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Tuesday’s Project: Nicole Plue’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Gianduja

First things first, gianduja needs some clarification.

Gianduja is NOT Nutella. Nutella is a form of gianduja. Gianduja is the term for the Northwest Italy (Piedmont, Torino…) dessert specialty that combines chocolate with nut butter, most commonly hazelnut. The usual ratio for chocolate to nut butter in gianduja treats are 3:1, where the chocolate is the central narrative, accented by hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, or whatever nuts you so desire.

Chocolate- Peanut Butter Gianduja

Chocolate- Peanut Butter Gianduja

In simple terms, gianduja is a nut-enhanced chocolate. So, you hear about gianduja ice cream, gianduja truffles, gianduja cakes, and the list goes on. In a way those are factually correct. To actually be correct however, that gianduja ice cream flavor should be called “hazelnut gianduja” and the chocolate cake with almond butter is an “almond gianduja” flavored cake.

We understand though that the absolute majority of gianduja products are hazelnut-based, hence the connotation with that irresistible Italian hazelnut spread.

It’s a confusing term, sort of one of those “sure, why not?” cooking words that might have an official definition, but really has been used for so many slightly differing recipes that the term simply describes a concept now. That would be the beautiful sweet marriage of chocolate and nuts.

Oh, and you don’t pronounce the “G” or the “J.” It’s zh-awn (like Shawn with a “Z”)-DOO-yuh. I can’t tell you how many times when I went gelato tasting around Rome a few years ago, I would cluelessly obliterate the correct pronunciation. It was in Rome where I first discovered my affinity for gianduja (hazelnut in this case) ice cream, best displayed by the legendary San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain. It’s a darker milk chocolate with a smooth earthy edge. Returning to the U.S., I fell for the chocolate peanut butter dessert crafted by the wonderful pastry chef Nicole Plue, then at the restaurant Redd in Yountville, California (Napa Valley, same town as a certain other restaurant).

This dessert that comes from the same profile as everyone’s beloved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was actually called a “gianduja,” though there was no Nutella or anything hazelnut to be found.

Ah yes, but there was peanut butter instead of hazelnut. Lots of peanut butter. Right after my dinner at Redd, I went to work searching for Plue’s gianduja recipe, and sure enough found it on the website for Berkeley’s Scharffen Berger chocolate of all places (now owned by Hershey’s).

Crunchy Layer

Crunchy Layer

Plue’s gianduja is a story of chocolate and peanut butter in two components: the crunchy layer and the creamy layer.

First, you mix melted peanut butter and chocolate (of course the recipe says you must use Scharffen Berger, I used San Francisco’s Guittard) with crumbled rolled butter cookies (I substituted chocolate wafers which worked fine and gave a great chocolate addition). Then spread the crunchy layer over a parchment paper sheet in a baking pan.

Next, tackle the creamy layer with more melted chocolate and peanut butter. Your tastes in chocolate should determine what cacao percentage chocolate to use. The recipe calls for 41% milk chocolate, very close to the level of what a Reese’s or Nutella would be. The gianduja could be great with dark chocolate too, though might not boast enough sweetness for some.

A boiled milk and salt component then gets whisked by the mixer into the chocolate- peanut butter mixture. Follow that by whipping heavy cream in a different bowl for the mixture. Don’t cheat the whipping cream on time. It will seriously take a good 6-7 minutes. Look for the pillowy texture with little white caps (like with ocean waves) at that point.

Whip the cream, the fold into the chocolate- peanut butter- boiled milk mixture

Whip the cream, the fold into the chocolate- peanut butter- boiled milk mixture

Then fold the whipped heavy cream into the main mixture, and spread in the pan over the crunchy layer. Think of it as a two-layered brownie. Then freeze the mixture for a good amount of time, almost a half day so that it assumes a good solid structure.

I garnish with a fruit (strawberries or bananas are best), maybe a spice element like candied ginger or cacao nibs, a light dusting of cocoa powder, and of course since this is gianduja, some un- salted peanuts. Chocolate chips could be terrific too.

Gianduja before cutting

Gianduja before cutting

A few weeks ago dining at Waterbar in San Francisco, I was transported to that dessert paradise that only chocolate and peanut butter can achieve (with some help from the magnificent views of the new Bay Lights project on the Bay Bridge). Emily Luchetti, Waterbar’s pastry chef, is a wizard with simple desserts focusing on a perfect central star, then given a creative nudge. She thinks about the crust and fruits first and foremost for a pie. She thinks about the precise texture for a panna cotta, instead of the supporting cast to diminish the custard’s role.

This evening, she was at the top of her game with a ball of peanut butter mousse surrounded by a chocolate glaze. The supporting cast of caramel corn and banana ice cream were both stellar, but the focus was that dynamic duo in the center. It was absolutely marvelous, transporting me back to that summer night years before at Redd enjoying the chocolate- peanut butter gianduja.

Emily Luchetti's Peanut Butter and Chocolate Mousse at Waterbar, San Francisco

Emily Luchetti’s Peanut Butter and Chocolate Mousse at Waterbar, San Francisco

Unfortunately, Plue cannot be found at a restaurant presently since the (landlord- forced) closing of Cyrus in Healdsburg (Sonoma County) where she moved to after Redd. On the bright side, you can order many of her superb and innovative sweet-salty-crunchy eye-opening sweets at her website, Sideshow by Nicole Plue.

Yes, we know Nutella can always be enjoyed straight out of the jar and who doesn’t enjoy a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Neither gianduja confection can compare though with a chocolate and peanut butter creation in the hands of a gifted pastry chef.

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