The weather here is fucking amazing. It's actually cool outside all day long, has been for over a week now. As soon as the pre-autumnal cooldown begins, my mind goes aflutter with thoughts of soups, stews, artisan breads, and the odd cake. Today I tackled one that I think most beginner bakers would run in fear from attempting, and I hit it out of the park if I do say so myself. I had to modify it slightly from the original, but I suspect the recipe I got it from is a slight modification of the original anyway, so no harm. This cake combined my favorite flavors and textures into one dense, just-rich-enough concoction that I can hardly explain in just words. I'll give you the basics that first caught my eye and had me stopped dead in my tracks thinking 'oh, I am SO making that this weekend!'
Hazelnut brown butter cake. Yes, you read that correctly. Hazelnut. Brown. Butter. Cake. With a dark chocolate espresso ganache draping the top and toffee brickle chips to finish it off and make it nice and sparkly. The entire loft smells like what I want the best dreams I have for the rest of my life to smell like. Even when we left to run out for a short bit, the smell was overwhelming when I walked back in the door. I made chicken marsala with mushrooms and cream over linguine for dinner, but this was what I really wanted. By the time I'd finally cut it, it smelled even better and I thought I was going to have a seizure right there with the knife in hand - which wouldn't have been good as I'd yet to taste it. I was immediately taken back to the kitchen at the River Club, the private dining club that was my last foray in the world of culinary whoredom. The preparation of this reminded me of the joconde sponge cakes used to make the decadent and dense Opéra cake that our pastry/sous chef Jean Francois made, but it actually mirrors dacquoise in style, as shown here.
The original recipe comes from Suzanne Goin's new cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. This was her wedding cake. I can totally understand why. The recipe I used for this came from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite food blogs. I had to use almonds because that's what I had on hand, but next time I'm definitely using hazelnuts instead.
I have long said that cooking in many ways is purest alchemy and that you should really trust your instincts and make your own rules, following tried and true methods as guidelines and not being afraid to experiment. That's when it becomes art. All of that having been said, baking is truly science. I have never in my lifetime baked anything quite as wonderful as this. Without question, this is my favorite cake of all time. The outside forms a crackly crust that houses a densely textured and moist, tender cake. This cake is incredibly sexy and seductive, throwing off a different yet equally unctuous perfume at each stage of preparation. It started with toasting the nuts and making the vanilla brown butter which really should have been enough - but then it went into the oven and my olfactories were just...well, fucked. While it was in its last 5 minutes of cooling, I made that amazing and perfectly paired marriage of espresso and dark chocolate in a silky, smooth, deeply lustrous ganache... I didn't leave a single crumb on my plate and would kill and bury anyone that ever did in my presence.
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, slightly modified from Smitten Kitchen
5 ounces (about one heaping cup) hazelnuts, blanched to remove dark skins*
1/2 pound unsalted butter (plus 1 tablespoon melted extra for greasing the pan)
1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/3 cups powdered sugar, plus extra for dusting the cake
1/3 cups all-purpose flour
5 extra-large egg whites (I used 6 since I was using large eggs)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350 °F.
Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet, and toast 12 to 15 minutes, until they’re golden brown and smell, well, hazel-nutty. Let them cool.
Cut out a circle of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of a 9" springform pan. Brush the pan with a little melted butter and line the bottom with the paper.
Place the rest of the butter in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise down the center, and using a paring knife to scrape the seeds and pulp onto the butter. To make sure not to lose any of the seeds, run your vanilla-coated knife through the butter and on the outside of the pod. Add the vanilla pod to the pan, and cook the butter until the butter browns and smells nutty (about 6 to 8 minutes). It helps to frequently scrape the solids off the bottom and sides of the pan in the last couple minutes to ensure even browning. Set aside to cool. Remove the vanilla pod and discard.
Grind the hazelnuts with the confectioners’ sugar in a food processor until they’re finely ground. Add the flour and pulse to combine. Alternately, grind the nuts separately and combine with the sugar and flour after transferring to a large bowl.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Mix on high speed 4 to 5 minutes, until it develops some body and thickness, about the consistency of soft whipped cream. Add the granulated sugar and continue mixing, until the mixture forms very stiff peaks. When you turn the whisk upside down, the peaks should hold. Transfer the whites to a large mixing bowl.
Alternate folding the dry ingredients and the brown butter into the egg whites, a third at a time. Remember to scrape the bottom of the brown butter pan with a rubber spatula to get all the little brown bits.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour**. Cool on a rack 30 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, and invert the cake onto a plate. Peel off the paper, and turn the cake back over onto a serving platter. Sprinkle it with powdered sugar or cover with ganache (below).
* I removed the skins by toasted them on a baking sheet at 350°F for about 15 minutes then either (I tried both methods) wrapping the warm nuts in a dish towel, letting it steam for five minutes and then vigorously rubbing them together to remove the skins. Chances are you're never going to get all of the skins off, which is fine. Carry on.
** Mine was done at 40 minutes when a toothpick inserted into the center came out clean and dry, so check yours even earlier, okay? Never bake cakes for the full time reccommended, always begin to check with a toothpick about 5 minutes before it should be done. That way you stop the process when it is ready and don't torture the poor thing by leaving it in the oven unnecessarily and baking out moisture and therefore flavor and texture.
Draping Ganache for Cake
4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or finely-chopped chocolate
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee granules
Melt the chocolate, heavy cream, and coffee in the top of a double boiler over simmering water until smooth and warm, stirring occasionally. Drizzle over the top of the cake.