Nut Cracking

hazulnutBOXIn Italy nuts are known as Frutta Secca, which to me sounds a bit strange because it translates as dried fruit, which for us English speakers is more sultanas, prunes, dried apricots and the like.  But when you think about it, the things that fall of trees at this time of the year; Castagne (chestnuts), Nocciole (hazelnuts), Noci (walnuts) and Pinoli (pine nuts) are all, botanically speaking, fruit; part of nature’s wonderful reproduction cycle.

Nuts can be pretty costly little things, and perfectly comprehensible considering what is involved in getting a pine nut off a tree and into the kitchen.  If you happen to be picnicking in Villa Pamphili, one of Rome’s grand parks that was once the summer estate of a noble family,  you may come across pine cones that have fallen from the ancient trees.  Break the cone open and small hard nut cases can be found, that when carefully smashed between two stones reveal the precious nuts.  Hence the price of Italian pine nuts and real Pesto alla Genovese!

When we were invited to a friend’s garden to pick  hazelnuts, figs and deep purple plums, we were not half way home with our basket of treasure and I was already mentally flicking through the pages of recipe books and deciding what to cook.

But first the hazelnuts needed to be laid out in the sun to dry for at least 2 days.  Then left in a dry well ventilated place inside the house to complete the drying process.  Before cooking they then need to be shelled and for optimum flavor given a quick roast in the oven.  Make sure they have completely cooled before chopping or grinding.

There was no competition.  I had to make the classic flourless chocolate cake, but with rough chopped hazelnut meal instead of almonds.

Cooks the world over love this recipe, which is most often attributed to Elizabeth David but was of course originally borrowed from the French.  The Italian equivalent is the Torta Caprese, but the french recipe uses more butter and chocolate, making it, well, better.

Add to the basic recipe and you have a hot, melt in your mouth pudding or incredible brownies.  Use good cooking chocolate with at least 50% cocoa solids, but if you go over 70% the result will be a not quite as sweet version.

Chocolate and Hazelnut (or almond) Cake

250 g dark cooking chocolate – at least 50% cocoa solids

150 g caster sugar

150 g butter

100 g hazelnut fine ground hazelnut (or almond) meal – can have some rough cut chunks

5 eggs

Melt chocolate, sugar and butter in a double boiler and mix well.  Remove from the heat and stir in the hazelnut or almond meal and let the mixture cool.  Meanwhile the eggs need to be separated and the whites beaten until stiff.  First fold the lightly beaten yolks into the chocolate mixture, and then fold in half the stiff whites a little at a time.  Mix well until you have a thick smooth mixture.  Grease and line your tin with baking paper, before baking at 180C for required time.

Ring tin cake – use a ring tin about 20cm diameter lined with baking paper and bake for around 40 minutes

Brownies – line a baking tray approx 20 x 30 cm with baking paper, pour in mixture and bake for about 15 – 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

Chocolate and pistachio puddings – Add 100gms of shelled, toasted and chopped pistachios to the mix and bake for approx 10 – 15 minutes in pudding moulds or muffin tins.  Serve with a chocolate sauce and vanilla icecream.   (Choc sauce – melt 100gms dark cooking chocolate or couveture in a double boiler add stir in 100mls cream for a rich shiny sauce)

VILLA PAMPHILI  For visitors to Rome the easiest entrance to this wonderful parco pubblico is via the entrance at Porta San Pancrazio, which is just past the top of the Gianicolo hill.  You can take the 115 bus from Via Mammeli/Garibaldi in Trastevere up the hill if the walk seems too faticoso.  There are various other entrances; Via Aurelia Antica, Via Vitellia and Via Leone XIII, which is close to the ViviBistrot, a quite unique to Rome café-restaurant in the park, close to those falling pine cones.

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