread is. Especially when you pull from our local harvest, because Oregon hazelnuts are truly the best in the world. Oregon hazelnuts are coming in from the orchards right now. So what you will be finding in the markets is called “new crop.” And they are wonderful.

The one unfortunate reality is that raw kernels have become a spendy commodity. Even in local bulk-food bins, you are going to pay about $13 a pound. You can save quite a bit of money by shelling your own. I’ve found in-shell hazelnuts at local farmers markets and farm stands for just over $3 per pound.

STEP ONE: The Roast.

Once out of their shells, there’s the matter of roasting, because a richly flavored hazelnut spread starts with a pile of sweet and fresh local hazelnuts roasted to the color of golden brown sugar.

Three things happen when you roast a hazelnut: It gets more flavorful, it blushes from the inside, and it takes on a pleasing crunch. Beyond hazelnut spread, I find that most of the ways I use Oregon hazelnuts require that they be roasted first because roasting almost always improves how hazelnuts perform in a given recipe.

This is simple stuff, roasting hazelnuts. There is no absolute right way to do it. The pendulum swings from “low-and-slow” all the way over to “high-and-fast.” I tend to go for the middle range, 350 degrees. At that temperature you have quite a bit of control over the outcome. A medium roast takes about 15 to 20 minutes. At higher temperatures, things move a bit quicker, and it’s easy to overshoot your desired endpoint.

When you begin to smell the delicious toasty aroma, it’s time to start checking the roasting progress. The longer you roast hazelnuts, the richer their flavor. You have to decide how deep of a roast you want based on how you’re planning on using them.

For instance, I prefer a dark roast when combining hazelnuts with all things chocolate, and a hazelnut spread just tastes better when the nuts are well toasted. And apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way, because the industry standard for most candy and ice cream manufacturers is a dark roast. Here’s how to identify the various degrees of roasting.

Light Roast: The skins will have cracked on the majority of the nuts and the surface of the nut will still be a creamy ivory color. Break into one of the nuts; its center will be a slightly darker color, a sort of beige.

Medium Roast: The skins will have cracked on the majority of the nuts and the surfaces will still be a creamy-ivory color; centers will be notably darker than the surface color.

Dark Roast: The skins will have darkened more and cracked on the majority of the nuts; surfaces will have darkened to a pale tan. Centers will be very dark (and getting darker faster at this point, so get those nuts out of the oven, they’re done!).

STEP TWO: Remove the Skins

The time-honored approach to skinning roasted hazelnuts is to tumble a batch of roasted and cooled hazelnuts into a clean towel, fold it over and rub the nuts to remove the skins.

STEP THREE: Grind the Nuts

Tumble your roasted and skinned hazelnuts into your food processor. Using the pulse button, chop them until they resemble coarse meal. Then keep the machine running, stopping it every 10 or 15 seconds so the nuts don’t get too warm. Keep processing until the nuts go from crumbly and grainy to smooth and creamy. The creamy texture development is an amazing thing to watch and occurs only after the nuts release their oils into the puree. The entire process, from crumbly to creamy, may take 4 or 5 minutes. Don’t rush it, and don’t stop before the mixture has become completely creamy.

At any point along the way, add a bit of salt and sugar if desired. It’s not necessary, but I find the flavor deepens. And, of course, if you’re aiming for something along the lines of Nutella (only better!), then you’ll need to add some cocoa.

STEP FOUR: Enjoy!

You can use hazelnut butter any way you’d use peanut butter. Imagine it on your morning toast or bagel. If you’re going to pair it with jams, my choice is raspberry, which goes so well with the flavor of hazelnut. Hazelnut butter also is delicious smeared onto fresh chunks of apple, or whisked into a vinaigrette to pour over a pear and baby arugula salad.

Be sure and store your hazelnut butter in the refrigerator. It will keep for weeks and weeks. Unless everyone else discovers your secret. Then all bets are off. So you better have a back-up jar hidden on another shelf.

Hazelnut Spread

Makes about 2 cups

For a richly flavored spread, give the hazelnuts a longer roast than you might for some recipes. Let the nuts cool thoroughly before using. There’s a honey option at the end of the recipe for all you honey fans.

3 cups dark-roasted and skinned hazelnut kernels (about 1 pound; if you are shelling your own, begin with 2 pounds of in-shell nuts)

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

1/4 cup granulated sugar (optional)

1/2 cup additional roasted, cooled and skinned hazelnuts (optional, if you want a “chunky” hazelnut butter)

Place the hazelnuts in the work bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse button, chop them until they resemble coarse meal. Then keep the machine running, stopping it every 10 or 15 seconds so that the nuts don’t get too warm. Keep processing until the nuts go from crumbly and grainy, to smooth and creamy. At any point along the way, add the salt and sugar if you are using it.

Once the mixture turns soft and creamy, you can throw in the additional 1/2 cup of roasted nuts and process briefly to make a “chunky” hazelnut butter.

Honey-nut spread: Honey is an amazingly complimentary flavor to hazelnut spread. Instead of the 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, blend in 2 to 3 tablespoons of honey. Delicious!

Hazelnut-cocoa spread: Better than Nutella! Add 1/4 cup of good-quality cocoa powder while processing the nuts. If you didn’t add the 1/4 cup granulated sugar, then you will need to add that, as well.

Storage: Hazelnut spread will keep for several weeks at room temperature without developing off-flavors, but for longer periods, keep refrigerated.

— Recipe from “Oregon Hazelnut Country - the Food, the Drink, the Spirit” by Jan Roberts-Dominguez

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.