I often wonder whether I cook / bake simply to photograph the end product, and these days that line has become more and more blurry. Let’s just say that in recent months I discovered the fine art of food photography that teeters between food styling, experimental kitchen, and still life. In any case, indulging in all three transforms my kitchen into a chaotic food lab and photo studio, which can be messy enough to scare the cats, hence the shenanigans title.
Today’s experiment has a background story dating all the way back to 1998, meticulously intertwined with spirituality and adventure. For those of you who used to follow my now defunct blog on a different platform that began in 2015, the story may be familiar, but I never really migrated all the entries to WordPress. So, join me on a sentimental journey to Kokaikanal, India to a Zen ashram named Bodhi Zendo. This marvellous place was set up by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Ama Samy SJ who built the perfect meditation centre where Christianity and Buddhism could walk hand-in-hand. People from all walks of life flocked to Bodhi Zendo in search of inner peace and silence, regardless of their religious affiliations. My spiritual journey here is perhaps a story for another day, so let me jump ahead and say that I stayed there for eight days on a blissfully silent retreat, leaving my family behind in Delhi. The other residents had been there for months, or were even considering leaving everything behind and taking up permanent residence in the area in order to continue the spiritual journey, some volunteering to teach at the attached school run by the centre (see the Bodhi Zendo website for more details).
Upon arrival at Bodhi Zendo, you are immediately assigned chores, and can choose between indoor or outdoor jobs. Since I knew nothing about gardening and farming at the time, I was assigned sweeping duty, which effectively turned into a daily mediation. Believe me when I say that I never looked at a broom in quite the same manner after that. In any case, the food was completely vegetarian, and all the vegetables served were harvested from the gardens.
At the time, there were two permanent senior residents, one from Germany and another from Switzerland. They ran a tight ship and were always very creative with the menus, offering cuisines from other countries, especially for breakfast. Over the years their recipes and vegetarian / vegan adaptations of certain known comfort foods became so popular that a cookbook was published. I have no idea whether it is still in print, but it was definitely a source of inspiration.
One of the things that many people missed during breakfast was Nutella, but back in 1998, importing such luxury items to the hills in Tamil Nadu was either ridiculously expensive or out of the question. In any case, not worth the trouble, especially for the required quantities to run a centre. So the two ladies began experimenting and replicating the beloved chocolate hazelnut spread, and grinned gleefully at the astonished faces every morning. I lost the recipe and no matter how hard I tried to find a similar one on Pinterest I couldn’t find it. The Nutella replications I found were not up my alley, so I decided to fly blind and see what I could recreate by memory.
Considering I haven’t made this in over 20 years, it was an acceptable result. Here is my take on it:
The Zen of Chocolate Hazelnut Spread
Cream 250gms unsalted butter and add
1 cup pure cocoa powder
1 cup ground roasted hazelnuts
2 heaping Tbsp molasses
2 level Tbsp agave syrup
2 Tbsp canola oil
Blend together until smooth and transfer the mixture to jam jars. Refrigerate.
*for the vegan version you can use margarine, it won’t affect the flavour or the texture.
*I dispensed with the 1 tsp vanilla because the molasses are overpowering enough. If you don’t like molasses, replace with agave syrup or pure honey.
*I have the luxury of buying ground roasted hazelnuts here in Germany. If you only have access to the raw version, you’ll have to roast them first and then grind them finely in a food processor until you achieve the texture of brown sugar. Some people have experimented with walnuts, pecans, almonds and cashew nuts. I don’t subscribe to this, as the unique flavour of the hazelnut is what keeps people hooked on Nutella to begin with.
*the copycat recipes you will find on Pinterest have a completely different approach to this spread and don’t use butter at all, but butter is plentiful in India, so this was the springboard for the Bodhi Zendo version.