A couple months ago, I made a cake for my dear friend on her birthday. She gave me only one flavor preference: hazelnut. It was late September - which in Houston means hot, hot, muggy, hot, muggy - so I wanted to avoid anything too heavy and rich. I had this vision of a light as air, not too sweet, hazelnut coffee cake ... like a latte with a light foam topping. That's how I dreamed up this cake: light but deeply flavored hazelnut cake, a thin sweep of chocolate ganache, the crunch of chopped hazelnuts, the light-as-air sweetness and crunch of an espresso meringue layer, and a super light coffee buttercream. The result was kind of magical.
It was so popular in fact that another friend requested the same cake for her daughter's birthday, but omitting the coffee. An equally good combo with hazelnut and chocolate, popular with kids? Caramel. I used a caramel chocolate ganache instead of plain chocolate, kept the meringue plain, and used a salted caramel frosting. Even though I love the first one more, the second version was pretty darn good as well ... at least as far as I could tell from all the kids' licked-clean plates. (No but seriously, it causes me some serious pain to watch kids pick at a birthday cake I have labored over. Kids either eat the cake or the frosting, but not usually both. The great thing about this cake is that all the different textures and elements are just too many to choose from, so they eat it all, haha!)
Anyway, this is my favorite aspect of making cakes: coming up with all the elements. I love looking at cake recipes in cookbooks and on blogs, but I usually end up picking and choosing from a number of different sources for my own vision or what have you. This hazelnut cake is really fantastic, which you'd expect from Cook's Country. Ganache and meringue are pretty standard recipes. The frosting, though ... I could go on and on about this frosting. It's my go-to. I find it to have the lightness of a Swiss meringue buttercream but without the fussiness of the egg whites. The cooked flour method dates way back so, really, it's a tried and true recipe.
I've put the caramel version down here but the hazelnut latter version is as easy as flavoring the meringue and frosting with espresso powder and using a simple chocolate ganache. Feel free to comment if you'd like links or recipes for that. Or come up with your own flavor combo!
hazelnut caramel meringue cake
2 layers hazelnut cake
1 recipe Chocolate Ganache
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
2 meringue layer
1 batch caramel miracle frosting
1/2 cup hazelnuts (2 oz) toasted and cooled
1 1/4 cup (5 oz) cake flour
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
3 large egg yolks, plus 5 large egg whites
2 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 350. Line two 8 inch cake pans with parchment and grease the parchment but not the cake pan sides.
Process hazelnuts in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and hazelnuts together in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl whisk together oil, water, egg yolks, and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and whisk until smooth.
Using a stand mixer with whisk, combine egg whites with cream of tarter on medium-low speed until foamy. Increase to medium-high speed and whip until soft peaks foam. Gently whisk one third of the egg-whites into the batter until combined. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a spatula until no streaks are visible.
Divide the batter between the two pans and gently rap the pans on a counter to release any large bubbles. Bake until cakes are a light golden brown and spring back when pressed lightly, 25-30 minutes depending on your oven.
Let cakes cool in their pans for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge and invert the cakes onto a wire rack; peel off and dispose of the parchment paper.
Source: Cook's Country
Caramel Chocolate Ganache
8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped or chips
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp water
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp butter, cut into pieces
Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set aside.
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat and stir only until sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture boil undisturbed until it turns a dark amber color. It helps to swirl the pan to get uniform color and heat. Also it's easier to determine how dark it really is when it's collected together in the bottom of the tipped pan. Be careful not to over cook.
When the desired color is reached, carefully stir in a portion of the cream. It will bubble and sputter so watch out! When the bubbling subsides, pour in the rest of the cream, and then stir in the butter piece by piece. If necessary, place the pan back over the heat to combine thoroughly.
Pour the warm mixture over the chocolate and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk slowly until smooth and glossy. Let the ganache sit at room temperature to cool and thicken to a spreadable consistency. (I have sped this up in the fridge. I have also sometimes sped it up too much and it was too thick to spread, but no worries, just place it somewhere warm and it will loosen up.)
You will have extra from the cake. This keeps covered at room temperature for 3 days or indefinitely in your freezer. It's a pretty happy surprise weeks later to find some ganache in your freezer to take out and eat with a spoon for dessert ... or with your morning coffee...
Source: slighty adapted from Epicurious.com
1/2 cup egg white (about 4 egg whites)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup superfine sugar (you can just blitz granulated sugar in a food processor)
Preheat oven to 275. Grease two 8 inch cake pans, and line the bottom with parchment. Grease bottom and sides and powder with powdered sugar, tapping out excess. (For even easier removal, use parchment paper to make a collar around the pan instead.)
Beat egg whites, vanilla, and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form. Very gradually add sugar in, 1 tbsp at a time, beating on high speed. Beat until the meringue holds very stiff peaks.
Divide and spread meringue between the two pans. Bake for about an hour, or until they appear dry and sound hollow when tapped.
Let cool completely.
Getting these out of the pan can be tricky, especially if you didn't use a parchment collar. Gently run a knife along the outside edge of the pan to release. It might crack and crumble a little but it's OK, persevere! Turn the pan over and gently coax it out. Don't be too dismayed if it cracks into pieces - you can still use these as a fragmented meringue layer!
Source: adapted from Joy of Cooking
Miracle Caramel Frosting
1 1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks/24 tbsp/12 oz), softened and cut into pieces
First cook the milk base: Whisk sugar, flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt together in a medium saucepan. Slowly whisk in milk, combining thoroughly. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture boils and is very thick like a paste. Transfer to a clean bowl and let cool completely. (Completely!)
For frosting: Using the whisk attachment, beat the cooled cooked milk paste with vanilla on low speed until combined. Add butter one piece at a time, beating until incorporated. Increase speed to medium high and beat until fluffy. You can really let this whip for a while - 2 to 3 minutes at least!
If the frosting seems a little loose, let sit for up to an hour to firm up.
Source: Cook's Country
On your serving platter of choice, scrape a thin layer of frosting in the middle, roughly the size of a cake layer. Place the first cake layer on top. The frosting will keep the cake from sliding.
Spread a thin layer of ganache all over the cake layer, then sprinkle half the chopped nuts.
Gently place the meringue on top, then spread a 1/4 - 1/2 inch layer or so of frosting.
Repeat with remaining cake layer, ganache, meringue, frosting.
For the top of this cake, I spread a thin 6-inch circle of ganache over the buttercream, then sprinkled with remaining hazelnuts. (If the ganche is too thick to spread onto the buttercream, simple warm it up for a few seconds in the microwave. Not too long! If it's warm it will melt the buttercream. You just to loosen it up so it is easily spreadable.) I piped some of the remaining buttercream in a decorative pattern around that circle of ganache on top and also around the base of the cake.
As you can see, my cake is of the "naked" variety. It looks rustic and a little messy. It's definitely a look. If you prefer a more finished look, you can simply frost the cake like any other cake.
Photos courtesy of Nathalie Bearden