July has been one heck of a busy month. Among many other activities, over the past 30 days I:
- went on vacation to South Carolina;
- progressed to a trot in my horseback riding lessons;
- cleaned all of the windows in the house, inside and out;
- pruned, fungicided, fertilized, watered, staked and generally stressed over 30 tomato plants;
- started a running program;
- played in the swimming pool with my nephews;
- stocked the freezer with pesto;
- saw The Dark Knight and then obsessed over it in my mind for at least three days;
- oh yeah, went to work;
- switched from cable to DirecTV;
- repaired, repainted and reupholstered antique wicker furniture;
- played frisbee with the pup; and
- joined the Daring Bakers!
For those of you who aren't familiar with the Daring Bakers, we are a rapidly-growing group of food bloggers/bakers/baked-good enthusiasts who complete one challenging recipe per month and then write about it on our blogs all on the same day. The group encourages learning and expansion of the home baker's repertoire; it inspires its members to bake something that might be difficult to execute, something we might not bake if not for the Daring Bakers mandate. Brilliant, really. This group was made for me, the anti-30-minute-meal cook, she who relishes in recipes that take days to complete and require specialized equipment and techniques.
The recipe comes from Carole Walter's book, Great Cakes. An apt title. The confection is a dreamy layered affair, with three gloriously textured yet wonderfully delicate discs of filbert genoise sandwiching thin layers of lighter-than-air praline buttercream and fresh whipped cream. The whole gorgeous thing gets painted with local blackberry preserves and smothered in ganache before becoming a canvas for the artistic whims of the baker, whose medium is piped buttercream.
When I first looked at the recipe I thought, OK, I totally get why they call themselves the Daring Bakers. But the written recipe looks a lot more complicated than it truly is. Successful completion of this recipe is all about planning. It's about procuring the right tools. It's about dividing the intimidating-looking whole into its discrete parts, each of which is really quite manageable. I gave myself three days to complete the cake and the end result was a professional-looking gateau that didn't leave me passed out and exhausted on the kitchen floor surrounded by dirty mixing bowls and billowing clouds of cake flour.
Challenging, yes! But also reasonable and squarely within the reach of any home baker who has some time, motivation, the patience to cut a two-inch cake into three layers and the ability to skin a hazelnut.
The best thing to come out of this challenge -- beyond the totally delicious cake and the immense self-satisfaction, of course -- is a measurable growth in self-confidence. I've been making elaborate desserts and other recipes for years but I'd developed an unfounded fear of melted sugar and Swiss buttercream. Making the filbert gateau with praline buttercream taught me that I had no good reason for this apprehension. My vigilant eye did not permit any burning of the praline, which still kind of amazes me because the technique involves putting sugar and only sugar in a dry skillet and letting it melt into a scalding pool of molten sweetness. I mean, what are the chances of not screwing that up?!?? But the praline gods were smiling and by the time the sugar-encapsulated hazelnuts had hardened and cooled into a golden lacy shape somewhat resembling one of the Finger Lakes, I was sold on my praline-making skillz.
As for the Swiss buttercream....The talented Deb of the Smitten Kitchen was once emotionally scarred by Swiss buttercream so, honestly, mental ruin had to be in my future, yes? No! I was so pleased with the way my Swiss buttercream came together that I kept pacing around the house with a spatula full of the finished icing, muttering to Husband, to the dog, to nobody in particular that I couldn't believe my good luck. I am so confident and inspired that, like some sort of baking superheroine, I think I might turn to Swiss buttercream whenever there is a cake in need of frosting. Or maybe I'll make it for no reason, then just walk around with a piping bag full of the stuff, offering rosettes to friends and strangers alike. On second thought...I live in a small town, so such freakitude might give me a reputation as That Crazy Woman Who Won't Shut Up About Her Swiss Buttercream. If I lived in a larger city, I'm sure this behavior would be at worst ignored and at best celebrated as an example of what makes city life so vibrant and interesting. As it is, I have conquered Swiss buttercream and I have the Daring Bakers to thank.
Enough of my rambling. The recipe for filbert gateau with praline buttercream is a long one, indeed, so I shall take up no more space here. If you are feeling daring -- indeed, if you are just feeling patient, measured, disciplined or hungry -- give this cake a whirl. You will be very inspired and pleased that you can accomplish such a pastry feat. You, too, will be gateau fabulous.
FILBERT GATEAU WITH PRALINE BUTTERCREAM
Adapted from Great Cakes, by Carole Walter
I split up the tasks required to make this cake over three days, which is the only sane way to manage such an endeavor. To try to do it all at once I believe is madness.
Friday night I clarified the butter, toasted and skinned the hazelnuts and made the sugar syrup and the praline paste. Saturday night I baked the gateau. Sunday night I made the praline buttercream and the blackberry glaze, whipped the heavy cream and assembled the cake. Then some friends came over and we ate it on the front porch while relaxing on the aforementioned newly-painted antique wicker. Not a bad way to toast the waning hours of the weekend.
(A few notes:  Though the name of this cake is "filbert gateau," throughout the recipe I use the filbert's alias, hazelnut. The filbert and the hazelnut are one in the same; I think "hazelnut" sounds yummy, whereas "filbert" sounds like the name of someone that you didn't like very much in middle school.  To skin hazelnuts, place them in an even layer on a cookie sheet in an oven heated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Toast for 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven. Working in batches, place the hazelnuts between two tea towels and rub to remove the skins. You'll likely have to do this several times for each batch of hazelnuts to get most of the skin off. You will note that patience is a virtue.  You will have extra praline paste and extra buttercream when all is said and done. I'm still divining delicious ways to use these leftovers and will update this space if I come up with anything good.)
The pieces parts:
1 hazelnut genoise
1 recipe sugar syrup, flavored with Cointreau
1 recipe praline buttercream
1/2 c. heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
1 recipe blackberry glaze
1 recipe ganache, prepared just before using
A few hazelnuts, for garnish
For the hazelnut genoise:
1 1/2 c. hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
2/3 c. cake flour, unsifted
2 T. cornstarch
7 large egg yolks
1 c. sugar, divided into 3/4 c. and 1/4 c.
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1/2 t. lemon zest
5 large egg whites
1/4 c. warm clarified butter (100 - 110 degrees Fahrenheit)
Position rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a 10" x 2" round cake pan or a 10" Springform pan. (Or you can use Pam with flour, which I use and honestly, it works like a charm and is SO much easier than buttering/flouring the pan.) I used a Springform pan and removing the cake was a snap.
Add the hazelnuts, cake flour and corn starch to the bowl of a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds, then pulse the mixture 10-15 times until the mixture is fine and powdery and it begins to gather around the sides of the bowl. Make sure that there aren't any large pieces of hazelnut remaining but do not over-process. Set aside.
Place the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl and, using a hand mixer, beat until they're thick and light in color, about 3-4 minutes on medium-high speed. Add 3/4 c. sugar, about one tablespoon at a time, to the yolks, taking about 3 minutes for this step. When finished, the mixture should be ribbony and a very light shade of yellow. Blend in the vanilla and lemon zest. Set aside.
Place the egg whites in the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed to soft peaks. Increase to medium-high speed and slowly add the remaining 1/4 c. of sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to beat for another 30 seconds. Add the yolk mixture to the whites and whisk for 1 minute.
Measure the warm clarified butter. Sprinkle the hazelnut mixture, about 2 tablespoons at a time, into the bowl containing the egg mixture. Fold after each addition to incorporate the hazelnuts into the eggs. The goal here is not to deflate the egg mixture, so fold gently. When about 2 tablespoons of the hazelnut mixture remain, pour the warm butter into the batter. Then add what remains of the hazelnut mixture and fold the batter about 13 times to incorporate.
With a rubber spatula, transfer the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface. Tap the pan on the counter once to remove air bubbles and bake for 30-35 minutes. Then cake is done when it is springy to the touch and pulls away from the side of the pan. Remove from the oven and allow the cake to stand for 5 minutes. Invert onto a cake rack sprayed with non-stick coating and remove the pan. Cool the cake completely.
If not using the cake right away, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days. The cake can also be frozen -- wrapped in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil -- for 2-3 months.
For the sugar syrup:
1 c. water
1/4 c. sugar
2 T. Cointreau or orange-flavored liqueur
In a small heavy saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add the Cointreau. Cool slightly before using on the cake.
The sugar syrup can be made in advance. I made mine two days before I assembled the cake and stored it in a mason jar at room temperature. Just before applying it to the cake, warm the syrup slightly in a small saucepan over low heat.
For the praline buttercream:
1 recipe Swiss buttercream
1/3 c. praline paste
1 1/2 T. Cointreau or orange-flavored liqueur (optional)
Using a rubber spatula, blend 1/2 c. Swiss buttercream into the praline paste. This lightens the praline paste and makes it easier to incorporate into the buttercream. Add the rest of the buttercream and stir well. If using, mix in the Cointreau.
For the Swiss buttercream:
4 large egg whites
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
1 1/2 T. Cointreau or orange-flavored liqueur
1 t. pure vanilla extract
Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the whisk attachment until whites are foamy and they just begin to thicken (just before the soft-peak stage). Remove the bowl from the mixer and set it over a saucepan containing about 2 inches of simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water.
Using a hand-held whisk, mix the sugar into the egg whites about 2 T. at a time, whisking well between additions. Continue whisking for another 2-3 minutes until the egg whites are warm (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, if you have a probe thermometer, or you can judge by sight -- the egg whites should look thick and similar to whipped marshmallows).
Remove the mixing bowl from the pan of simmering water and return it to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg white mixture on medium-high speed until it is a thick meringue -- the mixture will lose a lot of its heat and you should be able to touch the bottom of the bowl comfortably. This process takes about 6 minutes. Remove the egg white mixture to another bowl and set aside. Wash and dry the mixing bowl before proceeding to the next step. (Or, if you have a second bowl for your mixer, now is the time to use it.)
Place the butter in the clean, dry mixing bowl. Using the paddle attachment, cream the butter at medium speed for about 1 minute, or until the butter is smooth and creamy. On medium-low speed add the meringue, about 2 T. at a time, to the butter. Add the liqueur and vanilla and mix for a few minutes until the buttercream is smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for another 30 seconds to make sure all the ingredients are incorporated and the buttercream is thick and creamy.
Remove the buttercream from the mixer and refrigerate, covered, for 10-15 minutes before using.
For the praline paste:
1 c. hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
2/3 c. sugar
Line a jelly roll pan with a Silpat, or with buttered parchment. The Silpat works so beautifully here that if you don't have one, I'd recommend going out and getting one. It's the best $20 you'll ever spend -- at least the best $20 you'll ever spend on baking tools.
Place the sugar in a heavy 10-inch skillet. Heat over a low flame for 10-20 minutes until the sugar begins to melt. Watch the sugar closely; there is an extremely fine line between sweet and delicious and burnt and bitter. Swirl the pan to prevent the melting sugar from burning. If the sugar is not melting uniformly, go ahead and stir it gently with a wooden spoon. Do not take your eyes off the pan. Do not answer the door. Do not look up to figure out what just happened on Law & Order. Ignore your husband. Sugar-melting is serious business that requires the cook's undivided attention.
When the sugar is completely melted and caramel in color, remove from the heat. Stir in the hazelnuts with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and separate the hazelnut clusters as best you can. Return to low heat and cook until the mixture starts to bubble, stirring often. I will say it again: keep your eye on the prize. You know Bobby Goren is going to get the suspect to talk; if you turn away from your praline to confirm this, chances are your sugar will burn.
Break the candied hazelnuts into pieces and place them in a food processor. Pulse into a medium-fine texture and then process until the brittle turns into a powder. Process for a few more minutes and, magically right before your very eyes, the powder will turn into a paste. It really is quite remarkable.
Store praline paste in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate.
For the blackberry glaze:
2/3 c. blackberry preserves
1 T. water
In a small, heavy saucepan bring the preserves and water to a boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. If the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the saucepan, add water as needed.
Remove from heat and press the mixture through a wire mesh strainer. Discard the remnants. Can be made in advance; just cover tightly and refrigerate, warming it gently before you're ready to use it.
For the ganache:
6 oz. good semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
3/4 c. heavy cream
1 T. light corn syrup
1 T. Cointreau or orange-flavored liqueur
3/4 t. pure vanilla extract
Mix the Cointreau and vanilla together; set aside.
Break the chocolate into 1-inch pieces and place in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Transfer the chocolate to a medium-sized bowl and set aside.
Heat the cream and corn syrup in a saucepan over low heat until it reaches a gentle boil. When it boils, immediately remove from the heat and pour the cream mixture over the chocolate. Let stand for one minute, then slowly stir to melt the chocolate and incorporate the mixture. Carefully mix in the vanilla mixture. Let cool slightly before using.
And now that you've done all that, assemble the cake! Your masterpiece lies in pieces all around the kitchen; it's time to put it all together.
With a hand-held mixer or a stand mixer, whip 1/2 c. of heavy cream to soft peaks; set aside.
Using the cake pan as a template, cut a cardboard disk slightly smaller than the cake. I buy cardboard in the cake decorating section of my local craft store; I'm sure you could use a plate the size of your cake, but the flat cardboard really does facilitate easy assembly.
Using a serrated knife, divide the hazelnut genoise into three even layers. I find it works well to place the cake on a lazy susan, hold the knife still and rotate the cake as you apply gentle pressure to cut the layers.
Place the cardboard round on top of the cake, then invert to release the first layer of the cake. It should be cut-side up. Using a pastry brush, moisten the layer with 3-4 T. of warm sugar syrup. Measure out 1 c. of praline buttercream and set aside.
With an offset spatula, spread the bottom layer with about 1/4 inch of the remaining praline buttercream, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edge of the cake. Cover the buttercream with about half of the whipped cream.
Place the middle cake layer over the first. Use a wide spatula to help you move the thin layers, which will lessen the chance of breakage. Brush this layer with sugar syrup, spread with about 1/4 inch of praline buttercream, then with the rest of the whipped cream.
Moisten the cut side of the third cake layer with the remaining sugar syrup and place, cut-side down, on the cake. Gently press on the sides of the cake to align the layers. Refrigerate and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the cake from the refrigerator and, using a serrated knife, cut a slight bevel around the top edge of the cake to help the ganache drip over the edge. With a pastry brush, brush the top and the sides of the cake with the warm blackberry glaze, "sealing" the cut areas completely. Chill while you prepare the ganache.
Place a cooling rack over a baking sheet to catch the ganache drip, then place the cake on top of the cooling rack. With a metal offset spatula in hand, and holding the ganache about 10 inches above the cake, pour all of the ganache onto the cake's center. Use the metal spatula to help ease the ganache over the sides of the cake. It should flood to coat the top of the cake very nicely but it might need some help on the sides; spread it around the sides with the metal spatula if necessary.
Let the cake stand at least 15 minutes to set, or refrigerate. When the ganache sets, you can place the 1 c. of reserved praline buttercream in a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice and just go to town -- decorating the top of the cake to your heart's content. Garnish with toasted hazelnuts.
Leftover cake can be placed in a cake keeper or covered with aluminum foil and refrigerated for up to 5 days. If it lasts that long.