Strange as it may sound, I’ve never been a fan of cakes. Chiffon, pound, cheese, cream, you name it, I’m…..passing on it. They’re like that classmate who seems “nice”, who you’d interact with occasionally, share a laugh, a look, a meal with now and then, but with whom ‘friendship’ never went deeper than the shallow levels of acquaintance. At birthday parties, when faced with the inevitable “Cake?” question, I relied on either one of two tried and tested replies:
(a) “Yes, just a small piece will do” (if alone) or
(b) “Thanks, but I’m sharing with (insert name of partner)”
I could try to expound on the theories that would explain this seemingly bizarre and anomalous trait on my part, but I don’t want to bore you with an essay about the ‘Cultural Attitudes Towards Cake and What That Says About Our Society’. Plus, I’m sure you’re dying to get to the recipe. Suffice to say that I generally have a preference for foods that push the boundaries of satiety and umami-ness. Between a double chocolate fudge brownie and a chocolate cream cake, I’d go for the brownie, even if it came from a hole-in-the-wall and the cake from Tartine Bakery. I think you get the idea.
So when I met this particular butter cake on a kitchen table in April, I greeted it with the standard level of respect and civility that you would expect at a State dinner. Courteous and polite, but not overly familiar. Little I was to realize that just one bite would transform my perception of this unassuming dessert. My mother-in-law is a formidable baker (as is common among the French women of her generation), and while I’m generally partial to her patisserie, this, this Cake, is special. The use of nut flour (hazelnuts or almonds, or both, depending on your preference), gives it an earthiness, while the alcohol plays a supporting role, providing that subtle kick that your everyday butter cake wouldn’t have. It is at once both light and moist, deceptively humble yet mysteriously complex in flavors. The recipe below is pretty flexible in some parts – you can customize the cake to include whichever nut flour and/or liquor catches your fancy.
Butter cake with Hazelnuts (8 servings)
This recipe calls for vanilla sugar. If none is available, omit it from the recipe and measure out an additional 14 grams/0.5 ounces of granulated sugar and add 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract. The cake will keep for up to 3 days, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature, after which it should be refrigerated or frozen. That is, if you have any remaining.
250 grams/ 8.8 ounces all-purpose flour
120 grams/ 4.2 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
145 grams/ 5 ounces granulated sugar
15 grams/ 0.5 ounces vanilla sugar
11 grams/ 0.4 ounces baking powder
50 grams/ 1.8 ounces finely ground hazelnut or almond, or a combination of both
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon white rum, eau de vie or grappa
2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C/375 F.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and alcohol with a wooden spoon until the butter is fully mixed in and no lumps are visible. Add the lemon juice, then incorporate the eggs, one at a time.
Stir together the flour, ground nuts and baking powder in a separate bowl and add it to the butter/egg mixture, stirring constantly until all the flour is mixed in and you have a sticky paste.
Butter a 24 cm/ 9-inch round cake pan and pour the batter into the pan, spreading it evenly with a baking spatula.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the cake is browned at the top and starts to crack.
Leave it on a rack to cool for at least 45 minutes before dusting with confectioner’s sugar and slicing it.