Homemade hazelnut-chocolate spread

SLATHER IT ON: Homemade hazelnut-chocolate spread. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / May 22, 2013)

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.


FOR THE RECORD:
Cookie recipe: A recipe in the Feb. 11 Food section for hazelnut-chocolate Linzer cookies did not include a step for adding the ground hazelnuts. They should be added to the cookie dough along with the flours. —



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.

Famous-fan recipes

All Nutella addicts are not underground -- or online. French pastry chef Pierre Hermé, 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.