How to make the perfect chocolate spread

chocolate spread

The world loves Nutella, but by ditching the palm oil and adjusting the sugar content, you can enjoy an even tastier jar of dark delight

Though a surprising number of you share my mistrust of mushrooms and ambivalence towards the lobster, I’m fairly sure I’m the only person in the western world not to be nutty about a certain Italian chocolate and hazelnut spread. Even before the recent revelation that the stuff is 55% pure sugar (the second largest ingredient being palm oil), it’s always tasted cloyingly sweet to someone more used to Marmite in the mornings.

I was quite content in my ambivalence (with so many other vices to choose from, I can afford to be) until I realised there was more to chocolate spread than Nutella – and that it was perfectly possible to make a version that contained more nuts and chocolate than it did added sugar and palm oil. At this point, all was lost. If you’d prefer to keep sugar off the breakfast table, look away now. If you’re tempted, or you have Easter eggs to use up, read on.

The chocolate

Well, perhaps I’m not alone in finding the commercial chocolate spreads too sweet, because most homemade recipes demand dark rather than milk chocolate. Only chocolatier Chantal Coady’s “very posh Nutella” in Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate, and pastry chef and food writer David Lebovitz use milk, the latter mixed with dark chocolate, and Coady in combination with cocoa powder. Lebovitz’s version is slightly too sweet for my taste – a 70% cocoa chocolate suits me better. This is a very personal thing; if you’d prefer a more authentic Nutella-like flavour, you may be better off with a good-quality milk variety instead, and if you’re determined to use up those eggs, stick in whatever comes to hand (I had some very nice chocolate chip cookies recently, made by my eight-year-old niece with half a Santa Claus and some chocolate coins).

Ella Woodward and anti-sugar campaigner Sarah Wilson both use raw cocoa powder in their spreads in the belief that it’s healthier than ordinary roasted cocoa. It may well be, but the problem with cocoa powder, raw or not, is that it’s pretty bitter. Most chocolate contains sugar to balance this flavour, as well as natural cocoa butter, which helps to give the spread body – replacing this with other fats makes little sense unless you, too, prefer your cocoa raw.

The nuts

Hazelnuts are the backbone of Nutella – the Ferrero group uses almost a quarter of the world’s supply. The recipe Lebovitz uses adds a few almonds, too, but I can’t taste them, and suspect he’s right when he suggests an all-hazelnut version would be equally satisfactory. Whichever nuts you use, toast them beforehand; it brings out the flavour. A dry pan is quicker and no doubt more energy efficient, but you’ll get a more even result in a hot oven, so if you plan ahead, bake them when you’ve got it on for something else.

Blanched hazelnuts are easy to find in supermarket baking sections, and will save you the slightly tedious task of rubbing off those papery skins, which can be bitter in quantity. If you use the unpeeled variety, Lebovitz recommends rubbing them in a tea towel to loosen the skin; I like to shake them vigorously in a tightly closed container for a minute or so.

Grind them until they break down into a paste – you can scoop out and reserve a few spoonfuls halfway if you’d prefer a crunchy version, but if you don’t process them enough you’ll end up with a grainy, almost gritty consistency likely to send you back into the welcoming arms of the Ferrero family. Should you doubt your food processor’s ability to cope, I’d suggest going down the Hotel Chocolat route, and buy hazelnut butter instead: you’ll find it in health food shops and larger supermarkets. (It’s not cheap, so give the homemade version a try first.)

Coady makes a hazelnut praline, which she grinds to stir into her paste. This gives it a lovely sugary crunch, more like something you might find in a box of fancy chocolates than anything you’d waste on ravenous children (hence, perhaps, the recipe’s name: Donna Tella the Kids).

The sweetener

Hardcore cocoa fans probably won’t need any sweetener here, but I find the natural bitterness of dark chocolate too much first thing in the morning. If you’ve lost your sweet tooth, Wilson’s scant tablespoon of brown rice syrup will no doubt be sufficient, but all my testers found it far too austere. Use whatever kind of sweetener you like (Lebovitz suggests honey, Woodward maple syrup, and Coady, Hotel Chocolat and America’s Bon Appétit magazine all use refined cane sugar of various kinds, which I like for its otherwise neutral flavour), but add it to taste – only you know what floats your boat.

The fat

Nutella describes itself in the US as a “hazelnut spread with skim milk and cocoa”, which suggests that the manufacturers believe dairy is an important part of its identity. And as you also need some sort of fat to give it that creamy, spreadable consistency, it may as well be something delicious, rather than Hotel Chocolat’s vegetable oil. Bon Appétit suggest butter and double cream, which gives it a solid, slightly crumbly texture, and Coady goes for extra cocoa butter and clarified butter, which works well. However, neither can match Lebovitz’s soft, spreadable, and surprisingly light version using whole milk and whole milk powder. It works a treat: once it’s firmed up, it almost as easy to apply to toast as the real thing, and tastes far better.

If you would prefer to keep it vegan, I would suggest Coady’s cocoa butter, which can be found online, is a better choice than Wilson’s coconut milk and oil, which gives it a strong hint of Bounty bar. Woodward, meanwhile, doesn’t add extra fat, and I think you can taste it – her spread lacks the richness of the others.

The extras

Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley bulk out their “deliciously rich and decadent … wholefood” Bbtella with cooked black beans. This is not as bad as it sounds. It tastes quite nice, in an earthy, beany way. You are unlikely, however, to mistake it for Nutella, so it’s likely to work best with small children who have no expectations of chocolate spread. The sisters, like Wilson, also add vanilla, which is indeed an ingredient of Nutella, though it contains the synthetic variety. A dash of real vanilla extract seems an appropriate homage.

Perfect chocolate spread

(makes 1 x 350ml jar)
140g hazelnuts, preferably blanched
225g chocolate, about 70% cocoa (or see above)
25-50g sugar of your choice (granulated, honey, maple syrup)
3 tbsp powdered whole milk
350ml whole milk
Dash of vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Heat the oven to 180C and spread out the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until golden, then allow to cool.

Grind into a smooth paste in a food processor, scooping out and reserving a couple of spoonfuls early on if you’d prefer a crunchy texture. Depending on your machine, this will take about 10 minutes and you’ll need to keep scraping down the sides; be careful the motor doesn’t overheat.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over, but not touching a pan of simmering water, or in the microwave. Stir together the milk, milk powder and 25g sugar in a small pan, and heat to a bare simmer.

With the processor still running, pour the hot chocolate into the hazelnut paste, followed by the hot milk, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Taste, and add as much of the remaining sugar as you wish, then when you’re happy, stir in any reserved part-ground nuts.

Pour into a clean container, allow to cool, then chill until set.

Nutella outsells Marmite in the UK – do you love or hate it, and is this a sign we should get out of the EU? If you’re one of the spread’s many fans, what else do you use it for apart from slathering on bread? I have several jars to use up and I need inspiration.

Powered by article was written by Felicity Cloake, for on Thursday 7th April 2016 09.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010