June 1 is National Hazelnut Cake Day. Although we don’t give hazelnuts or hazelnut cake a lot of thought, the nuts that are the basis of this delicious cake have an interesting “nutty” history.
A fascinating discovery was made in 1995 on an island called Colonsay in Scotland. This discovery showed evidence of large-scale nut processing that dates to about 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists discovered a huge, shallow pit filled with the remains of enormous quantities of burned hazelnut shells, all concentrated within the pit. They were able to radiocarbon-date the nuts to circa 7,000 BC. The nuts were harvested in a single year, which gives us insight into how communities planned during that period. Pollen analysis indicates the hazelnut trees were all cut down at the same time, and that these nuts were important to the survival of people that lived on the island. There was no game on the island, so the nuts supplied protein.
Hazelnuts (species “Corylus”), also known as Filberts (so named after St. Philibert, whose name date is August 22, the time when the nuts first were ripened in England), or Cobnuts (based on a game kids used to play with the nuts, where the winning nut was called the cob) are very rich in unsaturated oleic acid fats. They are high in magnesium, calcium, and vitamins B (riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and pantothenic acid), B6, and E. They are rich in folates and minerals such as manganese, potassium, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium. This makes them a good choice for heart health, and hazelnuts may also help reduce cancer risk and aid in muscle, bone, skin, joint, and digestive health, too. Their taste is crunchy and pleasant.
Today, Turkey is the largest producer of the hazelnut. The Romans had once cultivated hazelnuts, and other varieties were refined sometime during the 16th century. More varieties were introduced during the 19th century. In current times, Oregon is the state cultivating 99% of our crop of hazelnuts. The nut trees were introduced into the United States by a Frenchman named David Gernot, who arrived in Oregon in the 17th century with European hazel trees. The valley in Oregon reminded him of his home in the Loire valley, so in order to recreate it, he planted the beautiful 50-tree grove, with other planters following suit. These hazel orchards took root in Oregon, and their bounty is commercially produced there to this day.
Hazelnuts are used in many well-known confections. They make pralines with hazelnuts, they are used in chocolate to create chocolate truffles, and they are formed into a hazelnut paste as an ingredient for making Viennese hazelnut torte. Hazelnut flour is used to flavor the meringue in Kiev cake, with the crushed nuts sprinkled over its sides. The French dessert cake called Dacquoise contains a layer of hazelnut meringue. Hazelnuts are used in Turkish and Georgian cuisine, as well. And we can’t forget Italian Nutella, which consumes 25% of the global supply of hazelnuts in order to make their decadent product.
In ancient times, the filberts (hazelnuts) were used as “divining rods” to locate underground springheads of water, buried treasure, minerals, ores, or were used as various remedies for illness and ailments of many kinds. While we do not follow these practices today, we can agree that the results of using hazelnuts in a cake are quite magical and amazing. Try the following recipe for an outstanding hazelnut cake to get everyone thinking about the wonder of hazelnuts!
- 1 ½ cups ground unblanched hazelnuts, divided into ½ cup and 1 cup
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- ¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely grated
- 1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 12-cup Bundt or tube pan. Coat with ½ cup ground hazelnuts.
Beat butter and 6 tablespoons of sugar on medium speed of a heavy-duty mixer. Mix until soft and light, about 5 minutes. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition.
In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, ground hazelnuts, and chocolate. Add half of the flour mixture to the egg yolk mixture. Mix on low speed just until blended. Beat in the milk. Beat in the remaining flour mixture.
Beat egg whites on medium speed with a mixer’s whisk attachment. Mix until white and opaque and just beginning to hold a shape. Increase speed to medium-high and add remaining 6 tablespoons sugar in a stream. Continue mixing until soft peaks form.
Stir one-third of egg whites into batter. Fold in remaining egg whites.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool completely on rack.
Recipe from http://www.bakeorbreak.com/2010/04/hazelnut-cake/
BONUS! EASY NUTELLA CAKE RECIPE:
Beat 1½ cups Nutella with 4 large eggs in a large bowl until well combined and slightly increased in volume, about 2 minutes. Fold in ½ cup all-purpose flour until combined. Scrape into a greased and parchment-lined 8-inch pan and bake at 350º F until the center is just set, 35 to 40 minutes.