Wednesday, November 07, 2007
I watch all the Daring Bakers with a degree of admiration, for I know just how complex some of the recipes they attempt are. Perhaps this hazelnut cake doesn't have a great degree of difficulty, but it does have a ton of flavour and moistness. It's also evidence of why, probably, I shouldn't become one of their ranks. You see, this little cake has a tale to tell.
It's not being a bloke that stops me joining up, after all, baking is slowly becoming more fashionable amongst guys; a male friend of mine is in a baking club at work and all the men take it in turns to bring in baked goods. We have even discussed the merits of certain baking books. Rather, it's my sometimes less than disciplined approach to the necessity of following a recipe exactly, which as any baker will quickly tell you, is vital to the success of the enterprise.
I can see sager heads than mine, nodding in agreement here.
I first made this cake in the early nineties, after seeing the recipe for it in Pierre Koffmann's book, La Tante Claire. If you have any interest in French cooking at all, especially French country cooking, you ought to search out this book and its earlier companion, Memories of Gascony, they're not just great cookbooks, they're great reads as well.
After this cake first caught my eye, I made it a few times; it was the first cake that I ever baked for my wife, before we were married, at the dinner where we first met, so it has also led to a great deal of happiness. When I worked at the Melbourne Congress Centre, this cake came to work a couple of times, and the pastry chef that headed the section where I worked was so taken with it, he ordered a sack of hazelnut meal and told me that he was going to put it on the menu. His face dropped somewhat when he discovered that there was in fact, no hazelnut meal in it at all!
But this is now a cake with a serious split personality. The first time in making this, I followed the recipe exactly, which we all should do the first time around, after all, someone has gone to the trouble of writing it down just for us. But after that, well, it's kind of a free-for-all, recipes are adapted and made your own. Only thing is, when I made my adaption, it wasn't exactly intended. Because I had already made it a few times, I only needed the list of ingredients, or so I thought. What I forgot to do, was at a crucial point, when the dry ingredients are halved and one half is pressed into the cake tin to form the base, me, who thought he remembered the instructions, forgot all that and proceeded to mix ALL the dry and wet ingredients.
Pierre, I don't know how to say this, but everyone thought the cake was now better than before!
Of course that is not the only indignity the recipe has had to suffer. Sometimes the sour cream is just scooped out of the jar and straight in without measuring, the baking powder is very often near enough is good enough, what size is the egg? Who cares? The only thing I wouldn't do is substitute white sugar for the brown. Just to show I do care though, where the recipe advises to roughly chop the hazelnuts, because I like the way they look when chopped in neat halves, after roasting and skinning, each hazelnut is individually cut. The recipe can easily be multiplied too, the cake in the roasting tray is three times the quantity.
(adapted from La Tante Claire)
150g brown sugar
120g plain flour
65g unsalted butter, slightly softened, but not melted.
120ml sour cream - I use continental style, about 20% fat
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
100g hazelnuts, lightly roasted and skinned*
Roughly chop the hazelnuts into halves. Line with baking paper and generously butter a 19 X 19 X 3cm cake tin (can be round too). In a bowl, mix together the brown sugar and flour and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Spread half the mixture in the cake tin if you want to follow the original recipe, or simply whisk the sour cream, baking powder and egg and add to the bowl containing the pastry mixture, mixing well. Pour this into the cake tin and spread evenly. Sprinkle over the chopped hazelnuts and bake in a 180c oven for about forty minutes.
Leave to cool in the tin, then invert to a plate, so that the hazelnut topping is on top, sprinkle with some icing sugar.
*Most people use a tea towel to rub off the skins, My friend Tanna advises that an onion bag with fine mesh does an even better job. Always roast more hazelnuts than you need, try one, you'll see why.