13 September 2012

Cakes, brooms, and grooms

Come what may, there is rarely a week over here without something sweet or other parrading or, depending on the results, tumbling out of the oven. A snug home-made sweet on the counter is a thing to look forward to any day, sun or rain, everybody knows that. Among all the sweet tooth-pacifiers out there, cookies -- heed these, would you? -- are usually my first choice. An average-sized batch yields a dozen or two of perfect foot soldiers ready to snap to it, one by one, at the click of my fingers. Well taken care of, they can stay in my command for days lending support and cheer whenever needed. I like cookies a lot for that, granting, of course, they taste good too. But however willing, one can't be sustained by cookies alone; one also needs cake. I know I do. There is a Russian proverb that says one can get sick of cake, but never of bread. Total hooey, if you ask me. Cake is a godsend. But unlike cookies that can so easily be stashed away strictly for personal use, cakes are meant to share, it's what you are expected to do as you set your foot in the kitchen to make one, especially if you live with someone else. In which case you are also supposed to inquire what kind of cake that other person would like, perhaps not every time, but at least every so often. I never do and time after time bake cakes I like -- this apple cake, or that marmelade cake, or now, thanks to this book, various other fruit cakes -- reckoning Anthony will like them too. Not surprising then it is that he never does: Your cakes are awful, there is no chocolate or buttercream in them. I hate your cakes. That's interesting, because I actually like to think my cakes are not so bad, but surely, surely tastes differ, and surely, surely I should be more considerate of other people's likes when I expect them to enjoy cake with me.

Today I made chocolate chip hazelnut cake with chocolate cinnamon buttercream (again Nigel Slater), and seeing that half of it is gone in less than half a day and I had only a sliver, I think I made a good cake. Put it in your pipe and smoke it, Anthony! Well, besides my addressing a certain person's stance towards some confections of mine, there is another motive for such luscious and celebratory sweet. Dear Reader, Anthony and I are getting married, on Monday September 17th!  (We may lean towards differents cakes, but we both agree that Mondays are great.) Nobody here is pregnant, stay calm. I know it sounds like such short notice. Such short notice, in fact, that it is tempting to think something is off. But nothing is, except, maybe, the way I deal with change. When things change around me, I am, always have been, the last to wrap my head around them, and so such is my nature to wait till the very last moment to peep a word and regard an occasion. I guess it's because when talked about loud, change, even the best kind, makes me feel vulnerable, as if I'm in the nude in a room full of properly-clad people, and I really, really don't like that feeling.

A touch more than a year ago Anthony gifted me with a pendant in the form of a snail and a butterfly hovering above, both in a circle. This is us, he said and seeing a question on my face, added, You are beautiful and I am slow and we are together. Do you want to marry me? I do. I like, very much so, the idea of getting married to Anthony, my best friend, my 'broom'! A short while ago I was filling in a form for witness details and in the field 'relationship' I wrote down, referring to Anthony's parents, 'the father and mother of the broom'. And now I keep calling him that, Anthony the Broom, secretly hoping that the Dutch civil servants who will issue our marriage certificate will not correct 'broom' to 'groom'. There is a concern on Anthony's side that if I repeat the joke too much, which I do, it will wear off too soon, but really I can't help it. I laugh a lot around him and I don't want that to change.

So: the cake. From the looks of it, one can get an inclination the sweet, composed of a moist sponge cake mainlined with toasted hazelnuts and chocolate nibs and a toothsome chocolate cream on top, is rich and cloying. I thought it would be, but I was mistaken. Despite all that butter (half pound) and sugar (half pound) and eggs (four) and chocolate that went into the cake, the latter stays miraculously light. To take that in can be rather disconcerting: as Anthony admitted, he feared for a moment that under that luscious frosting there sits something dry and prudent. No, no, and no. All is good about this cake. To say the least, perfumed with just a wiff of cinnamon the chocolate buttercream, not a distant cousin to ganache, cocoons each biteful of the moist, nutty sponge on your tongue with such care and affection that would similar interaction take place in a different context one might feel a little embarrassed to watch, if you know what I mean. The cake is to celebrate -- and for celebrations.

Chocolate Chip Hazelnut Cake with Chocolate Cinnamon Buttercream
Adapted from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater
Yield: 10 to 12 (or more) servings

To be honest, I had a concern about the amount of the chocolate buttercream the recipe yields (a lot) and thought for an instance to replace, next time around, a recommended 20-cm (8-inch) cake pan with a larger one, to give such rich icing a bigger wingspan, so to say, but I'll tell you what -- I shall not replace a thing. It is not accidental, such quanity. Spread over the cake's top evenly (not like what I did in the picture above), it is this very thickness of the cream that lends a luscious and pleasant mouthfeel to each and every bite. With the cream in its place, I wasn't sure about how and where to better keep the whole composition, though. Refrigation turned the cream as well as the sponge underneath into rock, and after reaching room temperature again, the cream somehow took on a grainy quality. In doubts, I rapidly asked Nigel Slater for his advice and he suggested to keep it 'in a cool place, covered by a bowl or in a cake tin'. No fridge.
One more tidbit: with no golden bake's sugar in sight, I used conventional white sugar in its stead.

Ah, and remember to use ground cinnamon that is not too old.

For the cake

250 g (8 oz) butter
250 g (8 oz) white granulated sugar
75 g (2.5 oz) shelled hazelnuts
120 g (4 oz) good-quality dark chocolate
4 large eggs
125 g (4 oz) self-rising flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tsp strong espresso

For the spiced chocolate buttercream

250 g (8 oz) dark chocoalte (70% cocoa)
125 g butter (4 oz)
a knifepoint of ground cinnamon

Warm the oven to 180 C (350 F). Line the bottom of a 20-cm (8-inch) deep springform cake pan with parchment paper and set aside. Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan over medium heat, then rub them in a clean kitchen towl until almost all the skins have come off. Grind the nuts to a coarse powder, not as fine as almond meal but finer than they would be if chopped by hand. Cut up the chocolate fine enough for it to resemble coarse gravel; if chopped too roughly, the chocolate bits will just sink to the bottom of the cake batter. Sift the flour in a separate bowl.

Cut the butter into small pieces and put it along with the sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer, then beat until light and fluffy. In the meantime, break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly. Slowly add them to the butter and sugar, beating continuously -- it's ok if the micture curdles slightly. Stop the mixer. Tip in half the ground nuts and half the flour, beat briefly and at a slow speed, then stop the mixer again, add the rest of the nuts and flour, together with the chopped chocolate and cinnamon, and mix till just incorporated. Taking care not to knock the air from the batter, gently fold in the espresso. Scoop the whole lot into the prepared cake pan. Smooth the top and bake for 35-45 minutes. If during the last ten minutes the cake colors too fast, cover it loosely with foil. Remove the cake from the oven and check doneness with a skewer/toothpick/sharp knife -- there shoule be no uncooked cake batter clinging to it. Leave the cake to cool for a little while in its pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack and peel off the parchment paper from its sides and bottom.

To make the chocolate buttercream, break the chocolate into small pieces and let melt in a small bowl set over a pot of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn't touch the water). Leave to melt, wirh minium stirring, add the butter, cut into small chunks, and the cinnamon. Stir until the butter has melted, then immediately remove from the fire. Leave to cool until the mixture is thick enough to spread. Evenly cover the top of the cake with the chocolate cream, decorate as you wish, and leave for an hour or so before cutting. Serve in thin slices. Store, covered by a bowl, in a cool place (don't refrigerate). The cake will keep for 3-4 days.