Hazelnuts – and a kitchen equipped for baking – provide a welcome distraction from the changeable weather. This cake is a remedy for all autumnal anguish, and an essential cook’s weapon – as a pudding, or a meal in itself
A day spent indoors has the attraction of there being no wrong clothing
... and the promise of cake ...
One perk that autumn delivers with great panache is an excuse to stay indoors. Outside of late, with each passing day, the temperature cools and – let’s face it – the wildly changeable weather we enjoy on these temperate isles introduces considerable wardrobe issues; rain, wind, sun, grey clouds and blue skies bedevil one’s choice of what to wear (particularly if you are of the bicycling persuasion).
Being as I am of that very persuasion, wheeling into town is like a mad game in which the penalty is the removal of an article of clothing at every set of lights – or, worse, that I regret not putting on that sou’wester as the blue skies vanish and a shower of rain appears from nowhere.
Apologies! Enough blether about the weather. My point is but this: a day spent indoors has the attraction of there being no wrong choice of clothing ... and the promise of cake. Indeed, far removed from the world outside, the opportunity to bake a cake is reason enough to choose to stay in. Who needs bikes?
Growing up on the east coast of Scotland, there were many days when baking indoors with my mother was by far the more pleasant option while the elements raged without. I have fond memories of her sitting in our kitchen next to a large cloth heaped with hazelnuts in front of her, hazelnuts that had just been roasted in the oven until their flaky thin skins loosened and could be removed if the corners of the cloth were gathered, twisted, and then rubbed briskly.
I loved the smell of roast hazelnuts then and love it still. Once upon a time, that smell heralded Mum making praline, that confection of almonds, hazelnuts and caramel that makes for one of the holiest of trinities. It is delicious in cakes and ice-creams; it is delicious also in a hazelnut frangipane destined for a tart a la bourdaloue (all for another time); and it is delicious here in a very good cake.
Today’s recipe is another take on the walnut cake of this column’s yore. I have eaten this cake with chocolate sauce, with cream and with ice-cream, and with fruit sauces and compotes, and always enjoyed it immensely.
This cake can also be enjoyed served just as nature intended, unfussed. A cake as suited to elevenses as it is to a brew in the afternoon or to a pudding after dinner is an essential weapon for this cook.
As hazelnuts can vary dramatically in quality seek out the best ones. As they are harvested in late summer and early autumn, now is a good time to scour the shops (this is less a command, and more a prompt!).
350g shelled hazelnuts
5 whole eggs, separated
200g caster sugar, plus 1 tbsp 100g unsalted butter, gently melted and kept just warm
The finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 Preheat the oven to 170C/335F/gas 3½. Line a 22cm diameter cake tin, 5cm high or thereabouts.
2 Put the hazelnuts on a roasting tray in a single layer. Transfer it to the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the paperlike skin cracks and darkens, and the rich scent of toasted hazelnuts fills the kitchen.
3 Have a wide, clean cloth laid out on a large surface and tip the roast hazelnuts into a heap upon it. Gather up the corners of the cloth, then twist the cloth until tight. Rub briskly to remove the skins. Open the cloth and rub away any stubbornly remaining flakes on the hazelnuts.
4 Grind the hazelnuts in a pestle and mortar or a food processor until fine, with a little bite remaining.
5 Put the egg whites into one large bowl, the yolks into another. Add 200g sugar to the yolks and beat these with vigour until pale and voluminous. Beat the egg whites with a clean whisk until they have stiffened and form peaks.
6 Add another 1 tbsp caster sugar to the whites and beat again. Fold one third of the egg whites into the egg yolks and sugar. Add in half the ground hazelnuts. Continue thus until all is in the bowl, then add in the melted butter and lemon zest for the final mixing, working swiftly and deftly. Decant the batter into the lined cake tin.
7 Put the tin in the heated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. The cake should be done, but do check with the time-honoured insertion of a skewer to check for doneness.
8 Put the cake on a wire rack to cool. The cake will keep a day or two in a sealed tin. However, I have yet to see it survive an afternoon, so I cannot promise as much.