Chocolate Hazelnut Shortbread
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I love shortbread.
How’s that for a ground-breaking introductory sentence from an award-winning writer? This recipe (or this writeup anyway) may not exactly be my one-way-ticket to the Pullitzer shorlist, I really do feel like my affection for shortbread can’t really be over-stated, and I’m very excited to share it with you today. Shortbread is some kind of cookie magic – at least in my mind. It’s fantastically simple stuff, but it’s delicious and satisfying in a way that’s almost unrivaled in baking. There are those who would argue that shortbread is too dry, or too simple, but I think it kind of misses the point – shortbread is all about simplicity. You’re tasting the butter, the flour, and the sugar. It’s a reminder of the transformative, almost alchemical nature of good baking. There’s no artifice, no smoke and mirrors – just good ingredients mixed in a simple ratio, popped into a hot oven, and turned into something truly wonderful and timeless.
And while I will never say no to a basic shortbread, that clean, simple palate is also a perfect backdrop for a little bit of experimenting. I’ve lost track of the various shortbread iterations that I’ve undertaken over the years but I’ve slowly been building up something of an arsenal of cookie recipes (which is definitely the only form of arsenal proliferation I’m on board with). Back in 2016 I posted my first shortbread variation (Cranberry Shortbread with White Chocolate and Pistachios) and took the opportunity to explore the on-again off-again relationship that I have with the Christmas season. I won’t repeat myself too much here (basic summary: family, food and friends = good, crass commercialism and cranky people = bad), but I will say that I really grew attached to the idea of sharing a shortbread recipe with you all around the holidays. So (while I missed 2017), let’s call this a tradition.
Sadly I can’t ACTUALLY share any cookies with you. Oh, if only. Imagine how my social media numbers would explode! #cookiedownload would never stop trending. I’ve also decided that, best intentions aside, I probably shouldn’t wander around the shopping mall with a plate of shortbread while offering them to shoppers and employees in an effort to jam some Christmas spirit into the nooks and crannies of the weary and shopped-out winter masses. As a former retail worker myself (ahh, those weren’t the days) the desire to do this is very real. Sometimes it’s all just a little much, this Christmas shopping nonsense. Otherwise-sane, sensible people seem to be stretched a little too thin by the chaos and confusion. And then there are the less-sensible people. They are… well they’re out in force right now, aren’t they? Just imagine escaping it all for a moment to clear your mind and fill your belly with a homemade holiday panacea! I would just love to wander the mall dispensing shortbread salvation to the people who need it most:
Hello pedestrian who was just about run over in the mall parking lot! You look like you could use a cookie. Have at it.
That line up for Santa Claus pictures sure does look a little daunting, doesn’t it? A cookie will buy you a good 2-3 minutes. They’re homemade. Go ahead. No icing or anything, so that little velvet dress on your 4 year old should make it to the front of the line relatively intact.
Excuse me, young retail employee hiding for an extra 30 seconds in the back room to get away from that lady with an armful of returns from three seasons ago – you need some shortbread.
Why, look at you, shopping with three kids who would clearly rather be anywhere else! Don’t tear your hair out. Have some cookies. You know what, take… take extra. Take the plate.
My goodness, you look a little frazzled ma’am. You need two things: one, the game your grandson wants is called Fortnite. I know his mother said Fork Knife. It’s… it’s not actually called that… you know what, it’s difficult to explain. Just call your grandson and ask him what platform he plays on. Write that down then get in and out of that store as fast as possible. Second, you need a cookie. Enjoy.
Ahh, if only. I’m certainly fond of feeding strangers, but my shortbread-sharing dreams are probably best left at that. I mean, nuts, dairy, wheat… some random dude dispensing sweet treats from store to store…. It would really only be a matter of time before suspicious and/or liability-minded security guards converged. I bet they’d like some shortbread.
What I CAN do is share the recipe and all of the tips and tricks so that you can enjoy this at home. It’s my gift to you all, I suppose. And while I’d much rather be able to pop by your door with a plate of cookies and a smile on my face, it still feels pretty darned good to know that something I’ve created is out there in the world making people happy. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental (oh well, tis the season and all that), that’s a gift that I get to enjoy. There’s something wonderfully heart-warming about knowing that somewhere out there in the world these cookies might be baking in somebody’s oven, ready to brighten the day of people I’ve never even met.
There’s not much to making these – they’re delightfully simple cookies and they don’t require anything complex in terms of ingredients or techniques. That being said, shortbread dough can seem a little funny if you’re new to making it, so I’ve got a couple of tips to help you along the way, plus a bit of info about how to handle the hazelnut component of this recipe.
The Spread That Shall Not Be Used
I think one reason that I like shortbread variations so much is that they get to focus on the flavours in a way that’s more akin to cooking, rather than baking; you’re trying to create something that’s bold, distinctive and memorable without substantially changing the sugar/salt/fat aspects of the recipe. Chocolate and hazelnut are superb additions to a basic shortbread, but I chose to go about adding them in a very specific way.
Chocolate and hazelnut is a phenomenal combination, and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that. After all, Nutella is a thing. A BIG thing. Ferrero (the company that makes Nutella) uses 25% of the world’s supply of hazelnuts. Let that sink in for a moment. But Diversivore is and always will be dedicated to scratch cooking (and baking), and Nutella definitely doesn’t fit that bill. It’s based on classic Italian gianduja, but the modern store-bought spread is mostly sugar and palm (or vegetable) oil. It would be easy enough to stir Nutella into a batch of cookie dough or to ice the tops with a dollop of the famous spread, but I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. Shortbread itself is the source of all of the sugar and fat you need (and those two ingredients are definitely well-represented) – the added ingredients should be big on flavour, rather than big on calories. To that end we’re using cocoa powder (which has lots of chocolate flavour but no sweetness) and hazelnuts alone. The resulting cookie really exemplifies those flavours without being weighed down in added sugar.
Chocolate & Hazelnuts
Choose a good cocoa powder. The selection in stores is often a little limited, but if you’re big on baking I do suggest you shop around to find the cocoa powder you like best. I won’t get into the complexities of Dutch process vs natural cocoa powders and the other intricacies of the ingredient here – instead I’d encourage you to read this wonderful article at Cooks Illustrated. There’s no leavening going on in this recipe, so the acidity and general baking chemistry of the cocoa powder won’t play a big roll. And hey, finding the variety you like the most will involve the baking of many, many delicious treats, so… win win.
The recipe uses hazelnuts in two ways, and it’s important that you use fresh, flavourful hazelnuts. Like most nuts, hazelnuts can get stale or even rancid if stored poorly or sold past their prime. Make sure to taste a few before you bake with them.
You’ll be turning some of the the hazelnuts into a fine powder (almost a flour) and some into small pieces for the cookies. You can go about this in a number of ways, but you’re probably going to want a food processor, spice grinder, or good blender to pulverize the hazelnuts into flour. If you’ve got time and muscle-power on your hands you can grind them in a large mortar and pestle too. The hazelnut pieces can likewise be handled in an electric kitchen gizmo, or smashed in a durable bag with a mallet or rolling pin. Make the pieces as small as you want – I personally prefer them on the smaller side.
One quick tip – make the hazelnut flour first. You may find that a food processor can’t quite convert everything into flour, leaving little chunks behind. Just sift these pieces out and use them as part of your mixed-in hazelnut pieces. Don’t be tempted to run the food processor too long to break them up, as you may end up making hazelnut butter instead. Tasty, but not what we’re going for here.
If you don’t have a food processor or related piece of equipment but you do have access to hazelnut flour you can swap that into the recipe instead. Do make sure to keep the smashed hazelnut bits in your version though!
Hey, they’re cookies! Tasty, buttery cookies. But at about 130 calories per cookie, they’re actually not too indulgent. Best of all, the cocoa powder and hazelnuts add big flavour without tons of added sugar.
Hey, they’re cookies. Lots of fat (including saturated fat from the butter) and sugar. But it’s a treat – enjoy in moderation, and share them.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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A simple, no-nonsense shortbread that delivers big on flavour without relying on a bunch of junky processed ingredients. Perfect for the chocolate/hazelnut lover in your life, and a great recipe for the holidays (or any time really).
- 2 cups unsalted butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 3.5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup ground hazelnuts or hazelnut flour (see note)
- 1/2 cup hazelnut pieces
- 3 tbsp cocoa powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
Preheat and over to 350° F (175° C).
Combine the ground hazelnuts, flour, cocoa powder and salt and stir/sift together.
Using a hand or stand mixer, combine the butter and sugar until they're well mixed. Add the vanilla and mix again.
Add the flour mixture a little at a time, and continue to mix until well-combined. Stir in the hazelnut pieces and mix again. The dough will generally not stay together while mixing, and will instead form many small balls or clumps.
Form the dough into small circles and flatten into patties by hand or, for a more uniform appearance, by pressing them into a small measuring cup or circular cookie cutters.
Space the cookies out by about 5-7 cm (2-3 inches) on a cookie-sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the bottoms are a rich brown (but NOT burnt) and the centers are fairly firm. Baking time can vary depending on your oven and the colour of your baking sheet, so keep an eye on the cookies.
Set the cookies aside to cool for about 30 minutes. You can frost the cooled cookies with a chocolate ganache if you want to get extra fancy, but they're wonderful as-is.
You can use hazelnut flour instead of the ground hazelnuts, but given that a) it's hard to find, and b) you need hazelnut pieces as well, I recommend just pulverizing about 3/4 cup of whole hazelnuts with a spice grinder or food processor to yield a nice fine hazelnut flour/meal.