A Birthday Cake for the Sophisticate (Phase One)

I’ve told you about this cake.

A dozen or so years ago, while on a regular weekend bakery run to our favorite bakery in Reykjavik, I spotted the cake – a beautiful two layers of hazelnut meringue filled and glazed with chocolate ganache, and decorated with Jackson Pollock-like spatters of white and milk chocolates.  For the first time in my adult life, I scrapped plans to make my own birthday cake and chose instead this sophisticated bakery cake, the one called by the incongruously plain name of “Nougat.”

After working at home to adapt a couple of recipes, I came up with my own version.  I have made both 9- and 10-inch cakes several times, and once for a dinner party made several 3-inch meringues sandwiched together with ganache for individual cakes.  This is the showstopper cake, the cake for the special event, the one you want when you want jaws to drop.

I don’t expect to see birthday party jaws dropping for another week, but today was a great day for baking meringues – dry, cool air will deliver light and crisp layers; the freezer will keep those layers assembly-ready – so I took advantage and got Phase One of my Cake for the Sophisticate done.

We’ll revisit filling and decorating next week, so stay tuned for Phase Two.

Please do not be afraid of attempting meringue layers if you never have.  In many ways they are simpler than a butter-flour-egg layer cake.  All you’ll need are:  a large and deep bowl, a hand held or stand electric mixer, a nut grinder or food processor, a rubber scraper, an offset metal spatula, and some fresh and completely yolk-free room temperature egg whites.  A piping bag fitted with a 1/2–inch round tip aren’t necessary, but they wouldn’t hurt either.

Preparation is the key, so get your mise done first.  Next, pay careful attention to the verbal and visual descriptions of how the egg whites need to look at each stage and you will do fine.

Hazelnut Meringue Layers

(adapted from Food & Wine’s Great Desserts, ©1987)

For (3) 9-inch meringue layers:

  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp (5 oz.) lightly toasted and skinned hazelnuts (toasted blanched almonds make a good substitute for the hazelnut-averse)
  • ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 6 egg whites, at room temperature
  • pinch of cream of tartar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees.

Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment and toast in the preheated oven until they just begin to give off their aroma and are a light golden brown (20 minutes approximately).   To skin them, remove from the oven and while still warm wrap the nuts in a clean kitchen towel.

Rub them together in the towel vigorously for a few seconds to loosen the skins.  Unwrap and let cool completely, discarding skins.

Nuts will come out of the toweling in various stages of undress, and that’s okay.

While nuts are cooling, fit three pieces of parchment to 3 baking sheets.  Using a 9-inch layer cake pan as your guide, trace a circle with pencil onto all pieces of parchment.

Flip the parchment so the pencil is on the underside but still visible through the top, and place the papers back on the baking sheets.  Set aside.

Finely grate the toasted and completely cooled nuts in a food processor or hand held rotary nut grinder.  Process or toss the chopped nuts with the confectioner’s sugar.  Set aside.

In large bowl of stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on low speed until foamy with large bubbles, about 2 minutes.  Increase speed to high and beat whites until nearly double in volume and stiff peaks form.  “Stiff peaks” means that when you lift the whisk or beaters out of the fluffy egg whites, the whites will follow your lifting motion and stand straight and pointy up in the air without drooping over.

With motor running, gradually beat in 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 Tbsp at a time, and beat until the whites are dense and glossy and form stiff peaks.

Remove bowl from mixer.  Sprinkle nut mixture on top of egg whites and with large rubber scraper gently fold nut mixture into egg whites until no white streaks remain. The goal of folding is to incorporate nuts without deflating the beaten egg whites much at all.  Therefore, to fold, use a rubber scraper and reach down through the center of the beaten whites to the bottom of the bowl and lift the some of the egg whites up and on top of the nut mixture. As you do this turn the bowl a quarter turn. Then cut through the nuts and whites again to reach down to the bottom again and lift more of the whites up and over. Turn again.

Repeat, gently, until the nuts and whites blend and no white streaks remain.

Now you’ll need an offset metal spatula. A piping bag and metal tip with ½ inch wide circle opening are optional but helpful to trace the outer edge of the circle before filling it in with meringue.  First, place a dot of the meringue mixture under the four corners of the parchment paper on all the baking sheets to anchor the paper to the baking sheet.  (Don’t be inclined to think it’s OK to skip this step, trust me.  The parchment’s corners will curl right up and over, and end up baking into your meringues.)  If using a piping bag, trace around the penciled circle with a piping of meringue.

Using your thin metal spatula, spread one-third of the meringue mixture onto one traced circle.  Repeat with the second and third baking sheets.  Alternately, you may skip the piping bag step and just gently spread the meringue to the outer edges of the traced circle.  Meringues should be about ½-inch thick and smoothed on the top.

Adjust three oven racks at even intervals inside your oven.  Bake the nut meringues for 1 to 1 ½ hours, switching positions once or twice.  Finished layers should be very lightly browned and crisp all the way through.  The amount of time it takes for them to dry out in the oven depends on the humidity of the day.  Let cool to room temperature.

Can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and wrapped, when completely cooled, in aluminum foil and left at room temperature.

Or, layers may also be cooled completely, wrapped in foil, placed inside a plastic freezer bag and frozen.

Which is exactly what I am doing today.

Check back for Phase Two next week.