The exam is done, and the I-don’t-have-to-get-up-today-if-I-don’t-want-to feeling has set in overwhelmingly. Yesterday I was in one of those baking moods where nothing is too much trouble, and you seem to derive endless contentment from the hours spent dawdling over each task. This unusual patience, and the temporarily sleepy pace of my weekdays, served me well, as I’d decided to delve into Mary’s chapter on ‘Special Cakes’ and miraculously had all the ingredients in-house to make…. Nusskuchen! Its a German cake, as its name suggests, that originated around the 18th century and roughly translates as ‘nut-cake’. It is always made with hazelnuts but there are, as with most old recipes, many varieties; this one includes a reallllllllly good citrus-zesty apple filling (if you’ve read my blog before you’ve probably heard that I love citrus/sharp/sour flavours more than anything!). It isn’t complicated to bake at all really, but as I said more time and patience than usual might be beneficial!
If it looks like a very squat cake in the picture, it is – the mixture didn’t rise very well, which I’d kind of anticipated before I put it into the oven. I don’t think I whipped the egg whites enough, and possibly over-mixed the batter without incorporating enough air. However, it still tasted pretty good! You might also note that there is no sign of the apple filling; with such a small cake I thought it would be daft to attempt to slice it in two and fill it, so instead I warmed some of the filling and served it with the cake as a nice little accompaniment. Both the cake and the apple compote-type thing also go very well with Greek yoghurt.
I hope you’re not thinking, ‘oh man so many things went wrong here and it looks so faffy and I can’t really be bothered to try it’, but just in case you are, let me tell you how good this cake smells in every stage of its making. I know, that sounds weird, and no matter how nice the thing you’re describing, the word ‘smells’ always sounds a bit pongy. BUT, these are good smells – aromas – that permeate the kitchen in a supremely comforting and happiness-inducing manner, especially when snow is falling thickly outside, as it was in Sheffield yesterday (sadly only for a couple of hours – now it’s chucking it down with rain).
Firstly, when you blast the hazelnuts in the oven, then chop them down finely, it releases all the amazing oils inside and produces the most incredible toasty scent. This, combined with the satisfaction of methodically crunching through the nuts with a mezzanine (see picture below) made me inexplicably content. I know, I know, get over yourself. But THEN you zest the lemon (and honestly, if you could have a perfume of that smell now I would definitely wear it, like the Romans did) and make the apple filling and it just gets better. The icing on the cake is literally, the icing on the cake – the chocolate topping obviously smells amazing, because its chocolate.
So, you’re convinced, lovely; here is the recipe as I know you just can’t wait any longer to treat your olfactory glands to those delicious aromas – they deserve it:
- 40g shelled hazelnuts
- 100g softened butter or spread
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs, separated – you’ll need the yolks AND the whites so don’t chuck ’em
- 1 tsp instant coffee granules
- 1 tbsp warm milk
- 100 g self-raising flour
- 450g eating apples (I used 4 coxes)
- 1 tbsp apricot jam
- grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
- 50g dark chocolate
Step 1. Pre-heat the oven to 190C/Gas Mark 5. Grease and line a 20cm round cake tin (a deep one, not a sandwich tin, though if that’s all you have I’m sure you could bake the mixture in two halves seeing as it’s supposed to be cut in two for filling anyway).
Step 2. Put the hazelnuts, just as they are, on a baking tray into the oven for about ten minutes. When they come out you should be able to rub the skins off by rolling them together in a clean tea towel. Don’t worry about getting every last bit of skin off. Then either grind the prepared nuts in a food processor, or chop them with a mezzanine. I quite liked the extra texture slightly bigger chunks of hazelnut gave the cake.
Step 3. Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the egg yolks, beating away, then stir in the nuts. Warm the milk (in a mug in the microwave is easiest) and dissolve the coffee granules in it, then stir into the mixture.
Step 4. This is where all the lovely fluffy air gets in. Hopefully. Fold in the flour gently with a metal spoon (thinner edges cut through the mixture better) and when incorporated, beat the egg whites to soft peaks (separately, obviously – and the bowl has to be clean and dry or they won’t whip) then fold them in as well.
Step 5. Turn the mixture carefully into the cake tin or tins. Bake for 25 minutes, until the top is springy when lightly pressed and the cake has only just started to shrink away from the sides of the tin. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out, remove the baking paper from the bottom and finish cooling on a wire rack.
Step 6. In the cooling window, you can make the filling and topping. Grate the rind and squeeze the juice of the lemon half into a pan, then stir in your jam. Peel, core and slice the apples (quite thinly; 3 or 4 slices to a quarter) and give them a little shake up in the pan so they’re covered with the liquid. Cover and cook very gently until the apples are soft but not mushy – they should still retain their shape. This took about 20 minutes for me.
Step 7. When the filling and cake are cool, slice the nusskuchen in two and sandwich it back together with the apple filling. Or pretend you meant to serve it as a side all along because your cake didn’t rise, like I did…
Step 8. Melt the chocolate gently, in the microwave (watch it like a hawk or it can burn so quickly) or on the hob over a bowl of simmering water. Spread over the top of the cake and leave to set.
And that’s it! You have your nusskuchen, guaranteed to impress, especially if you practice it to get that rise! If you are prone to the same baking moods as me and have time to spare, or you really are out to impress people, there is an Optional Decoration.
You need a small amount of caster sugar (probably less than 100g, depends on how many you want to make), a pan and some hazelnuts. I had seen caramelized nuts used as decoration for cakes on The Great British Bake Off before, couldn’t quite remember how they did it, but went with the impulse anyway and had a surprisingly successful go at making them!
First prepare your hazelnuts in the same way as Step 2 says above. Once toasted and skinned, pour some sugar into the pan and set on a low heat. I do know that you shouldn’t stir caramel or sugar syrup, so resist the temptation and give the pan a little shake if it needs it to melt the sugar. Once the sugar is melting, do not take your eyes off it! It can burn in a flash (and I’m speaking from numerous experiences here). When it reaches a nice light golden brown colour, turn off the heat and drop in the hazelnuts. Don’t touch the sugar, its super hot and sticks to your fingers, but roll the nuts around until covered, then lift out with a spoon, or whatever utensil works best, and place onto baking paper to set. You will need to work quite fast as it starts setting immediately! The (badly) spun sugar on top of my cake was me getting the knife and spoon stuck together and trying to pull them apart, unwittingly creating quite pretty threads of sugar, which went everywhere and had to be gently wrestled (there’s an oxymoron for you) into an artistic arrangement for photographing purposes.
So, I already mentioned the issue of getting a good rise; basically, I think you have to be quite gentle with your mixture but persistent in whipping the egg whites up. The size of the ground/chopped nuts probably makes a difference as well; Mary’s recipe doesn’t specify how fine they need to be but I imagine the finer they are, the lighter the cake. Also, I (typically) didn’t have one of the ingredients, so substituted it with some artistic license; orange marmalade instead of apricot jam with the apples actually added to the citrus kick already coming from the lemon, which I liked – apricot jam would be sweeter but in terms of consistency I don’t think it made a difference. For the chocolate topping, the only dark chocolate I had was 70% cocoa solids, which is very bitter, so I went half and half milk and dark chocolate – 25g each. As a general tip, Mary Berry recommends chocolate which contains around 39% cocoa solids for use in baking. Glad someone else has done the trial and error so I don’t have to!
Source: Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, p. 153
Enjoy your weekends, and if the weather is as poor as it is here it must be begging you to stay indoors and bake up a treat or two.
P.S. I have added a page with links to blogs I love; some I have just discovered and some I’ve been reading for a while. If you know any more you think I’d like, feel free to recommend in the comments, and check out the ones I’ve listed; they’re all worth a browse!