It was my mother's birthday last week. The woman who gave me wide hips and an imperfect nose, but also, and much more importantly, a curiosity about life and an eagerness to learn. The woman who endured my teenage years and expressed her frustrations mostly in French curses. The woman who taught me how to make pancakes and meringues, who showed me how to separate eggs and carefully fold in egg whites, who introduced me to beurre noisette and other wonderful flavors. The woman who's baked me at least 30 birthday cakes and even more for my brothers.
When it comes to birthdays, my mother got the short end of the stick. I think most mothers do. Because for all the effort she still puts into our birthdays - cooking our favorite meal, baking the perfect birthday cake, finding a gift - she doesn't always get a lot in return. She cooks her own birthday dinner and dessert usually is a cake her sisters bring over from the bakery. If she's lucky, there are gifts; if she's unlucky, remarks about dinner ... It's so easy to take your mother for granted.
If anything, though, my mother deserves a homemade birthday cake. One that suits her. One that appeals to both her aesthetic eye and her critical palate. No typical layered sponge cake, nothing overly sweet; something that puts texture and flavor first. Something that celebrates the skills she taught me, too. Something like a Brown Butter Coffee Hazelnut Cake.
This cake is flavored with brown butter and studded with ground hazelnuts. A few tablespoons of strong black coffee help bring out the warm autumnal flavors even more. It is moist, yet light, with just a little crunch. To give it the proper celebratory appeal, I baked it in a bundt pan and topped it with slivered nuts and chocolate ganache, but I can assure you that it's just as good without the frills.
• This recipe calls for brown butter or beurre noisette. If you're not quite sure how to make it, or you feel like it takes forever and you start to panic halfway through ... don't worry. I used to do that, too.
• I like to use my hazelnuts whole, i.e. with the skins still on. I find that it brings out their taste even better. If you're not a big fan of the skins, though, you can easily remove them by rubbing the hazelnuts in a clean kitchen towel after roasting them.
• When making cakes with coffee, many recipes call for instant coffee. This is both easy and easy to control. Instant coffee is always the same. However, I find instant coffee to have a very particular, strangely sweet taste. It always tastes distinctly like instant coffee and as a result, so will your cake. I much prefer to brew a fresh pot of my favorite coffee and use the leftovers for this cake. Sure, the coffee won't always be exactly the same, but if you're using a coffee that you love, chances are you'll love the cake just as much.
Brown Butter Coffee Hazelnut Cake
adapted from Fika, by Anna Brones & Johanna Kindvall
makes one 24 cm/9 inch cake or a 10 cup bundt cake
250 gr unsalted butter, cubed
125 gr raw hazelnuts
120 gr all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
5 large eggs, room temperature and separated
90 gr dark brown sugar
5 tbsp strong black coffee, cold
200 gr granulated sugar
for the chocolate ganache
100 gr dark chocolate, chopped
100 ml heavy cream
a few extra hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground, to finish
1. Preheat oven to 175˚C/350˚F. Grease a 9-inch cake tin with soft butter or cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. Alternatively, generously spray a 10-cup bundt pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, cook the cubed butter until fragrant and browned. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.
3. Put the hazelnuts on a baking tray and roast in the preheated oven until fragrant and the skins start to crack, around 10 minutes. Grind them in a food processor until almost finely ground. Be sure to stop before the nuts start to release their oils and the mixture becomes clumpy. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground nuts, flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg yolks and brown sugar. Using the whisk attachment, beat on high until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture has a distinctly lighter color, circa 4 minutes. Add the cooled butter and beat for a few more minutes, until combined. Add coffee and flour-hazelnut mixture, all at once, and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until just combined. Set aside.
5. Put egg whites in another clean, grease-free bowl and, using a clean whisk attachment, start beating them on low. When the egg whites start to get frothy, gradually increase the speed to high. When soft peaks form, start adding the granulated sugar little by little. Beat until all the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites start to form stiff peaks.
6. Add about 1/3 of the egg whites to the hazelnut mixture and gently fold it in. When most of the egg white is incorporated, add another third and continue folding. Add the last third of the egg whites and fold it in until everything is incorporated.
7. Pour batter into prepared cake tin and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and puffed and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before inverting it onto a wire rack or plate. If you plan to decorate the cake, let cool completely. If you don't, feel free to try a slice when it's still slightly warm.
8. For the ganache, put chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, bring heavy cream to the boil. Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for 1 or 2 minutes. Using a heatproof spatula and starting in the center of the bowl, stir chocolate and cream together in tight circles. As chocolate and cream start to combine, gradually move outward and stir until fully combined and glossy. Allow to cool for a few extra minutes. The ganache should be a little bit thicker, but still pourable. Pouring the ganache over the cooled cake and finish with a sprinkle of coarsely ground hazelnuts.