If you had to describe the hazelnut, what words would come to mind? Small? Plain? Uncommon? Well, Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at the famed Babbo, calls the hazelnut “enigmatic” and I can’t disagree with her. Aside from Nutella and Fererro Rocher chocolates, it’s not exactly a popular nut (giggle)* you find on the shelves of many grocery stores.
The hazelnut, otherwise known as the filbert, has never won a popularity contest – having never grown to be as popular as a peanut or an almond, who are the mainstream nut darlings. If you think of Kristin Stewart as the It-Girl of the moment – the peanut, is its nut equivalent. The hazelnut, on the other hand, is more like Zooey Deschanel, with a cult following but not the kind of a blockbuster hit that invokes teen hysteria. You don’t find hazelnuts in many stores and I’ve yet to see a commercial exalting its virtues (unlike the pistachio, the commercials of which are now on every channel).
Aside from not winning any popularity contests, the hazelnut is wildly adaptable and makes friends with virtually everything from baked goods to wintry salads (more on that soon). I like having a bag on hand for snacking and keep a stash at work, lest I become tempted by the sugary cereal shelf.
Because, I’ve always had a soft spot for the humble hazelnut, I’m a bit biased towards recipes that allow it to be the star of the show. And when I saw this recipe and realized that it was created by my all time chef crushes – Gina DePalma, I pretty much changed my morning plans to bake this cake. That’s right, I skipped my Saturday morning spin to bake (those of you who know me, realize this is huge!). And before I keep you in suspense any longer, and with apologies to my all time favorite spin instructor (hi, Kristin!), I can tell you now – it was well worth it. Gina DePalma has never let me down – the woman practically walks on water as far as I’m concerned.
Speaking of chef crushes (and I’ve got a few) mine are almost exclusively pastry chefs and women (though a few men are sprinkled in the mix like the creator of those celestial meatballs). I don’t know if that says I gravitate towards a certain kind of cooking, but chefs like Gina DePalma, Karen DeMasco, Claudia Fleming (whom I met last summer when she signed my book and was speechless, no doubt, making a lasting impression as the mute who likes to bake), Gabrielle Hamilton and Anne Burrell all create the kind of food I want to eat and make for others. There something warm, honest and approachable about their cooking. It’s the kind of meal you have at the end of your day, and even if your day was the kind that makes you just want to crawl into bed, that first bite instantly brings a smile to your face and wraps you in comfort. And while I can’t eloquently describe or put my finger on it, it is, for me cooking always meant creating that warmth, memories and comfort. Bringing people together, making them smile, taste, feel loved. This cake is an embodiment of the kind of cooking I love – unfussy, simple, comforting, yet festive and celebratory. It’s both everyday and special occasion. And its sweet, nutty smell is perfect for the holiday season as it fills your house with its welcoming, warm fragrance.
I like this cake for the holiday season because in the next few weeks we will be inundated with overly sweet desserts, and it’s nice to have an option of something more restrained for the palate. Though I’m always up for dessert, I tend to steer clear of overly sugary things. I find that with dessert, as with people, the ones who are overly sweet are off-putting. I like a little bit of sarcasm, some edge, a bit of a dark side, if you will. And I like dessert that challenges my palate – gives me a bit of sweet but not overwhelmingly so. A dessert that holds back a little. World, meet this cake – it’s got some edge, all right.
This cake calls for hazelnut paste, which isn’t the easiest thing to procure, as I learned. But since I decided to make this cake on a whim at 8 o’clock in the morning, I wasn’t as well prepared ingredients-wise. Though I’m a bit sad that I couldn’t locate hazelnut paste anywhere in the vicinity of my house and had to settle for chestnut paste, I have to admit the results were anything but disappointing.
A perfect finish to a meal on a cold fall day, some friends and I had this over glasses of tawny port, but it’s the kind of dessert that goes well beautifully with a fresh pot of coffee or espresso. A dollop of unsweetened whipped cream not only makes for a festive presentation, but also lets the flavors sing even more. And though I didn’t think that chestnut and hazelnut would go well together – necessity (or desperation) is the mother of invention – because they do. With dessert like this, the hazelnut could very well be propelled from obscurity into the spotlight. Which would make it the It-Nut?
*Since I have a maturity level of a 5th grader I giggled every time I wrote the word “nut” and hope you do as well reading it. Because, this and also this, never get old.
I chose this dessert for the Bon Appetit 2009 blog envy bake-off because I love its simplicity, yet uncompromising taste and complexity of flavors. If you want to raise the ante, you can double the recipe and make a marron butter cream (please let me know if you wish for me to post the recipe for it). Otherwise, it’s a wonderfully comforting and clean holiday dessert that resists going into the extremely sugary zone. In the meantime, go over there and vote for your favorite dessert – I hope it’s mine, but there are lots of amazing entries!
Hazelnut Chestnut Cake
Adapted from Gina DePalma
1 cup skinned hazelnuts, toasted in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes
1 ¼ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
10 Tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup hazelnut paste (I used chestnut paste as I couldn’t find any hazelnut paste in my neighborhood)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
cocoa powder, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust with flour, shaking off the excess.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the hazelnuts and ¼ cup of the flour until the nuts are finely ground.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar until very light. Beat in the hazelnut (or chestnut) paste, then add the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula and beat in the vanilla extract. In a small bowl, mix together the nut and flour mixture, the remaining cup of flour, the salt, and baking powder. Beat the dry ingredients into the batter.
4. Spread the batter evenly in the cake pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cake springs back lightly when touched and cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then gently remove from the pan. When cool, sift cocoa powder over the top or add a dollop of fresh whipped cream.