Climbing up into the hills of Piedmonte from the town of Alba, the landscape alternates between vineyards of grape varietals and intermittent groves of hazelnut trees; the panorama takes your breath away. Typically, hazelnut trees are planted on hillsides that don’t receive the requisite sun for grapes. Hazelnuts, also know as Filberts in the United States, are emblematic of Piedmonte and provide a stable source of income to some growers.
The small spherical nut of Piedmonte has an intense fragrance and flavor that is unmatched by even the Oregon hazelnut. The Piedmontese are proud to be considered as having the highest quality hazelnut in the world.
During World War II, with cocoa being in short supply, clever confectioners from Torino used ground hazelnuts to extend cocoa and allora, gianduja the chocolate-hazelnut mixture came into being. The confection industry promoted the marriage of chocolate and hazelnuts, resulting in tremendous commercial popularity primarily through Ferreo and Nutulla.
Our favorite hotel in those hills, Relais Montemarino tends a modest grove of hazelnuts adjacent to the grounds. Morning breakfast always includes a Torta di Nocciole from one of Alba’s finest pastry shops. Straightforward in it’s toasty brown appearance, an uncomplicated round flat cake without any additional adornment – but oh so moist and flavorful. I was determined to replicate this treasure once back in the States.
I simply had to return with Piemontese hazelnuts, and I did. My only regret was that I should have filled a suitcase with them; hindsight again… I did sneak a few vacuum sealed packages into my luggage and after some tweaking, an excellent rendition of my morning slice of heaven at Relais Montemarino was created.
My Torta di Nocciole is a basic combination of hazelnuts, sugar, fresh eggs, a pinch of salt finished with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar. When you work with the finest of ingredients and keep things simple, it’s almost impossible not to be successful in the kitchen. As a substitute for Piemontese hazelnuts, of course use those from Oregon; be sure that they are fresh, skinned and lightly toasted to heighten the essence of the distinctive hazelnut flavor.
- Butter or tasteless vegetable oil for greasing the pan
- 1¼ cup of granulated sugar
- 1½ cup of hazelnuts, lightly toasted and skins removed
- 4 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 4 large egg whites, room temperature
- Pinch of salt
- Confectioner's sugar for dusting
- Fresh berries for garnishing
- Adjust the oven rack to the center position. Preheat the oven to 350º F.
- Grease a 9" springform pan well.
- Combine the toasted and skinned hazelnuts and ¼ cup of the granulated sugar in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Process off and on until the hazelnuts are finely ground.
- Place the egg whites in the work bowl of a standing mixer along with ¼ cup of the granulated sugar and the pinch of salt. Beat on high speed until the egg whites are glossy and able to form soft peaks, set aside.
- Using a clean work bowl, combine the egg yolks and the remaining ¾ cup of granulated sugar beat on high speed stopping several times to scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Continue to beat until the yolk mixture becomes pale yellow in color and quite thick.
- Using a spatula, add the ground hazelnuts to the beaten egg yolks, combining until a uniform batter is formed. Spoon about ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the hazelnut - yolk batter and stir to lighten. Carefully fold the remaining egg whites into the mixture, working from the bottom of the bowl and turning the mixture upwards. Work gently to combine, being certain that there are no streaks of white.
- Turn the batter into the prepared springform pan, smoothing out the top with an offset spatula or the back of a tablespoon. Place into the preheated oven.
- As the torta bakes, it will rise in the oven. Refrain from opening the oven door, as consistent heat is important with this type of cake. If you have an oven light put it on. After 20 minutes, quickly open the oven door and gently press on the center of the cake. If the top of the cake is golden and the center is fairly firm, remove the cake to a wire rack to cool; if not, bake for an additional 5 minutes.
- Allow the cake to cool until just warm, at this point run a sharp knife around the edges of the springform pan. Once the torta is completely cool, remove to a serving platter, dust with confectioner's sugar, and garnish with fresh berries.