Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sometimes you feel like a (hazel)nut

I made something else this weekend, something from the anthology. But I'm afraid I can't really mark it off my list and I'll tell you why: I cheated. I mean really cheated.

In this quest to cook my way through American history, I allow myself certain substitutions. I've been known to use a hand-held electric mixer for a recipe that was written long before the light bulb cast its cheerful glow across millions of kitchens. No salt pork? No problem! Bacon will do. The way I see it is if I can improve upon a vat of homemade ketchup with once-exotic vinegars, why shouldn't I? After all, introducing the sophisticated (and traditional) flavor of fine Italian balsamic to the quintessential hot dog-topper is just a bit of the melting pot in action.

But here's where the buck stops: you just can't make "Old-Fashioned Hickory Nut Cake" without hickory nuts. And the hickory nut, a family of related nuts native to the eastern and central U.S. (as well as parts of Asia), is no longer a staple, long replaced by its more easily domesticated and versatile cousins, the walnut and the pecan (actually a hybrid hickory). The Park Slope Food Co-op carries Himalayan goji berries in at least four forms (dried, juiced, in two types of trail mix, and in my favorite bulk granola) but it doesn't carry American hickory nuts. My man Bobby D was right: the times have a-changed.

Ok, no hickory nuts on hand (I'll have to mail order for next time). But I was feeling a little blue on Saturday and I wanted to whip and fold. Not just anything either. Climate bedamned, my inner clock is tuned to October. I'm wearing autumn scarves with my summer tank tops and I'm baking with nuts, dammit.

I adore hazelnuts in sweets and baked goods-- this is certainly the Austrian blood in me, aided by a semester as an exchange student in the German countryside (my host father was a recently retired baking meister with lots of time to my make my favored treats) and memories of making chocolate-glazed hazelnut cake with the bunny mold that my parents bought in Germany (an Easter tradition I revived this year).

It was a simple substitution, really, just a bit of this-for-that. The recipe was published in The Good Housekeeping Hostess by Hester Price in 1904, around the time some of my great-great(?)-grandparents immigrated from a gorgeous agrarian town near the Austro-Hungarian border to establish a farmstead in central Minnesota. I imagined that they might have brought some hazelnuts from home, and made a cake quite like the one I was making.

In that spirit, I resisted using my brand-new food processor (thanks, Shelley! thanks, Dad!) and banged and crushed the nuts with a rolling pin. I also whipped the egg whites by hand, inspired in part by a Top Chef relay race. I timed myself: cracking, separating, and whipping four egg whites to a stiff fluff took me 6 minutes, 55 seconds. Whew!

The cake turned out beautifully: a cake, perhaps, for people like my dad -- who always requests a birthday pie. Not too sweet. Straightforward flavors. Reasonably light. Very satisfying. Simply good.

Molly O'Neill writes that the recipe "is one of the foolproof bits of Americana, reinterpreted generation after generation." I'd like to think I took part in that tradition -- to delicious result -- but without the original, essential ingredient, I can't know what I'm missing. Hester Price declared, "Of all the nut cakes there is none better than this old-fashioned one." And so, Mr. Whisk, we shall meet again.

Old-Fashioned Hazelnut Cake

The key to success seems to be fresh ingredients and a light touch. The butter and sugar should be creamed -- whisked briskly 'til fluffy and pale golden in color. As you add other ingredients, take care not to over-mix. The result should be airy as a cloud! I served this plain, picnic-style, after apple-picking, but it would really smarten up with a chocolate glaze or even a frosting, if not too cloying and overpowering, and/or a fruit compote or sauce on the side.

1 & 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup "sweet" milk (lacking sweet milk I used simple, organic 4%)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 & 1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp. sifted flour (to sift, place in a bowl and give it a few swirls with a clean wire whisk to remove any clumps)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup hazelnuts, crushed into tiny pieces with a rolling pin or pulsed a few times in a food processor
4 egg whites

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Cream together sugar and butter. Add milk gradually, while blending (gently) with a wooden spoon. Add vanilla.
3. Combine flour and baking powder and gradually add to the wet mixture while mixing.
4. Add 1 tbsp. of flour to hazelnuts to prevent from bits from sticking.
5. Whisk up the egg whites to a "stiff froth" (skipped the gym today? Do it by hand and see if you can beat my admittedly unimpressive time!)
6. Fold in the egg whites: first lighten the batter by mixing in half the whites with a spatula. Then add the other half of the whites with a gentle under-and-over movement, scooping up the bottom of the mixture and lightly setting it down on top, repeating just until specks of the whites are evenly distributed throughout.
7. Pour in a greased large loaf pan or medium Bundt pan or bunny mold.
8. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
9. Allow to cool a few minutes, then remove from pan.


JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I love hazelnuts! This sounds wonderful! I really love your blog, I think it is very unique and wonderful!

Welcome to The Foodie Blogroll!

LunaPierCook said...

Wow, sounds amazing! I can almost taste this cake, still warm, maybe drizzled with a little creamed honey. Great stuff!

Graeme said...

It can't do anything but succeed when the star infredient is Hazelnuts.

I love how vintage your place looks too, even your mixing bowls are cool.

Nora Leah said...

Graeme --

Never thought of my mixing bowls are vintage-y props, but I like that idea. They're not just the stuff my roommates and I have cobbled together, their crucial elements in a a LIFESTYLE. Awesome. Need to hit the 2nd hand shops and get more!