Do a Google search for “Nutella,” the Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread that comes in a squat jar like peanut butter and is often found right next to it in grocery aisles, and you’ll get about 5 million results. Which is about twice what you get when you Google “chocolate chip cookies” -- and several times as many as the phrase “Valentine’s Day chocolates.” You might want to remember that this weekend.
Because Nutella isn’t just junk food with a European pedigree. It can be an obsession, a habit, even a cult. If you think this is foodie hyperbole, you’re just not among the initiated.
If, however, you’re the sort of person who keeps a jar of Nutella hidden under the sink or the mattress; if you’ve ever carefully spooned all the Nutella out of the center of the jar so that it still looked full to outside observers; if you’ve asked friends to smuggle Nutella back from Europe (devotees swear European-made Nutella tastes different); if, for heaven’s sake, you’ve ever bought 10 pounds of raw hazelnuts to try to make it at home, then welcome.
As members of Nutella’s secret handshake society will tell you, it’s a blend of hazelnuts and chocolate -- or rather, nuts, cocoa, sugar, skim milk, oil and a few other flavorings and emulsifiers -- that’s been ground to a blissfully smooth, creamy spread. Knifed onto a slice of bread, or smeared over crepes or waffles, it’s a simple snack that (as my children and the Ferrero Co., which makes the product, like to point out) is even vaguely wholesome.
Maybe it’s the idea of spreadable chocolate, or maybe it’s the deeply satisfying combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, but there’s something about Nutella that inspires the kind of devotion usually reserved for federally banned substances.
Check out some of those Google results and you find eGullet threads, Flickr galleries, MySpace videos and rapturous blog posts, where recipes that make use of Nutella proliferate in a seemingly endless riff, like conspiracy theories or suggestions for what to name the Obama First Dog.
According to allfacebook.com, Nutella’s Facebook page ranks third in number of fans, having just moved past Homer J. Simpson with a little more than 2 million. (The two most popular pages, in order: Barack Obama and Coca-Cola.)
Two years ago, bloggers Sara Rosso and Michelle Fabio even designated Feb. 5 as World Nutella Day, which has a growing following.
“I thought it would be great to have a day where we could eat and cook with Nutella without shame . . . a bit like a meeting of the Nutella minds, or an NAA: Nutella Addicts Anonymous meeting,” e-mailed Rosso, an American living in Italy.
All Nutella addicts are not underground -- or online. French pastry chef Pierre Herme, English cookbook author Nigella Lawson and Berkeley pastry chef and cookbook author Alice Medrich have all created recipes that feature the spread.
In Southern California, Anisette Brasserie chef-owner Alain Giraud (who once confessed that his favorite way to eat Nutella was out of the jar) serves waffles with Nutella on his restaurant’s weekend breakfast menu. Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard serves rolled tuilles stuffed with Nutella at Spago events.
Not bad for a children’s snack that originated in postwar Italy as a thrifty answer to food rationing.
Nutella’s origins date to 1946, when Pietro Ferrero, who owned a bakery in Alba, Italy, began grinding the hazelnuts that were plentiful in the Piedmont region to extend his cocoa supply.
This was neither a unique combination nor a unique situation. Chocolate and hazelnuts have been mixed together (gianduja, the term given to chocolate-hazelnut paste, is named after a Turin commedia dell’arte character) in the region since the 1800s, often to stretch an imported product with a local one.
But Ferrero took things one step further, blending the heady mixture into a spreadable confection that was even more economical and easy to use.
In 1964, the spread was officially renamed Nutella. World domination soon followed.
I discovered Nutella at 15, in the white kitchen cupboard of a suburban house on the outskirts of Hamburg, Germany, where I was a high school exchange student. We ate it for breakfast, smeared on whole-grain bread, and packed it in sandwiches on a ski trip to the Italian Dolomites or (this was 30 years ago) to snack on while driving an aging Volkswagen bus through then-East Germany to the enclosed jewel box of Berlin.
I started sneaking the stuff from the jar within weeks of my first taste.
Maybe because Nutella isn’t exactly cheap these days (about $13 for a 750-gram jar of the Italian-made import; about half that for the domestic version, which for the last three years has been produced in Canada for Nutella U.S.A.), or maybe because I wanted a version without modified palm oil or soy lecithin, or maybe because I’m the sort of person who set up my Facebook page only so I could join a Nutella group, I decided to make my own.
Making Nutella at home is a very earnest project, like deciding to mill your own flour or cobble your own shoes.
But it’s surprisingly easy, and the results are pretty awesome.
I began by toasting hazelnuts in the oven, peeling them, then grinding them in a food processor until they were transformed into a smooth butter. This took about five minutes of just watching the blades spin around, the earthy smell of hazelnuts filling the kitchen, daydreams of snow filling my head.
(A note about hazelnuts: Because of their high fat content, many nuts turn rancid easily, and it’s often impossible to tell before you purchase them if they’ve gone bad. Buy your nuts from a good source, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and taste them before you roast them.)
Then I added high-quality unsweetened cocoa powder, powdered sugar (which is not grainy) and vanilla extract. The original versions of Nutella, according to Mort Rosenblum’s chapter on Nutella in “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light,” were made with cocoa powder and vegetable oil, not chocolate or milk, so this seemed logical and fit the intrinsically Luddite nature of the experiment.
To get the right consistency -- and to heighten the hazelnut flavor -- I added a few tablespoons of hazelnut oil rather than vegetable oil to the mixing bowl and then briefly continued blending.
The smell of hazelnuts combined with that of chocolate and, Proust-like, I was back in that suburban kitchen, my furtive spoon in the jar, the World Cup announcer yelling over the airways in increasingly breathless German.
The homemade stuff is glorious, neither as sweet as Nutella nor with that vague aftertaste that comes, perhaps, from the oils or emulsifiers. The hazelnut flavor is more pronounced and the chocolate is a little stronger, with notes that vary depending on which cocoa powder you use (earthy and slightly chalky with Ghirardelli; brighter and deeper with Scharffen Berger).
The texture is grainier, as it would be without the use of an industrial machine. It’s like the difference between the Jif creamy peanut butter of my childhood and the wholesome stuff my mother forcibly converted us to, virtuously ground as we waited at the natural foods co-op.
Making homemade Nutella isn’t really about reproducing something -- the recipe is zealously guarded by the Ferrero Co., which is now a multinational company based in Luxembourg and owned by Pietro Ferrero’s son Michele and Michele’s two sons.
(Last March, according to a Reuters report, Michele Ferrero became the richest man in Italy, overtaking Silvio Berlusconi, with a personal wealth of $11 billion.)
A recent telephone conversation with Allessandro Bampa, Nutella category manager at Ferrero U.S.A. in Somerset, N.J., unfolded like a membership exam for the Freemasonry.
“I cannot really go into details,” Bampa said in a thick Italian accent when I asked about the manufacture of Nutella. “I cannot confirm that,” Bampa said to questions about whether Nutella is made with a different recipe depending on its place of manufacture. And how much Nutella is made, exactly? “We don’t really disclose volume.”
Making homemade Nutella is thus an act of homage, a rite of passage or further initiation. It’s like visiting the site of Pietro Ferrero’s bakery or ordering a Nutella pizza from a Nutellaria (an Italian shop that actually specializes in foods made with the product), or bidding on eBay for one of those discontinued Nutella jars with Kobe Bryant on the label. (Bryant, who grew up in Italy, is the only person to have been pictured on a Nutella jar.)
And with either a batch of the homemade spread or a jar of the real thing, you can delve into the heavily trafficked underground world of Nutella cookery. If you missed World Nutella Day, it’s OK: Valentine’s Day is Saturday.
Here’s a recipe that’s essentially a paean to the stuff. It’s a traditional ice cream, in which the spread is whisked into the custard base and swirled into the finished ice cream. Rich and nutty, sweet but not overwhelmingly so, it’s reminiscent of vanilla-chocolate swirl ice cream, with pretty whorls that look terrific in a bowl or cone.
Riff on the idea of Nutella for breakfast with a bowl of oatmeal laced with it. Just make a pot of oatmeal, then stir in a generous amount of chocolate-hazelnut spread. Top a bowlful with a pour of cream, a sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts, a few strawberries or bananas, and a bit of shaved chocolate. It’s like a happy medium between cereal and chocolate for breakfast.
And then there are cookies, a very popular way to play with Nutella. Linzer cookies adapt beautifully to Nutella, as they’re traditionally made with nuts in the dough and jam spread between two sandwiched cookies. This recipe capitalizes on those elements, using ground hazelnuts in the cookie dough and chocolate-hazelnut spread instead of jam. A faint note of orange in the cookies plays against the chocolate; a dusting of powdered sugar decorates the top.
Of course, sometimes basic is best. “Nutella is great as it is,” points out Ferrero’s Bampa, “just spread on a simple slice of bread.”
Or eaten out of the jar with a spoon.