These cookies couldn’t be more different than the way they started out. First they were the hazelnut thumbprint cookies I made as an excuse to use the sun-dried, saffron-yellow apricot jam a friend gifted me. When the time came to update the recipe for my Turkish cookbook, I decided to make a plain thumbprint, coating it with finely chopped hazelnuts for crunch. Then I learned that Banu Bingör, a dear friend and recipe tester extraordinaire, had turned the original thumbprint into a simple ball cookie studded with a single whole hazelnut. When she brought a jarful of them to one of my book signings and I found myself eating cookie after cookie to get to that perfectly toasted hazelnut, I wished for a chance to revise the recipe. Its beauty was in the restraint, and I was determined to get it right the next time.
I got that chance with the translation of my cookbook into English, and I had every intention of staying true to Banu’s version. However, restraint is not a virtue of mine. I embrace that gladly, because otherwise I would not have come up with a cookie that deserves the description “melt in your mouth” more than any other I have ever baked.
My plan was to maximize the hazelnuts on top, so I pressed the dough into a square pan, brushed the top with a thick layer of lightly beaten egg white, and covered the entire surface with coarsely chopped hazelnuts.
I was ecstatic to have octupled the quantity of hazelnuts, but my excitement wasn’t long lived—no matter how thickly I brushed on the egg white glaze, the hazelnuts would not stick. I needed a stronger glue. A thin layer of chocolate ganache was the easy way out, but I didn’t want anything to steal the hazelnuts’ thunder. I was about to give up until I remembered a tart I’d baked many years ago from David Lebovitz’s blog. It was Lindsey Shere’s Almond Tart, the most famous dessert at Chez Panisse for decades until it was taken off the menu—despite David lobbying against the change. Imagine a mixture of cream, sugar, and loads of sliced almonds, slowly transforming into an almond-layered caramel inside a baked tart shell. That was it! I would spread a layer of sweetened cream beneath the hazelnuts. It would caramelize in the oven, forming the most delectable glue known to humankind.
The revelation came with a challenge: prebaking the dough made it impossible to cut it into squares without shattering it into a million pieces, while skipping the prebake resulted in an underbaked crust. I tried scoring the dough before baking and experimented with various prebake times, but nothing helped. As a last resort, I stole a corner piece from the latest batch of unbaked dough and popped it into the oven to see what might happen. I expected the cream to run off the sides, but it didn’t. In fact, it made the dough spread out, allowing it to crisp at the exact time the cream layer turned into caramel. Victory at last!
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HAZELNUT & CARAMEL COOKIES
Makes 25 cookies
- 2 1/2 cups (325 grams) whole blanched hazelnuts
- 1 cup (140 grams) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 stick (4 ounces; 115 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1/3 cup (80 grams) heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
- Cut a sheet of parchment paper long and wide enough to cover the bottom and sides of an 8-inch (20.5-cm) square pan with 2 inches (5 cm) of overhang on all sides. Crumple up the parchment and straighten it out half a dozen times to soften it, so that it will fit into the corners without sharp edges. Line the pan with the parchment paper across the bottom and up the sides, pressing creases at the bottom and top edges.
- In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process 1 cup (130 grams) of the hazelnuts, the flour, and 6 tablespoons (75 grams) of the sugar until the nuts are finely ground, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and process until the dough gathers around the blade, about 1 minute.
- Scrape the dough into the prepared pan, press it with your hands into an even layer, and smooth the top with a small offset spatula.
- Coarsely chop the remaining 1 1/2 cups (195 grams) of hazelnuts with a knife, aiming for mostly halves and leaving some whole.
- In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the cream and the remaining 6 tablespoons (75 grams) of sugar to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook until it is thick enough to coat a spoon (running a finger down the back should leave a clear track), 3 to 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, immediately add the chopped nuts, and stir to coat them evenly. Use a spoon to distribute the nut mixture evenly over the dough, pressing lightly on the nuts with the back of the spoon to level them. Sprinkle the fleur de sel evenly over the surface. Freeze the dough, uncovered, until firm, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Meanwhile, set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using the parchment overhang as handles, lift the dough out of the pan and transfer it to a cutting board.
- Using a large heavy knife, cut the dough into 5 equal strips in each direction to make 25 squares. Arrange as many cookies as you can fit on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) all around them. Keep the rest of
the unbaked cookies in the refrigerator.
- Bake until the tops are caramelized and the hazelnuts are golden brown, 26 to 28 minutes. Set the sheet on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies directly onto the rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookies.
Storage: The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.