My good friend Leigh (who just got MARRIED last Sunday to an amazing woman named Kim!), spent a summer studying in Perugia, a college town in the Umbria region of Italy, ten or so years ago. I visited him there for a few days that summer, and got shown around by his two adorable flatmates, Ludovica and Cinzia, both tiny little things with impeccable fashion sense and huge appetites for the good things in life. After a night of boozing and schmoozing and learning lewd Italian phrases and songs, we all wandered around the narrow, cobbled streets in search of vittels during the wee hours. We followed our noses to a ‘secret bakery’ that was completing their early morning bake off in preparation for the following day. They graciously sold us some pastries – warm croissants filled with marmalade, and some small nutty cakes.
The cakes were not unlike this cake here, but that actually wasn’t what I was getting at. Perugia is best known for Baci, blue and silver foil-wrapped chocolate-hazelnut treats. These candies managed to find their way to Topanga Canyon when I was younger, and became an obsession for several years. Thus I appreciated visiting their place of origin, and devoured my fair share.
The other night, I got an inexplicable craving for that heavenly combination of toasty hazelnuts and fruity milk chocolate, so I decided to bake those flavors into a cake. I reckoned they would work beautifully as a financier, which combines vanilla-infused browned butter with ground nuts, a small amount of flour, and egg whites. I decided to make it gluten-free so that I might share it with my chocophilic, gluten-intolerant sister.
I perused a few different recipes, namely the financiers from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life, and the chocolate almond cakes from David L‘s book The Sweet Life in Paris (hey, that’s a funny coincidence), before coming up with these proportions.
I’m quite happy with the results. And so was my sister, her daughter, and especially Jay, who spotted some prince mushrooms while we were snacking on it after a hike in Marin.
This has the taste and texture of a traditional European chocolate nut torte, the main difference being that it uses only egg whites, which is an important feature for us avid ice cream and custard makers who always seem to have jars and jars of whites lying around the fridge or freezer waiting to be used up. If you’re looking for ways to use up the yolks, try making the horchata, mugolio or vanilla ice creams, or crème caramels.
Since this recipe has few ingredients, use the best quality you can find. I like using Strauss butter which is ‘European-style,’ meaning the fat content is at least 80%, necessary for achieving those caramelized solids and not losing too much moisture as the butter cooks. Use a quality cocoa powder, preferably dutch-processed (though I suspect the recipe will work fine with the natural stuff), and a milk chocolate with at least 40% cacao mass, such as Scharffenberger, Recchiuti, or Green and Black’s.
There are several steps to preparing the ingredients, but after that, the cake is easy to put together – no fancy creaming or whipping. Just grind the nuts with the dries, and whisk in the liquid egg whites and browned butter. It will souffle up in the oven, then fall and buckle in a bit at the sides. You can serve it warm, but I liked it best at room temperature. It is delicate enough to serve as a plated dessert, with a touch of unsweetened whipped cream and some fresh berries, yet sturdy enough to wrap up and bring on a hike or picnic. It is quite rich, and is especially excellent served with coffee. All those nuts and butter make it a good keeper; it tastes even better the second or third day, and will probably stay moist and tasty for up to a week (though good luck keeping it around for that long!)
(Gluten-Free!) Chocolate Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake
Makes one 8″ cake, 10 – 12 servings
Feel free to substitute finely chopped dark or even unsweetened chocolate for the milk, and almonds for the hazelnuts. For a truly chocophilic experience, spread the cooled cake with a hazelnut liquor-spiked chocolate glaze.
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for the pan
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder (preferably dutch-processed), plus 1 tablespoon for the pan
1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/4 cups hazelnuts, toasted, skins rubbed off, cooled
1/4 cup flour (such as sweet rice, or all-purpose)
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 ounces (about 1 cup) egg whites, from about 7 eggs
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) finely chopped dark milk chocolate
optional for serving:
unsweetened whipped cream
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Using the 1 tablespoon of butter, grease an 8″ round cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment, then butter the parchment. Dust with the 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, turning the pan to coat it evenly and tapping out the excess. Set aside.
Roast the hazelnuts in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until fragrant and toasted. Let cool slightly, then rub between your palms or a tea towel to remove most of the skins. Let cool completely.
Place the remaining butter in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds with the dull side of a knife, and add the pod and scrapings to the butter. Cook over medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the butter browns and smells nutty, 8 – 10 minutes. The butter will foam up, and the milk solids on the bottom of the pan should be a rich brown color. The rest of the butter will remain golden-amber. Watch it carefully, as it can go from brown to burnt in little time. Remove from the heat and let cool sightly.
In a food processor, combine the cooled nuts, flour, cocoa powder and salt. Grind very finely.
In a large metal bowl, whisk together the whites and the two sugars. Place over a water bath or directly over a low flame if you’re feeling butch (but be careful!) and stir constantly with a whisk until the mixture feels warm to the touch and the sugar is mostly dissolved. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the almond mixture. Place the bowl on a damp towel to secure, and gradually whisk in the warm butter, 1/4 cup at a time, so that the mixture emulsifies. Fold in the chopped chocolate. The batter will be fairly liquid. It can be baked now, or allowed to hang out in the fridge for up to several days.
Pour into the prepared pan. Bake the cake for 30 – 40 minutes, until the top springs back when pressed lightly. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 or 20 minutes. Loosen the edges with a small spatula if necessary. Place a large plate over the pan, grasp with bemitted hands, and flip the whole thing over to invert. Remove the pan and peel off the parchment. Let the cake cool a bit more. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The cake will keep for several days at room temperature, or up to a week in the fridge.