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Whether domestic, imported or homemade, hazelnut spread has been adored for 50 years

Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 5:30 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 5)

Ever since I heard about Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread that originated in between-World Wars Italy, I've been a fan. In mid-1980s America, it was hard to find. Not every supermarket carried it. Obtaining it was a quest, and luck helped. I had to ration it. And no one can prove that I used to hide it when visitors came over.

A lot of foods have cult followings, and demand for Nutella has resulted in its becoming nearly ubiquitous. As it celebrates the spread's 50th year, maker Ferrero Rocher reportedly sells about a half-billion pounds across more than 70 countries.

There's no more rationing, though there probably should be, because, frankly, my teeth have started to hurt. But maybe there's a way I can avoid cutting back: Just as I start to accept that my advancing age and persistent sweet tooth have taken their toll on my dental health, a friend tells me there is an imported version of Nutella, and it's less sweet.

Soon enough, though, I learn that like any good cult, this one comes with a heaping spoonful of mythology.

In 2014, obtaining the version of Nutella imported from Italy is not really a task worthy of the term "quest." A lot of gourmet markets carry it, and you can find it at any serious Italian market or deli. You'll pay a premium, but that's just another indication that we're talking about a cult, right?

"Customers tell me all the time they don't care what ours costs," said Robert Tramonte, the owner of the Italian Store in Arlington, Va., where you can buy an 11-pound vat of the Italian version. "They've tried the other ones. They prefer the imported."

And they have various opinions on what differentiates the imported and domestic versions.

The prevailing theory is that the domestic version is indeed sweeter, but some fans suggest that the Italian product uses more hazelnuts (which could simply be a different way of stating the same theory). Or that the American version has more salt. Or that the Italian version has a better "mouth feel."

Mark Furstenberg, the artisan baker behind Bread Furst in D.C., detects a favorable complexity and texture in the import. He theorizes that there are more hazelnuts, or maybe that they are roasted more. For him, the taste evokes a trip to Turin, where he sipped a chocolate-espresso drink called bicerin, into which you can stir in some Nutella. He assures me that the fond memories don't cloud his objectivity.

He clearly prefers the import.

A quick call to Ferrero Rocher results in offers of Nutella-related recipes. I tend to eat the stuff off a spoon, so this is of minimal interest to me. But no one ever seems to be available to field questions about just what makes the two Nutellas different.

Now we have a quest.

---

A gooey clue

Armed with 825 grams — "Formato Famiglia" — of the imported version in a glass jar and 750 grams of the Canadian-made version in plastic, I head to Osteria Morini on Washington's Southeast waterfront and sit down with Alex Levin, director of the pastry program there. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, it has to be a pastry chef at an Italian restaurant, right?

I tell Levin that I expect we'll spend a good portion of the afternoon translating and converting nutritional information so we can make comparisons. He tells me he studied applied mathematics at Yale. I got an A-minus on a particularly challenging trig test in 11th grade. We were born to do this.

First, the taste test. The two jars, glass and plastic, have been sitting side by side for about 18 hours, so they are similarly acclimated.

We remove the identical gold-foil seals and notice an obvious difference in the texture of the two. The imported has a firmer consistency; when we scoop some out, it retains the track of the spoon. When we scoop out some of the domestic, it slowly starts to sloop back to fill the void.

This is a clue, Levin says before we even taste. But we'll get back to that.

The flavor of the two is similar, and the immediate sensation is sweetness. A quick look at the nutritional chart on the domestic jar clues us in: A serving size is listed as 37 grams, about 2 1/2 tablespoons. Each serving includes 21 grams of sugar.

For all the hazelnuts, milk and chocolate this spread is billed for, that makes it 56.76 percent sugar. Even if you didn't study applied mathematics at Yale, you know that's more than half.

We look at the Italian jar. The serving sizes are different, but in Europe, they've already done the math, and the number is almost startling: Each serving is, well, 56.7 percent sugar.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the two taste the same, or even that they are equally sweet. There are other variables to look at first. But it does mean equal amounts of the two versions have exactly the same amount of sugar. And it's a lot.

"If I was having some of this in Italy, then came home and had some here, I might assume they were the same thing," Levin said. "But tasting them side by side, you can tell there's a difference." The hazelnut flavor in the imported version seems slightly more pronounced.

He decides that, most likely, the difference is either the number of hazelnuts used or the kind of fat used. The domestic jar lists palm oil; the imported says vegetable oil, which technically could be the same oil. We don't know.

Uh-oh. Trans fats?

Initially, comparing the hazelnuts seems impossible. The imported jar quantifies the hazelnuts as 13 percent. There is no percentage listed on the domestic. But then we see it: The front of the jar, in big letters, proclaims that it contains 97 hazelnuts. Levin grabs a handful of hazelnuts from his kitchen. He weighs 20 of them: They total 20 grams. Using our combined math powers and not the calculators on our phones, we extrapolate that 97 hazelnuts would weigh 97 grams. We know the jar holds 750 grams of Nutella. Now we pull out the calculators and find the percentage of hazelnuts in the domestic version is . . .

Thirteen percent (12.93, to be precise).

Huh. That keeps happening.

Protein: The same. Carbohydrates: Equal. Total fat. Saturated fat. Ditto. Ditto.

We know the percentages of skim milk (6.6) and cocoa (7.4) in the Italian spread but can't compare them with the American because it doesn't note percentages. Maybe the Italian version uses less of those things and more oil? Probably not, because the nutritional information all matches, which probably indicates no great differences in the percentages of key ingredients.

But they taste different. How? Why?

Levin notes that the two spreads "feel" different. (Mouth feel was one of the theories!) The imported version sticks to your mouth a little more. It could just seem to have more intense flavor because it lingers on the palate longer.

Levin suspects that if we melted — or refrigerated — both versions, we'd taste no difference between the two at all.

Is the glass keeping the imported version cooler, therefore firmer? I break out a thermometer, and the domestic registers 72.1 degrees.

In keeping with the theme, I take the temperature of the Italian version in Celsius and get 21.2. Then I use my math skills to convert it, multiply by 9/5ths (I think), then add (or maybe subtract?) 32 and . . . oh, just hit the Fahrenheit button. It's 71.9 degrees. So that isn't it.

On the back of the domestic spread, we notice it says there are zero grams of trans fat, the hydrogenated fat that the American Heart Association says raises bad cholesterol levels, lowers good cholesterol and is associated with problems including heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. It also helps foods retain a more solid texture at higher temperatures.

Uh-oh.

With trepidation, we look at the back of the imported jar. There is no mention of trans fat.

The FDA has required trans fats to be listed in nutritional analyses since 2006. The European Union does not.

"My guess," Levin says, "is that before they had to put it on the label, there was no 'U.S.' version, that they sold the same spread everywhere."

There are still a lot of variables we can't cover, Furstenberg's roastiness theory a compelling example. So we can't, and don't, claim to have solved anything. But we started with mythology, and attacked it with mathology. From the available evidence, we suspect that the difference isn't in the flavors, but in the delivery.

--

None of this helps my teeth, but Levin says he has something for that, too.

He disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a pint container, and the contents look familiar. It's a hazelnut chocolate spread that he made. He said it has five ingredients: hazelnuts, milk, chocolate, honey and salt. Of course, the chocolate brings more ingredients into play — some sugar, some fat — but their percentages will be comparatively minimal.

I taste a spoonful. The sensation is of getting hit in the mouth with, say, 97 hazelnuts.

"I started out with 300 grams of hazelnuts," he said.

Update: like getting hit in the mouth with 300 hazelnuts.

It's sweet enough, but the sweetness takes a back seat to the chocolate-tinged nuttiness.

Levin says that because he gets his hazelnuts already skinned, it takes only a few minutes to whip this up. He suggests that by varying the amount of milk, you can make it into anything from a sauce that would be amazing on top of ice cream to a paste for spreading on bread. It has no preservatives, so it needs to be refrigerated. But I don't envision this spending much time in the fridge before it's gone.

Levin suggests whipping up a batch once a week. That makes a lot of sense.

I'm not leaving the cult. I'll still keep a jar of Nutella — probably domestic — in the pantry. But I'll probably reach for it only if I've stopped rationing, and there isn't any more homemade in the fridge.

———

DOMESTIC NUTELLA

The chocolate hazelnut spread made in Canada has a legion of fans, but many people say the Italian-made version tastes superior. What's the difference?

Hazelnuts 12.93 percent

Sugar 56.76 percent

Cocoa ?

Skim milk ?

IMPORTED NUTELLA

Surprise: The Italian-made spread closely matches the domestic. Cocoa and milk percentages aren't listed on both jars, but extrapolation is possible.

Hazelnuts 13 percent

Sugar 56.7 percent

Cocoa 7.4 percent

Skim milk 6.6 percent

———

Hazelnut Chocolate Spread

24 servings (makes 3 cups)

Pastry chef Alex Levin's recipe brings the flavor of the hazelnuts to the foreground.

Use as a sandwich spread (try it with sliced strawberries or bananas). Levin suggests melting some in the microwave and serving it over vanilla gelato as a more interesting alternative to hot fudge sauce.

MAKE AHEAD: The spread needs to be refrigerated for 1 hour before serving. It can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Adapted from Levin, pastry chef at Osteria Morini in Washington.

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups (about 6 ounces) skinned hazelnuts (see NOTE)

6 ounces dark chocolate, such as Valrhona Manjari 64 percent, broken into pieces

5 ounces milk chocolate, such as Valrhona Jivara 40 percent, broken into pieces

1 cup whole milk

2/3 cup nonfat powdered milk

2 1/2 tablespoons honey

Pinch kosher salt

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

While the nuts are still hot, transfer them to a food processor. Grind until they turn into a paste, about 5 minutes. (You might need to stop and scrape down the sides of the work bowl a few times.)

Heat a couple inches of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Combine the dark and milk chocolate in a heatproof bowl; place over the saucepan to melt the chocolate. Stir to make sure it has completely melted. Remove from the heat.

Combine the whole milk, powdered milk, honey and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisking until well incorporated and warmed through.

Add the melted chocolate to the pureed hazelnuts in the food processor. Pulse to incorporate, then add the milk mixture. Pulse to form a homogenous spread.

Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, until the spread firms up, before using.

VARIATION: Once this spread cools, its texture is similar to that of Nutella. For a looser version, add more milk (up to twice as much). For a sweeter version, add more honey.

NOTE: To skin the hazelnuts, bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of baking soda. Add the hazelnuts and cook for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice and water. After 2 minutes, remove one nut and drop it into the ice water. If the skin can be easily removed, drain the nuts and add them all to the ice water. If not, test one nut every minute until the skin comes off easily. Preheat the oven to its lowest setting. Slip off and discard the hazelnut skins, then dry the nuts and spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Warm in the oven until they're completely dry, which could take 15 to 60 minutes.

Nutrition Per 2-tablespoon serving: 140 calories, 4 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

———

Taste test: 14 chocolate hazelnut spreads

By Becky Krystal – The Washington Post

Nutella needs no introduction. There are probably enough Italophiles, college students and hazelnut lovers to lobby for classifying the chocolate-hazelnut spread as its own food group.

These days, though, it's practically impossible to walk into a grocery store and not find other brands vying for attention. To see whether Nutella — which turns 50 this year — is holding its own, we conducted a blind taste test. Competitors included store brands, familiar labels such as Hershey's and Jif, and domestic and imported products labeled spreads or butters and sold at supermarkets and specialty shops.

Post Food section staffers licked many small plastic spoons. Here are the results, listed in order of preference, including an averaged rating (on a scale of 1 to 5):

Best

Azienda Agricola Nocciole d'Elite Crema di Nocciola: 4.4.

This Italian import was the uncontested winner — and by far the most expensive of the competitors. Although its consistency was thinner/runnier than most of us would have liked, it earned praise for its "pure hazelnut flavor," prompting one judge to rejoice, "ding ding ding." The mellow chocolate favor imparted by cocoa powder is a bit subdued, so chocoholics, keep that in mind. $21 for 8.8 ounces, or $2.39 per ounce; available at Dolcezza in D.C. 202-299-9116, plus three other locations of the gelato chain (call ahead to confirm availability).

Peccati di Ciacco Gianduia Chocolate Hazelnut Spread: 3.4.

Tasters detected hints of caramel and vanilla. Overall, "pretty sweet but good." $10.99 for 7.76 ounces, or $1.42 per ounce; under the Ritrovo Selections importer label at A. Litteri in D.C. 202-544-0183.

Ferrero brand Nutella (Italian label): 3.2.

The European Nutella prompted opposing opinions on a variety of counts, from "canned chocolate frosting flavor, with little hazelnuts" to "nice nutty beginning; not too sweet, really good." $15.99 for 35 ounces, or 46 cents per ounce; at the Italian Store, Arlington, Va. 703-528-6266.

Safeway Select Hazelnut Spread: 3.

This store brand delivered a respectable bang for the buck. "Pretty classic," "pudding," "balanced but not distinctive" and "the nut taste is fresh and good." $3.79 for 13 ounces, or 29 cents per ounce.

Acceptable

Ferrero brand Nutella (domestic label): 2.6.

At least one taster correctly identified this as "what I grew up eating." Another panned it as "way too sweet, teeth-achingly." Other middle-of-the-road sentiments: "inoffensive," "more chocolate than hazelnut; not too sweet but not delicious." $4.99 for 13 ounces, or 38 cents per ounce. Widely available.

Justin's Chocolate Hazelnut Butter Blend: 2.6.

This product, available at Mom's Organic Market, isn't a Nutella wannabe, but we decided to include it anyway. Judges readily identified this as a nut butter and almost universally commented on its gritty texture and salty, hazelnut-light flavor. "I would eat this and not feel guilty about having dessert for breakfast," one said. $10.99 for 16 ounces, or 69 cents per ounce; at Mom's Organic Markets.

Rapunzel brand Organic Chocolate Hazelnut Butter: 2.4.

This one inspired wide-ranging reactions. Among them: "very nutty, dark, but did find a little grit"; "leaves a bad, bitter aftertaste"; "greasy mouth feel." $7.49 for 8.8 ounces, or 85 cents per ounce; at Mom's Organic Markets.

Rigoni di Asiago Nocciolata: 2.4.

Tasters mostly found the hazelnut flavor lacking in this Italian spread. Also: "Consistency's winning, an aftertaste that's bad"; "nicely balanced"; "more cocoa than chocolate." $4.99 for 9.52 ounces, or 52 cents per ounce; at Mom's and Wegmans.

Jif brand Chocolate Flavored Hazelnut Spread : 2.

Maybe Jif should stick with peanut butter? "Harsh and sweet" and "distinctly lacking in hazelnut"; one praised "a rich chocolate flavor." $4.19 for 13 ounces, or 32 cents per ounce. Widely available.

Wegmans brand Hazel'Nuttin Chocolate Flavored Hazelnut Spread : 2.

"Gag," "chemical-like" and "meh" were the harshest judgments; also, "lovely nuttiness" and a "good" balance. $2.99 for 13 ounces, or 23 cents per ounce.

Not recommended

Giant brand Hazelnut Spread With Cocoa: 1.6.

Part of a four-way tie for last. "Cloyingly sweet," "bad chocolate, just nasty" and the nail in the coffin: "Detect practically zero hazelnut, right?" A few judges commented on an unpleasant aftertaste. $3.69 for 13 ounces, or 28 cents per ounce.

Natural Nectar ChocoDream Hazelnut Cocoa Spread: 1.6.

One tester compared this to "a bad doughnut glaze." "Blech" and "too sweet." An outlier observed a "stronger nut flavor." $5.99 for 12.3 ounces, or 49 cents per ounce; at Whole Foods Markets.

Hershey's Spreads, Chocolate With Hazelnut: 1.6.

"Fake chocolate tasting"; "where's the hazelnut?"; "thick as paste." $3.99 for 13 ounces, or 31 cents per ounce.

Merenda: 1.6.

A Greek spread with disappointments that included "lackluster chocolate" and "faint" hazelnut flavor. One judge awarded it a 3, calling it "creamy, sweet, nutty, thin in texture, milk chocolate-like." $9.95 for 35 ounces, or 28 cents per ounce; at the Mediterranean Way in D.C. 202-560-5715.

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