Allow me to introduce my absolute favorite dessert to make and to eat, beginning to end. There’s something about its involved creation process that exemplifies the wonder that can come with baking from scratch. The outcome — moist, nutty and rich — is marvelously delicious, and it just might make you decide to name your children Hazel and Filbert.
It all started several years ago when my friend Ema told me of her love for hazelnuts, also known as filberts. At the time, I’d only tasted hazelnuts raw, from a salted nut assortment, or as a filling buried in chocolatey candy. Hazelnuts simply hadn’t impressed me, but I was willing to reconsider. When Ema invited me over to bake with her, I looked for hazelnut baking recipes but didn’t have much luck. I did come across an old almond cake recipe I’d been given, and I quickly began modifying and transforming it. The outcome was incredible and has forever changed my view of hazelnuts. I proudly present it to you now.
- 1/4 pound ounces whole shelled hazelnuts
- ¾ cup butter at room temperature
- 4 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- 1.5 cup sugar
- Scraped seeds from 1 large vanilla bean
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 F. Toast the whole hazelnuts on a baking sheet for 8-10 minutes, until they’re browning and fragrant. When cool enough to handle, rub hazelnuts between your hands using a clean cloth to remove skins (they can be bitter and odd-textured if left on, but don’t worry if bits of the peel are stuck on some of the nuts like this.). Once they’re completely cool, pulse nuts in food processor or grinder until finely crushed but not powdery or pasty. Weigh out 3 ounces of the crushed hazelnuts or measure out scant 2/3 cup. Set aside. (Use any extra for topping on the cake, or on yogurt or ice cream!)
Grease and flour the bottom and sides of an 8” cake pan (or grease and line pan with parchment). In a large bowl, beat the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar and mix until incorporated. Gradually add the eggs, beating well and scraping down sides of bowl if needed. Mix in the vanilla seeds and almond extract. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the bowl. Mix until batter is even. Finally, fold in the crushed hazelnuts until evenly distributed. Spread batter into prepared pan and bake at 325 for 55-70 minutes, until top is toasty brown and a skewer inserted in center only reveals a few crumbs. Let cool completely in pan before inverting. Store and eat at room temperature.
When I made this cake recently, I wanted it to be summery, so I topped it with sliced, ripe white saturn peaches (they’re delicious, their slices are adorably petite, and they’re very much in season right now). I used my leftover cream cheese, some butter and powdered sugar to whip up a cream cheese frosting as a bed for the fruit. And to keep the peaches shiny and colorful, I brushed them with an apricot glaze (a simple mixture of simmered-then-cooled apricot preserves and little water), which I also brushed onto the sides of the cake. But believe me, this cake is just as delicious topped simply with a few berries or other fruit, iced with a basic vanilla icing, dusted with a bit of powdered sugar, or even served plain.
With its creamy and rich ingredients, its slow and low oven time, and its welcoming and uncommon flavor, the hazelnut cake is truly an amazing dessert. The bit of almond extract really enhances the hazelnut flavor, just as the freshly toasted nuts offer a fresh vivacity that’s welcome any time of year — or any time of day for that matter!
Maybe next time… Don’t be afraid to play with the format of this wonderfully versatile cake! I’ve made it into fantastic cupcakes, frosted layer cakes for parties — and I was even successful making it gluten-free (I replaced the wheat flour with Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour mix and half a teaspoon of xanthan gum). For cupcakes or multi-layer cakes, be sure to reduce the baking time significantly and watch them carefully, checking them for done-ness often. The only plea I have for you is that you let the hazelnuts shine on their own; please don’t drown this cake in overpowering flavors, including chocolate. Cream cheese, white chocolate, and browned butter frosting have all worked well for me, but feel free to get creative. And one more thing: I again suggest you keep this cake out of the fridge; it’s really best at room temperature (and besides, it’s very likely to disappear quickly–before you’ve even had a chance to think about preserving it).