Hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios all work. The key is to blend them well enough to turn them from crunchy nuts to dreamy spreads.
MANY OF US have added almond butter or another nut butter to our diet because they are high in protein and healthy fat. Plus, they fill you up and are satisfying. I often scoop a spoonful on a sliced apple or banana for a quick snack.
Recipes typically call for pureeing whole nuts, resulting in a grainy texture and a very thick consistency. Most store-bought nut butters are similar. They might be healthy and satisfying, but refined they are not.
At least that’s what I thought until I ate at Copine in Ballard and tasted a shiny, silky concoction that was so creamy, I was sure it contained dairy. Nope, says chef Shaun McCrain. It was hazelnut butter. Nothing but nuts and a little oil and salt. I was surprised to find a dollop of nut butter with my entree at this upscale restaurant, where McCrain excels at classical French technique. But at Copine, where every bite surprises and delights, why wouldn’t nut butter, too?
Here’s how he gives this nutty-crunchy staple an elegant makeover. McCrain says he started working with nut butters in a “refined” sense 12 years ago at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. At Copine, which McCrain owns with his wife, Jill Kinney, he uses nut butter to add another texture to the plate.
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For example, he serves duck pithiviers with sour cherries and turnips, using pistachio butter to hold candied pistachios in place. “There’s an elegance in using nut butter in another way,” he says. “I like the crunch of the nut and the smoothness of the butter together on the plate.”
What’s his secret to transforming hard nuts into dreamy spreads? A good blender.
“Most cooks usually under-puree them,” he says. “My butters tend to be thin and smooth.”
The finished consistency is similar to a nice crème fraîche. In addition to a good blender, McCrain uses peeled nuts and rinses them well to eliminate any gritty texture.
The resulting butter is so dreamy, in fact, that at Copine, McCrain pairs luxurious foie gras with hazelnut butter. The mousse itself has a soft texture, and the chef was after the contrasting crunch of hazelnut, so he candies the nuts and holds them in place with the butter. “It also adds a nice earthiness and nuttiness,” he says.
Nut butters are easy to make at home. Buy peeled nuts to avoid grittiness. Peeled hazelnuts can be hard to find, but McCrain says almonds and pistachios are wonderful, too. He especially likes the flavor of marcona almonds from Spain and serves marcona almond butter with stone fruit, fresh or dried. Now we are talking really refined.
Nut Butter Purée
Yields about 1 pint
1 cup peeled or blanched nuts
1 cup water
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon agave
1. Place nuts in a small saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then strain and rinse nuts. Return nuts to pan, and fill pan with fresh water. Simmer for half an hour, until nuts are tender. Strain and rinse again.
2. Place nuts and 1 cup water in a high-speed blender, and begin to blend, starting on the lowest setting and gradually increasing speed. Make sure the mixture spins freely. Add more water if necessary to maintain smooth processing. Continue on high speed for a couple of minutes. Add olive oil, salt and agave to taste. Blend until shiny and smooth, scraping sides if necessary, and adding more water or oil to thin, according to personal preference. Spread a small amount of the purée on a plate to check for a glossy sheen (not grainy). Blend longer if necessary. A regular blender will take about twice as long as a high-speed blender or Vitamix. Ideal consistency is similar to crème fraîche or a protein shake.
3. When cool, taste and add more salt and agave if desired. Purée will thicken when cool.
4. If storing in refrigerator, reheat or blend again with a touch of water to loosen the mixture before serving. Paint the purée on plates with a brush or spoon to accent entrees, salads or desserts.
Note: Keeps in refrigerator for up to one week.
Shaun McCrain, Copine