I've been working at improving my baking and cooking skills since I got back from France, so about a week before my mom's birthday in September, she asked me to make her birthday dessert.
And so I spent a couple of days looking at recipes, trying to decide what kind of chocolate hazelnut cake I would make. I knew I wanted the richest, most fantastically chocolate cake with a layer of hazelnut inside that would be both crunchy and a little bit gooey, and hazelnut buttercream frosting. My mother was expecting a normal chocolate cake with hazelnut frosting, so I wanted to go all out and make a fancy layer cake. The only problem was that, while Epicurious provided a nice cake recipe, and the frosting was easy enough to figure out, I couldn't find any idea of how to make the filling I wanted. I ended up winging it the day of.
The cake went well enough - there were just a few hitches. Our round cake pans were 9" and not 10", like the recipe wanted, so it ended up being a little high in the pan. I had expected it to just rise up in the centre, like cakes tend to, and I could just cut off the mound, layer, and frost, but instead, it rose evenly in the pans, spilling out inside the oven. (Note to self: Always put a pan under.) I cleaned up the bulk of the batter from the oven, but had to leave a lot there to burn while the cakes finished baking.
For the hazelnuts, I had found recipes for hazelnut praline, which looked similar to what I wanted, and one recipe that called for cereal to be blended in the food processor with the nuts and sugar. I had hoped this would give it the crunch I wanted, and tried a small sample, but the cereal just made it bland. I was also worried about it getting soggy, so I was pleased to see the nuts, egg whites, and powdered sugar alone gave it a nice texture. I just ended up adding a bit of vanilla yoghurt to make it spreadable, and it worked perfectly.
This is without a doubt the best cake I have ever had. The chocolate cake is rich and moist, and the hazelnut complements it very well. (Naturally.) I joked with my family that it was rich enough to kill three bears (and it may very well be). This is the cake that got me my "Foppish Baker" name, and inspired me to continue baking. My mom brought leftovers in to some people at her office, and now they've become my taste testers. A couple have said I should become a professional baker, but flattering as that is, and fun as it might be, I'm afraid I'm too perfectionistic and slow-working to do very well at that. This cake took me four hours to make.
Chocolate Hazelnut Layer Cake
12 oz hazelnuts (filberts)
Spread hazelnuts evenly in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice to ensure they cook evenly. Set aside 12 hazelnuts for decorating the cake.
3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut (gk: I used a 4oz bar of Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate, and reserved the extra 1oz to melt and coat the hazelnuts for the top.)
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla (gk: I substituted Frangelico for this.)
two 10- by 2-inch round cake pans
Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.
Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla (Frangelico), and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.
1 oz semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon butter
Melt finely chopped chocolate with butter in a metal bowl above a pot of simmering water. Dip each hazelnut in the chocolate, then set on a plate to chill in the refrigerator.
1 cup powdered sugar
1 ½ teaspoons Frangelico
2 egg whites
2 generous spoonfuls vanilla yoghurt
Coarsely chop roasted hazelnuts, then grind to a mealy consistency in a food processor. (There should have been about 2 cups of whole hazelnuts to start with.) Set aside one spoonful of ground hazelnuts for decorating. Add powdered sugar, Frangelico, and egg whites and mix to a thick paste. Add yoghurt and mix, adding more if needed to reach desired consistency. Put in a covered bowl and store in the refrigerator.
Place bottom layer of cake on a plate and spread the hazelnut paste evenly on top of it. Cover with the other layer of cake, using the paste to fill in any holes and create a smooth surface for frosting.
2/3 cup butter, room temperature
4 tablespoons Frangelico
6 cups powdered sugar
5-6 tablespoons evaporated milk (or half and half)
Cream butter with an electric mixer at medium speed. Add Frangelico. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar, alternating with half-and-half, beginning and ending with powdered sugar. Beat until mixture reaches spreading consistency.
Divide the frosting into two bowls. Frost the cake with from one bowl, then clean the spatula and cover with remaining frosting, to avoid crumbs. Arrange the chocolate-covered hazelnuts evenly around the top of cake, and sprinkle the ground hazelnuts in the middle.