Daring Bakers Go Nuts

I love being a Daring Baker. Every month I get to try out a new recipe, often one I would never have chosen myself—either because it has an intimidating number of steps, or requires a technical skill I haven’t yet mastered, or perhaps because it involves texture and flavor combinations I wouldn’t seek out. These past few months since my son was born, I have particularly looked forward to my Daring Bakers challenges because they are one of the few things I still make time to do for myself (even if everyone I know benefits from the finished products also). That also means that part of the monthly challenge becomes simply finding that time, around the needs of a 4-month old baby.

This month’s challenge was a filbert gateau with praline buttercream, from Great Cakes by Carol Walter, a gorgeous ganache-glazed hazelnut confection with ribbons of satiny buttercream. I decided right away that I wanted to make it to share with my in-laws, who were coming to visit us (but mostly Nolan) around the middle of the month. Their methods of event planning always keep us on our toes, and we didn’t know exactly when they would be arriving until the day before their flight, so I couldn’t start prepping the cake in advance. Luckily, they took a detour to visit more family in Coeur d’Alene, so I had a chance to go out and find hazelnuts, and then make the cake in an evening marathon with just the finishing touches to take care of the next morning.

This cake is chock full of hazelnuts. They are grown in Oregon, but it’s the wrong season for them, so they were a little hard to track down. Bulk bins are my friend. The first order of business was to get them skinned and toasted. I had quite enough of hazelnut skin stabbing under my fingernails when I made that sublime gianduja gelato a few months ago, so I tried a different method this time: blanching them in baking soda water, supposedly a foolproof technique. I don’t know if my hazelnuts were just being unusually stubborn, but I blanched them twice, attacked them with my vegetable scrubber (it will never be the same!) and still ended up spending about an hour scraping skin off each nut with my fingernails. It may not have been literally painful, but the clean-up afterwards was a real bear. I officially hate skinning hazelnuts.

The cake batter came together with Nolan’s assistance. In other words, once I got the toasted nuts out of the oven, I wore him in a sling while I worked. He did great most of the time, watching everything very intently, but started getting warm and cranky right about the time I was folding the sifted nut meal into the aerated batter. I ended up popping them in the oven at top speed, and after a bottle of milk, Nolan spent the rest of the evening napping like a little angel.

A few notes about the cake layers: The recipe requires you to sift the mixture of nut meal, cake flour and cornstarch through a mesh strainer to catch any stray chunks of hazelnut. By the time I was done sifting, I had about half a cup of coarse meal resembling sand caught in the strainer. Rather than let it go to waste, I incorporated it into my praline.

Also, the recipe calls for a 10″ cake split into three layers. That prospect was pretty scary, and I didn’t own a 10″ pan, but I honestly intended to purchase one and go through with it. I ran out of time to get to the kitchen store, however, so in the end I split the batter between two 9″ pans, and cut each of those in half for a total of 4 layers. As per the instructions, I just greased and floured my pans, and my cakes both wanted to stick on the bottoms. I know a few people had related incidents that led to huge holes in their cakes; one of mine nearly broke when it released at a bad moment, but I got away with just a minor crack. Parchment-lining the cake pans might be wise for this recipe.

Once Nolan was ensconced in the bedroom for the night, it was safe to proceed with the more dangerous element of this cake—the praline. This recipe uses the dry method to make caramel, which no longer worries me thanks to the milk chocolate-caramel tart from last August.

I popped the resulting hazelnut brittle in the fridge to chill while working on the buttercream. This particular Swiss buttercream comes together in the opposite manner of the one we used for our yule logs: the meringue is prepared first, and while the butter creams, you fling sticky dollops of meringue into it until—if all goes to plan—you end up with glorious, smooth, light buttercream. While I was still beating the meringue, the praline had hardened and was sent into the food processor for several minutes, until it had been ground into a paste with a packable consistency akin to brown sugar. Incidentally, this praline recipe makes more paste than you will need for the gateau; I highly recommend using some of the leftovers in these ricotta pancakes. Yum!

Here is where I’m not sure if my technique was off or if the recipe is flawed. As smooth as my praline paste appeared to be, when stirred into the buttercream, it tended to form little clumps. No amount of whipping improved the graininess, but since my buttercream didn’t break, I was still reasonably satisfied. The slight praline crunch did give it a certain charm, and the flavor was magnificent.

Before collapsing into bed at 1:30am, I managed to slice and assemble my layers. I used a vanilla-scented soaking syrup and remembered to add whipped cream on top of the buttercream layers, little difference though it would turn out to make. The assembled layers set up in the refrigerator overnight, and the next morning, after breakfast with my in-laws, I trimmed the edges of the cake as best I could and glazed it with apricot preserves to seal in the crumbs.

Next came the ganache. I used Scharffenberger 70% because I had it on hand, supplemented with less than an ounce of bittersweet Ghirardelli chips. I still don’t have an offset spatula (something else I had intended to get at the kitchen store), so I used a chef’s knife to smooth the top of the cake and a small spreader for the sides. I didn’t quite achieve a mirror finish, but it was still glossy and luscious, and many willing fingers assisted with the clean-up of the ganache that dripped under the cake.

I had some reserved buttercream to use for decorating my cake. Remembering how uncooperative buttercream can be when cold, I made sure to give it plenty of time to come back toward room temperature before attempting to pipe it. While I waited, I decided to make some caramelized hazelnuts for garnish. All I did was caramelize some sugar, skewer the hazelnuts with toothpicks (not on their seam), twirl them quickly through the caramel, and then stab the toothpick into the bottom of my mesh strainer. I kept the strainer on top of a deep bowl to catch the drips, and that was that. Not quite as fun, but nearly as effective as Tartelette’s apple-on-the-dishwasher trick in its own way, I’d like to think.

The scariest part of this cake was easily the piping. I’ve never piped frosting in my life, although I bought a basic set of tips back in December. I picked out the leaf tip from the batch and dove in, buttercream still on the solid side. That changed quickly as it started melting from the heat of my hands and squishing out the top of the bag. Turns out my leaf tip is a pretty small one, and the chunks of praline paste kept clogging it up, leading to some seriously thick and thin sections as the frosting backed up and then splooshed out all at once. If I had been smart, I would have reserved some unflavored buttercream for decorating before adding the praline paste. Ah well! In any event, I clearly need MUCH more practice with piping, and probably some different tips. Maybe I should go buy a can of frosting just to practice with… Anyway, it could have been worse, and the caramelized hazelnuts were a nice touch, I thought.

The cake was delicious, with a definite hazelnut flavor. I personally think that the Scharffenberger chocolate tasted a little too fruity for the hazelnuts; something a little more bitter would be more to my taste, or some Valrhona Noisette Noir Gianduja would fit this cake like a glove. I couldn’t taste the apricot or the whipped cream at all, and I left out the liqueurs called for, but didn’t miss any of those. I also didn’t let the cake sit at room temperature for more than about half an hour after it set, but our house was warm and the buttercream had already started softening in that time, and would have turned to mush if I’d waited longer (plus, we were hungry!).

There have been lots of comparisons by other Daring Bakers between this month’s challenge and April’s Opera Cake, since both included syrup-brushed layers of nut-based genoise and buttercream, with a finishing glaze. Many seem to prefer this cake to the opera cake because it is less sweet, but that never bothered me because of my extreme sweet tooth. I actually loved the mousse element of the opera cake and enjoyed the pina colada flavoring I chose for it, so the two cakes are about on par in my estimation. If this gateau had a more balanced chocolate-hazelnut/gianduja flavor, however, it would win hands down.

Thanks to Chris of Mele Cotte for choosing this interesting and delicious recipe, and be sure to check out all of the hundreds of more professionally decorated gateaux than mine on the Daring Bakers’ blogroll.

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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