Hazelnut-Almond Cake with Brown Butter

I know I just wrote a lot of pretty words about cooking, and health, and fresh vegetables and herbs and spices.  But my birthday was on Friday, so that’s all on hold.  Today, I’m talking about cake.

First, let me make a confession.  I am not a great baker.  Only rarely can I summon up the patience to pull out the measuring cups.  I’m a freewheeler in the kitchen, working in pinches and splashes; scooping, fluffing, leveling and dumping a cup and two-thirds of flour is not my idea of fun.  But birthdays are different; I’ve had enough indifferent supermarket cakes in my life to overcome my disdain for precision in the kitchen.  And when I can find an interesting recipe, it actually becomes…fun.  There’s something satisfying about taking the traditional fluffy-buttercream layer cake and turning it on its head.  For my birthday, I want a sophisticated and memorable dessert, something that makes you linger just a little longer over that last lick of your fork.

And let me tell you, this year’s cake delivered.

I didn’t have a set agenda in mind when I started looking for recipes, but then this recipe from Smitten Kitchen caught my eye.  I’m a firm believer that the marriage of chocolate and hazelnut could only have been ordained by some mystical, omnipotent flavor-deity.  In cake form?  Yes, please.

Now, I’m not going to lie.  This is a decadent cake.  I went through the ingredient list with Audrey, my friend/roommate/partner in kitchen crime; we both had to sit down for a moment when we realized we’d be using this:

Yes, that is an entire pound of butter.  To be fair, we did end up balancing it out with this many egg whites:

Swooning yet?

Just before we started baking, I realized we didn’t have enough hazelnuts, so I grabbed a tin of whole roasted almonds to make up the difference.  I was nervous, I’ll admit–I’d never browned butter before, and I wasn’t entirely convinced I could pull off the delicate meld of whipped egg whites, liquid fat, and pulverized nuts suspended in sugar.  I pored over these instructions until I was sure I’d memorized every step perfectly.  Then I took a deep breath, and began.

As I said before, I am not much for photographs.  Thankfully, Audrey grabbed my camera and started clicking away as the deliciousness came together:

So, in case the pictures didn’t convince you…this cake was wonderful.  It was moist and dense, with minuscule nuggets of hazelnut and almond in each bite.  I used a very dark chocolate for the ganache on top, which cut the sugary richness of the cake with a bracing bitterness.  It was the perfect grown-up birthday cake: chewy, nutty, sweet and gooey all at once.  We made two 9-inch cakes for sixteen people, and within five minutes there was nearly nothing left.

I may have eaten the last slice for breakfast the next day.  Shhhh, don’t tell.

Hazelnut-Almond Cake with Brown Butter (makes 2 9-inch layers)
10 ounces (about two cups) skinned hazelnuts, almonds, or a combination
1 pound unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
12 large egg whites
6 tablespoons granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350 °F.

Roughly chop nuts.  Toast in a wide skillet or frying pan over medium heat, just until they start to smell fragrant and delicious.  Set aside to cool.

Spray two 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray.  Cut two 9-inch diameter circles of parchment paper and lay a piece in the bottom of each pan.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan. If using vanilla bean, slice the vanilla bean lengthwise down the center, and using a paring knife to scrape the seeds and pulp onto the butter, then add the vanilla pod to the pan.  Cook the butter, stirring constantly and scraping the milk solids off the sides and bottom of the pan, until the butter turns dark and smells nutty (8 minutes or so). Set aside to cool. Remove the vanilla pod (if using) and discard.

Combine chopped, toasted nuts and confectioner’s sugar in a food processor and grind until the nuts are finely ground. Add the flour and pulse to combine.

In a large mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt.  When the egg whites start to get glossy, add the granulated sugar.  Continue to mix until the mixture forms very stiff peaks.

Spoon off a dollop of the egg whites into a smaller bowl, and add a small amount of the brown butter.  Whisk until the mixture is smooth.  Fold back into the egg whites, then gently fold in about a third of the remaining butter.  When the butter is just incorporated, add in about a third of the dry ingredients and gently fold until just barely mixed (do not overmix!).  Continue alternating folding the brown butter and the dry ingredients into the egg whites, a third at a time. Make sure to scrape all the browned bits from the bottom of the brown butter bowl at the end.  Stop mixing when the batter is just incorporated–it doesn’t matter if there are a few tiny clumps of dry ingredients here and there.  If using vanilla extract, add it now.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, and bake for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, then invert the cake onto a plate and peel off the parchment paper. Turn the cake back over onto the platter you’re serving it on.  Cover with ganache.

Draping Ganache for 9-inch Cake (NOTE: this was enough to just cover the tops of the two cakes. If you’re serving as a layer cake, double this recipe.)

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or finely-chopped chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
Splash of Grand Marnier (my favorite liqueur; you can use whatever flavoring you like)

Set up a double boiler: I use a glass mixing bowl over a pot with a small amount of simmering water.  Put chocolate and cream in the top bowl and stir gently until everything is incorporated and the chocolate is melted.  Remove from the heat and add the Grand Marnier.  Let sit for 5 minutes to firm up a bit, and frost the cakes.  Let the frosted cake(s) sit at room temperature for about an hour for the ganache to firm up.

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