Thank you for all your patience while I've been busy with many activities, including beautifying my little blog!
As a reward, I'm going to share something sweet with you.
"What's that?" you scoff. "A dessert from Brett? What will he be soaking in his cup of tea today? Will he add anchovies?" Shamefully, your misgivings are warranted. Upon a quick perusal of my "categories" archives (note the fancy new drop-down menus while you're there), you may wonder whether I ever eat desserts.
I'll let you in on a dirty little secret: I have a ferocious sweet tooth.
As you may know, I've spent most of the past decade working in restaurant kitchens. We cooks tend to fall into one of two camps: sweet or savory, rarely crossing lines. My ten years in professional kitchens never saw me stepping away from the savory side of the fence, though many a pastry chef have told me that my calm demeanor would be most welcome in their world.
For reasons that defy explanation and, truthfully, vex my wife, the Sirens of the "hot line" continuously beckon me to their rocky cliffs, where they hypnotize me into standing for countless hours in front of an inferno while orders fly at me like daggers. Though oil burns my arms, my legs cramp, and knives slip (ouch!), I find a sense of serenity in the vortex of the dinner-rush tornado that eludes me anywhere else.
You need a dozen entrées plated right away? No problem. You need a simple pie crust? Ask someone else.
You see, by my own admission, I'm rather clumsy in the pastry kitchen. My least favorite task is one of the easiest, separating egg yolks from whites. I always seem to pollute the whites with a dribble of yolk. I tear delicate doughs, scorch sugar, and cause chocolate to seize.
Fortunately, though, over the years my sweet tooth encouraged me to keep one eye on the pastry chef at all times (and not only so I could nick that handful of chocolate whenever s/he turned away). I incessantly asked questions. There's nothing I dislike more than not knowing how - or why - to do something.
A couple of weeks ago, the Sweet Muse mysteriously chose to whisper into my unworthy ear. She spoke through the pages of my new favorite cook book, Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques. A couple of weeks ago (yes, I have fallen that far behind in my culinary tales), Pim invited local bloggers to her house to help her organize the raffle drawings for Menu for Hope II. She lured us with promises of her justly famous Thai cooking. How could I pass up such an enticing invitation, especially as it afforded me the chance to finally meet some of my fellow bloggers. I was so enthusiastic that I even convinced N to join me.
Whenever I go to a friend's house, I feel awkward if I don't bring something along. As Pim was providing the main course, I was left with only one option. Dessert.
A lime or mango tart would probably have been ideal after Pim's spicy curried Thai noodles (khao soi - read her recipe here), but my crust phobias prevented me from going down that path. I spied a large jar of Catalonian hazelnuts twiddling their thumbs on my kitchen counter and then remembered drooling over Ms. Goin's recipe for Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake. The recipe was nearly identical to an almond cake that one of my mentor chefs used as a base for her Prune Plum Upside Down Cake, perhaps my favorite dessert in the world.
I baked the cake early in the morning. The aroma of toasted hazelnuts and caramelized butter drove me nearly mad with anticipation. When it emerged from the oven, the cake looked respectable enough, belying its simple collection of ingredients.
Upon arrival at Pim's, though, my bubble of pride quickly deflated. It suddenly dawned on me that I - the savory cook - had brought one of just 2 desserts to a fête that included several well-known, excellent bakers (including Shuna and Heidi!) and, of course, a certain four-star chef. What the hell was I thinking bringing a dessert, especially one I had previously neither made nor tasted?
Thankfully, Chef Goin did not let me down! Her cake - really more of a torte - is divine. It is that rare pastry that manages to be both rich (with butter and hazelnuts), yet light (with lots of beaten egg whites). I plan to make it often, especially during the autumn and winter months. I'm sure if one of you more expert bakers attempt her recipe, it will come out even lighter and more spectacular than my version.*
Maybe it's just luck, but I tend to have a pretty good nose for sniffing out which recipes will work and which ones will flop (and be too much for me to handle). Besides, how could I resist a recipe that Ms. Goin tells us she had chosen as her own wedding cake?
Maybe, just maybe, I'll try my hand at more desserts over this next 6 months and share my successes (and failures) with you. That's a New Year's resolution I can live with!
* Feb. 6. Update: I couldn't have been more accurate when I wrote that self-assessment last month. For expert advice on how to make this luscious cake come out far lighter and even more scrumptious than mine did, follow veteran pastry chef Shuna Lydon's detailed instructions in her "dacquoise & meringue" post on KQED's food blog Bay Area Bites!
Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake
adapted from Suzanne Goin, Sunday Suppers at Lucques
5 oz. hazelnuts, blanched to remove dark skins (a little over a cup)
1/2 lb. unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing the pan)
1/2 vanilla bean
1-1/3 c powdered sugar, plus extra for dusting the cake
1/3 c all-purpose flour
5 extra-large egg whites (6 if using large eggs)
3 T sugar
Preheat oven to 350˚F (175˚C). Use the extra butter to grease a 9 or 10-inch cake pan. Cut out a parchment circle of the same dimensions as the pan and place it in pan. Rub butter on top of that too.
In the oven, toast the nuts until they turn golden brown and aromatic. Allow to cool.
To make brown butter, place the half pound butter in a pan over medium heat. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape the seeds into the butter, and add the pod halves. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. The butter will initially foam up and then subside and the milk solids will start to caramelize on the bottom of the pan. Pay close attention at this stage to ensure that the butter does not burn. It is a good idea to use a wooden spoon to scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last few minutes to ensure even browning. Allow butter to cool to room temperature (if short on time, transfer to a bowl to speed up cooling). Remove and discard vanilla pod.
In a food processor, combine the cooled hazelnuts with the powdered sugar and grind finely. Add the flour and pulse once or twice to blend. Transfer these dry ingredients to a bowl.
[Feb. 6: Before proceeding with this part of the recipe, I again recommend checking out Shuna's expert hints and tips!] In the bowl of a standing mixer with the whisk attachment (if you do not have one, use a regular bowl and electric beaters), combine the egg whites and sugar. Mix on high speed speed until the egg whites form very stiff peaks, meaning the peaks will hold when you turn the whisk upside down. Be careful not to over whip the whites, however. Transfer the whites to a large bowl. Once the whites are whipped, you have to work quickly.
Using a wide rubber spatula, alternate folding the dry ingredients and the brown butter into the egg whites, about a third at a time. Use as light a touch as possible to avoid deflating your egg whites too much. Make sure to get all the browned bits of butter at the bottom of the pan as well.
Pour this batter into the cake pan and place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour. Test with a wooden skewer after about 50 minutes. When no moist bits stick to the skewer, remove cake from oven and place on a cooling rack for half an hour. Run a knife around the edge of the cake pan (will not be necessary if using a non-stick cake pan). Invert cake onto a plate, then peel off parchment paper and turn cake back over onto a pretty serving plate.
Dust cake with extra powdered sugar and serve. Chef Goin suggests serving the cake with unsweetened whipped cream and pears caramelized in butter. Recipes for the pears are in her spectacular book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, which I highly recommend.
Next time you find yourself in Los Angeles, I also heartily recommend visiting her restaurants, Lucques and AOC, which I believe are the best restaurants in the area. Click here to read about my rapturous experience dining at AOC last October.