A nutty remake

Chocolate hazelnut spread

Now we have our own version of Italy, in a jar. Spread the word. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

I've never escorted the Nutella-toast crowd to Italy. But we did stop at Eataly, the Manhattan eatery owned by Mario Batali (and friends).

The market offers a string of shopping fantasies: grocery store, gelato shop, bakery, restaurant, wine bar, Nutella stockpile. We spent a lot of time staring at Nutella.

Not actual Nutella Nutella. The peanut-butter-aisle staple once struck us as a marvel. It suggested that European children spread chocolate on bread, for breakfast. It suggested that their parents — in deference to the hazelnut — approved. It suggested that the creamy, chocolate-hazelnut collusion could be ours, in a jar.

We still admire the supermarket convenience and super-smooth ways of Nutella.

But the early riser who can ignore the alluring swirl on the front label will note that the product tastes a lot like the fine print on the back: palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, milk, whey, lecithin and vanillin. Made in Canada.

Which explains how we came to be staring, awestruck, at a wall of tantalizingly dark and gritty non-Nutella Nutella. We took home nocciola this and gianduja that and discovered that chocolate hazelnut spread covers a broad range: dark to light, chunky to creamy, sweet to salty, thin to thick. We also discovered that rarefied territory: too much of a good thing.

After we had recovered, I made a batch calibrated to the local palate: creamy, medium-dark, with a mild caramelized-nut crunch.

Now we have our own version of Italy, in a jar.

Chocolate hazelnut spread

Prep: 35 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 1 cup

1/2 cup blanched hazelnuts, see note below
1/3 cup sugar
2 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup half-and-half

Spread blanched hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 350-degree oven and toast, shaking once or twice, until caramel brown and nutty scented, about 15 minutes.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; keep handy. Measure sugar into a small, heavy skillet. Set over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. In about 5 minutes, sugar will clump, then melt. In another minute, caramelized sugar will turn tan, then amber. Tumble in toasted nuts; stir to coat. Scrape nuts onto baking sheet; spread out. Let cool.

Break up nut brittle into food processor. Grind to bits, about 1 minute. Add chocolate; process 1 minute.

Bring half-and-half to a boil; with food processor running, pour in half-and-half. Process smooth (though nutty texture will remain). Scrape into a 1-cup jelly jar. Cool. Seal and chill.

Note: If you can't find blanched hazelnuts, do it yourself:
Heat 1 quart water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon baking soda. Add nuts. Water will roil and turn purple! Let boil 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out 1 or 2 nuts. Cool under running water. Pop off skins. If they don't slip off easily and completely, let nuts cook another 1-2 minutes. Drain. Rinse with cool water. Rub together to slip off skins. Pat dry.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor e-mail her at leahreskin@aol.com.

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