Hazelnut and Espresso cake for a Birthday
It’s the first time in twenty years that I get to celebrate my birthday at home. Home is a funny concept for me at the moment. It no longer means the home that I have known for the past seven years in Italy, or the one I’m going to make in a new city on the other side of the world. At the moment in this homeless state, “home” is actually a house I have never lived in, the house that my parents bought when I left the nest for good to yet another faraway country. Yet the simple fact that family is here is enough to make it feel like home.
While all this is being pondered and moving countries is taking over with many sad goodbyes, I barely have time to reflect on the fact that it’s my birthday and that yet another year has passed. Thirty one. With my good friends freshly far flung across the other side of the globe, it feels like it should be the kind of birthday to celebrate simply: a catch up with family, nostalgia and time at “home.”
I have the perfect cake for the occasion. Humble and unassuming but utterly delicious and even indulgent. It’s the kind of cake that grandmothers make specially for their grandchildren, a very traditional cake of the Langhe area of Piemonte, made dense with local hazelnuts. The Langhe is food and wine lover’s heaven with a landscape that reminds me a little of Tuscany, but more condensed and with a stunning backdrop of the Alps. On our last visit there we celebrated a friend’s birthday in a trattoria in Grinzane Cavour called Nonna Genia, named after the cookbook that Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini describes as “the most complete and exhaustive cookbook of the cuisine of the Langhe.”
I bought the book immediately. As wonderful as a historical account as it is for its genuine dishes that record the home-cooked cuisine of the area, it is a collection of the recipes of a bygone era dedicated to the writer’s (Luciano de Giacomi) grandmother, Eugenia. First published in 1982, it is a book that keeps alive the country recipes of grandmothers that are normally passed on only by keen granddaughters or daughters who have watched and listened and learned, a ritual that is all too quickly disappearing.
Nonna Genia’s hazelnut cake is a classic. It’s been adapted here with the addition of espresso and rum. This moist cake is perfect to eat on its own, but it can be served with a drizzle of honey or a sauce of melted chocolate and cream. I made a quick and simple icing with a cup of icing sugar and a tablespoon of espresso, but next time I think I’ll do something creamy like a crema di nocciole – a typical cake cream of the area, it’s basically a crème anglaise or a pastry cream combined with hazelnuts ground into a paste.
Torta alle nocciole
- 200 grams of shelled hazelnuts, toasted
150 grams of flour
- 3 eggs
- 200 grams of sugar
- 125 grams of butter
- 125 ml of strong coffee
- 125 ml of whole milk
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of rum or marsala (optional)
- 1 ½ tablespoons of baking powder
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Pulverise the toasted hazelnuts until very fine. Combine with the flour and baking powder.
In a food processor or with beaters, beat the butter and sugar together until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one by one until well combined. Incorporate with the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the milk, coffee, olive oil and rum and mix until just combined.
Pour into a greased and floured cake tin (10 inch or 26cm diameter) with a removable bottom. Bake for about 35 minutes or until golden brown and springy. Allow to cool and serve as desired.