Before I grind hazelnuts for a cake or a batch of butterscotch-coloured cookies I toast them. Ten minutes in a black iron pan over a moderate flame teases out their flavour and turns their pale skin a deep, burnished brown. The flavour is richer and deeper than a raw, naked nut.
All of the jars of nuts come out at this time of year: almonds for madeleines, walnuts for red leaf salads with shavings of pecorino or lumps of farmhouse Cheshire. I keep brazil nuts for dipping into dark chocolate. It’s an autumn thing, and I like to think the crunch of toasted nuts is rather like the crackle of walking through dried autumn leaves.
I made a cake this week with both ground and chopped hazelnuts. The sugar was light muscovado that added a butterscotch note. Instead of a buttercream filling or a mop-cap of icing I gave it to everyone with a bowl of coffee-scented mascarpone cream.
There were crisp leaves on the table, too, tossed with a mustard dressing and apples warm from the frying pan. Walnuts were toasted and scattered through the long “bunny-ear” leaves of red treviso. The leaves could have been ruby-veined radicchio, oak-leaf lettuce or curly wisps of frisée. I could have used a nut oil – walnut for preference – but such things are expensive and the intensity has a tendency to dominate.
Nuts will burn in a heartbeat. I start them on a low heat, increasing to a moderate flame as I run out of patience. Full of oil, they will burn and turn bitter if you get distracted. I find the slower I toast them – eyes firmly on the pan – the better their flavour. The regular shaking of the pan will give your nuts an even colour. This is not the moment for multi-tasking.
Hazelnut muscovado cake with coffee cream
The cake will keep for several days in foil in an air-tight tin. The cream can be kept overnight too if covered and refrigerated. The success of the coffee cream depends on getting the whipping of the cream right. Don’t over-whip: the cream should sit in soft folds rather stand in stiff peaks.
light muscovado sugar 125g, plus extra
golden caster sugar 125g
shelled hazelnuts 200g
self-raising flour 65g
For the coffee cream:
double cream 150ml
icing sugar 50g
cold espresso coffee 1 tbsp
You will need a deep, 20cm cake tin with a loose bottom.
Cut the butter into small pieces and beat together with the sugars until light and fluffy. Even using a food mixer this will take a good 5 minutes. You want a smooth mixture, the colour of latte.
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3 and line the base of the cake tin with baking parchment. Tip the nuts into a dry, shallow pan and toast over a moderate heat till the skins start to flake. Tip them into a clean tea towel and rub vigorously until the skins have flaked off. They are unlikely to be completely free of skins, nor do they need to be. Wipe the pan then place over a moderate heat, return the nuts to the pan and let them toast, moving them round from time to time.
Tip half the nuts into a food processor and process to fine crumbs – the same texture as ground almonds, then set aside. Add the remaining nuts and grind them rather less so, to retain a certain knubbly quality, like gravel.
Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork, then introduce them a little at a time to the creamed butter and sugar, beating thoroughly between each addition. Tip in both lots of hazelnuts and mix lightly.
Gently add the flour to the creamed mixture, incorporating it thoroughly but carefully, then scrape into the lined cake tin using a rubber spatula. Smooth the top gently so it doesn’t form a peak during cooking. Bake for 45-50 minutes, covering the surface lightly with foil for the last 10. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra muscovado then leave for 15 minutes to settle before removing from the tin and leaving to cool on a wire rack.
For the coffee cream, whip the cream until just thick enough to keep its shape. Stir in the mascarpone, taking care not to overmix, then stir in the espresso coffee. Cover and chill in the fridge till needed.
Salad of warm apples and pecorino
red treviso or chicory 200g
russet apples 400g (about 4)
groundnut oil 1 tbsp
walnut halves 50g, toasted
pecorino 70g, shaved
For the dressing:
dijon mustard 1 tsp
grain mustard 1 tsp
red wine vinegar 1 tbsp
olive oil 3 tbsp
Put a couple of handfuls of ice cubes in a large bowl, half-fill it with cold water. Cut the roots off the heads of chicory and separate the leaves, leaving them in the water for 30 minutes or so to crisp up.
Thickly slice and core the apples – I wouldn’t peel them. In a shallow pan over a moderate heat, melt the butter then add the oil. Fry the apples for 4 or 5 minutes on each side, until golden and starting to soften. They should hold their shape.
Make the dressing: put the mustard in a small bowl, add a pinch of sea salt, stir in the vinegar and then, using a fork or very small whisk, beat in the olive oil.
Remove the leaves from the water, dry them then put them in a large mixing bowl. Add the walnuts and pecorino, pour over the dressing and toss it all together.
Put the salad on a serving dish. Scatter the warm apples over, and serve.
Follow Nigel on Twitter @NigelSlater