Sunday, September 7, 2014

Nocciole (Italian Hazelnut Cookies) and some Food Science thoughts

Can we talk about chemicals today?

Seems like marketers all over the world have managed to convince everyone that anything you buy in the supermarket contains "chemicals".

Well they'd be right. Your produce aisle is full of them. Water, sugar, salt and the wonderful essential oils in the skins of oranges, lemons and limes, and the compounds in fragrant spices are chemicals.

Let's back up a bit. I'm a baker. I adore the art of making cakes, brownies, tortes, cupcakes and cookies with the finest ingredients - pure unsweetened cocoa powder, excellent Lindt chocolate, New Zealand butter and seasonal fruit (to name a few).

I'm also a Food Scientist and I spend a lot of time developing delicious and safe products for you to buy in the supermarket. I work with natural and artificial flavours, but more and more I'm only working with the natural ones. And this is driven by consumer demand. The public is telling us that they do not want "artificial colours or flavours" in their foods.

What's the difference? Artificial flavours are synthesized in a laboratory to produce all of the (sometimes hundreds) of molecules to create the perfect combination that sends signals to your brain saying "strawberry!". Natural flavours are also manufactured in a laboratory, however they contain elements that are extracted from the original food source, ie. cherry extract, strawberry extract, vanilla bean extract... 

Here's some perspective on this: These "chemicals" that make up artificial flavours are just a bunch of molecules - molecules that can be found all over nature - put together and thoroughly tested to be safe for consumption. Everything we eat, breathe and feel is a chemical - air, water, fruit and vegetables, your desktop, your cell phone.

Legumes contain carcinogenic, toxigenic compounds called aflatoxins produced by fungus. Aflatoxins are widespread in nature - did you know that your daily dose of peanut butter contains aflatoxins, but the government has deemed it at a level low enough for safety? True.

Potatoes are full of chemicals, some of which are extremely toxic. I can't keep track of the number of times I've passed the produce aisle to find green potatoes. Realise that they are selling poison. The green colour on skins of potatoes is an indication of high concentrations of a toxic compound called solanine. If ingested in high amounts, solanine can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, nervous disorders and even death in the most severe cases. 

Commercial potatoes are screened for solanine content, however improper storage during transport and in supermarket warehouses, like prolonged exposure to light and high temperatures, will increase production of this toxin. 

Even boiling or frying will not eliminate it, so if you find a green potato either throw it away or cut away the green portion which is mostly near the skin.

Why would potatoes turn green anyway?
The humble potato is meant to grow underground in the darkness. If it gets exposed to light, it produces chlorophyll (like leaves do) and at the same time it produces defences in the form of bitter solanine toxins to warn creatures from eating it.

This is nature. We're just blinded by the fact that nature doesn't require an ingredient list.

TIP: store potatoes in a dark, dry and cool place and trim away any green areas as well as sprouts and eyes before cooking.

I didn't imagine this post to be all about potatoes, but this is where my head's at! Bottom line is that there are more important things to worry about than the thoroughly tested and safe-proven artificial flavours in your favourite cake mix or salad dressing. 

If the world would turn to 100% natural flavours, we would end up using somewhere near 90% of the world's agricultural land to produce strawberries just to make flavours for our milkshakes! There are simply not enough strawberries, lemons, raspberries and green apples in the world to feed 7 billion people with natural flavours, unless you never want to eat a fresh strawberry, lemon, raspberry or green apple ever again.

About these pictures... I made simple little Italian cookies using Italy's favourite nut, hazelnuts! Nocciola or nocciole (plural) is famous over Italy and can be found as a feature flavour in gelato, biscotti, pastries and cakes. 

These little bites are crunchy and keep for weeks in an airtight container. The backbone of the recipe is similar to shortbread with the addition of ground nuts and an egg yolk for added richness as well also a bit more structure and bite so that these aren't quite as crumbly as shortbread (hence the crunch-factor). There's no creaming step. Instead, all of the ingredients are combined together to form a smooth dough like most Italian biscotti and pastry recipes - they like to keep things simple and I'm down with that.

These cookies are full of flavour, none of which have been synthesized in a lab, but have been synthesized in nature probably by the same mechanisms. 

I bet you can't eat just one.

Nocciole - Italian Hazelnut Cookies
Makes about 34 cookies

1 ½ cups (140g) hazelnuts, toasted and skinned (on how to toast hazelnuts, click here)
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp cocoa powder, sifted
½ cup (113g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
2 ounces (56g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Put the toasted hazelnuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse them until very fine; they should be the consistency of fine breadcrumbs.

Transfer the ground nuts to a bowl with the flour and sifted cocoa powder. Cut the butter into pieces then add the butter, sugar, egg yolk and salt to the dry ingredients. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients together until the butter is dispersed and completely incorporated. The dough should be very smooth and hold together. 

Divide the dough into three equal pieces and roll each piece into a log with about 3/4 inch (2 cm) diameter. Try to get them as smooth as possible, with no cracks. Place the dough logs on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper and refrigerate until firm.

Preheat oven to 325°F (165°C) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut off equal-sized (½ oz or 15g) pieces of dough using a knife and then roll the pieces into smooth little balls. Place the balls on the baking sheet, slightly spaced apart. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the tops are lightly golden brown. Let the cookies cool completely.

In a clean, dry bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate until smooth. Either dip the tops or the bottoms of the cookies in chocolate and then transfer to a parchment-lined baking tray to set until the chocolate is firm.

These cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two weeks.

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  1. Wow, that about green potatoes came as a surprise. I knew a lot of what you said (I'm a chemistry student) but not about the solanines. I also know that I want to eat a lot of these cookies =)

  2. I love learing from you. "Natural flavors" on packages has always made me feel very suspicious. It's too broad a term to know what kind of "magic" they did in their labs to create it.

  3. Sometimes knowing what you really are eating is really..depressing.

    I have a question about the recipe. Is it ok to use store bought hazelnut meal instead of hazelnuts? Thanks.

  4. How much meal does 1 1/2C whole nuts yield?

  5. Help! I'm in the process of making the dough, and it's not a smooth moist dough. It's crumbs that stick together because of the butter, but the mass falls apart when I try to shape it into logs. Should there be some liquid in the recipe? The butter and the single egg yolk aren't enough to create a dough that holds together. Thanks.

    1. Hi, did you measure the flour correctly? It should be 140-150g, but any more and the dough will be to dry. Try adding a few drops of water to bring it together if necessary. It will be a bit crumbly even so, but that's OK.

    2. Hmm, I went by the 1-cup volume measurement rather than the weight. I'll try adding a little water; I kept what I had and put it in the fridge, covered, so I'll try it. Thank you.


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