Muhammara (Walnut-Red Pepper Spread)

muhammara book

Ten years ago, when our nut driven adventure began, we both combed through the troves of recipes compiled by our families.  “Anything with nuts, anything with nuts” we chanted as we flipped through yellowed hand written index cards and indecipherable shorthand notes.  A few stood out, genuine treasures that kindled childhood memories and compelled us back into the kitchen to recreate them.  One of the best was from Andrea’s grandmother, the Muhammara, a red pepper and walnut dip that is redolent with pomegranate molasses and freshly ground cumin.  We made big batches, and along with some sesame coated crackers and sweet nut filled cookies, we packed it up and sent it off to all publishers who were considering our book.  When our book deal was signed, our editor gleefully told us how much she loved it.  We knew it was a winner, and we were right.  With its terra cotta hue and its fragrant flavor, it has gone from dip to chicken salad dressing and has found its way into countless catering menus on the way. You can find the recipe on page 73 of our book.

muhammara trader joes 2Ten years later, the previously unknown Muhammara can be found in half pint containers on the shelves of Trader Joe’s, stocked among the countless varieties of hummus and dips.  And yesterday, a recipe similar to ours has appeared in the Dining Section of the New York Times. ( Clearly, by most measures, Muhamarra has arrived.  Are we trendsetters, ahead of the curve as nut aficionados?  Maybe.  But we certainly know what delicious is!


The Nutella King Has Passed

nutellaMichele Ferraro changed my life, although he never knew it.  Mr Ferraro was the creator of Nutella, and he passed away this weekend, on Valentine’s Day.  Born of post war necessity, Nutella was created when chocolate was scarce, and it made good business sense to combine it with abundant hazelnuts.  The resulting spread became a world wide taste phenomenon, and it was the start of a confectionary empire that made Mr Ferraro one of the richest men in the world.

I first tasted a homemade version of Nutella when I worked as a prep cook in the kitchen of Kibbutz Urim, in Israel.  I was a teenager who had little exposure to sweets, and that chocolate- hazelnut spread was a kibbutz staple.  Made by the bucket full, it was kept in the kitchen and served at every breakfast, ready to  schmear on bread or toast. Its exotic flavors opened culinary worlds to me, and creating it for the hungry hordes introduced me to large scale food preparation.  At the time, I had no idea that making Nutella from scratch would sow the seeds of my future as an avid consumer of all things delicious, and for my career as a chef.

So many years later, a version of that homemade spread appears in our cookbook In a Nutshell: Cooking and Baking with Nuts and Seeds, published in August 2014 by W. W. Norton.  As great and as universal as commercial Nutella is, our easy -to- prepare homemade version has remarkable depth of flavor.  We use it as a spread as I did in the kibbutz days, but also as a base for ice cream, as a topping for waffles, and as a dip for pretzels or fresh fruit.  I believe our recipe would have made Mr Ferraro proud.  Its inspired combination of chocolate and hazelnuts piqued my interest in all things culinary, and for that, I thank him.

Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

2 cups blanched hazelnuts, toasted

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa powder

2 tablespoons hazelnut oil or canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

  1. In the work bowl of a food processor, process the hazelnuts until a paste forms, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stop the processor, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and continue to process for 3 additional minutes.  The hazelnuts will have the texture of sand, with a little remaining graininess.
  2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa and pulse repeatedly until everything is well mixed, about 1 minute. Drizzle in the oil and add the vanilla and salt.  Process until the spread is smooth, about 5 minutes.  Using a spatula, place it in a clean airtight container and refrigerate for up to one month.

Recipe reprinted from In A Nutshell: Cooking and Baking with Nuts and Seeds by Cara Tannenbaum and Andrea Tutunjian. Copyright © 2014 by Cara Tannenbaum and Andrea Tutunjian. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

California Here I Come

I’m in San Diego giving a book talk.  The Jewish Community Center  of La Jolla has invited me to speak at their Succoth festivities, and at this time of year it seems like the perfect spot to celebrate nature’s mother lode of nuts and seeds.  The Jewish holiday of Succoth is time to acknowledge a bountiful harvest.  An open lattice of boughs and fruits top a temporary wooden structure that observant Jews erect in their backyards, balconies, or even on their fire escapes as my father did when a child in 1920’s New York.  The open nature of the “roof” allows all those who eat in the Succah, as is customary, to look up at the stars, and contemplate the passing of another year on the Jewish calendar. It is a symbolic, ethereal structure that underscores the nomadic history of the Jewish people.  And as nomads, the ancient Jews of the Middle East would surely have scooped up the fallen bounty of almonds, sesame seeds and whatever other morsels they found as they wandered through the desert.  Before cultivation and the rise of settled agriculture, Jews gathered what was plentiful, and as their culture and cuisine evolved, integrated these resources into their daily sustenance.

almond spreadI’m delighted to celebrate in a San Diego Succah. I’ll be demonstrating our chocolate hazelnut spread from the book,made with almonds instead of hazelnuts. The group chose to use almonds because they are a local and plentiful California resource, a sentiment that resounds with the spirit of the holiday.  We will spread it on the fruits of the season and enjoy. I will look up at the sky, and be grateful for another bountiful year.