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.


  1. Sumie says:

    Happy Birthday! The cake was amazing!!

  2. Happy Birthday. Your posts and photography are so tranquil – it’s an amazing quality to capture.

  3. Rosa says:

    Happy Birthday! That cake looks so good.



  4. Happy birthday! That cake reminds me of the one I had just this past weekend up near Como – nutty and delicious!

  5. so happy birthday my dear friend! we had the chance to share this cake in one of the most amazing and fun day of my life, with a roaring fireplace and 40°C outside… the hard life of food stylists and food photographers, eheheh!
    I will remember that day forever, just like I will remember the rich and indulgent flavour of this humble cake!
    Buon compleanno, e buona nuova vita! x

  6. Regula says:

    Another beautiful post!
    I wish you the very best for the new chapter of your life!
    Happy Birthday!
    Tuscany missed you this weekend

  7. BrowsingRome says:

    Happy Birthday! The cake looks delicious and simply enough to make. I have been complaining to my husband that I haven’t had cake yet for my birthday (a week ago) and am seriously thinking about making this one 🙂 I love cakes which use nuts and while I usually make torta caprese (with almonds), this would be an interesting recipe to try out. Thanks 🙂

  8. Happy Birthday Emiko! What a lovely cake. I’m very curious about the crema di nocciole, I’ll have to try that out.

    • Emiko says:

      Thank you Emma! I think you’d love the crema di nocciole, I’m sure you could find something gorgeous to do with it, it’s traditionally used as a cake filler or icing but I think the possibilities are endless!

      • Emiko says:

        oh, I better give you the proportions! 100 grams of whole hazelnuts, ground into a paste, is added to a cream made of 500 ml of milk, 4 yolks, 100 gr sugar and 30 gr flour. Some recipes also have a shot of cognac, lemon rind or vanilla.

        • Katrina says:

          Hello Emiko,
          I’m making this beautiful cake today for family. I am not familiar with the cream di nocciole. Would I be able to make this ahead of time and chill it all?

          • Emiko Davies says:

            Crema di nocciole is basically a custard flavoured with ground hazlenuts, something I came across while in Piemonte! This can definitely be made ahead of time, in fact, it does very nicely (many cakes do) when frozen and then thawed in the fridge just before you need to use it. Once perfectly cool, double wrap the un-iced cake in plastic wrap and freeze. You can even do this overnight, or for longer.

  9. Zita says:

    Happy birthday Emiko! This cake looks very yummie! I will bake it!

  10. What a wonderful way to celebrate your birthday! I adore hazelnuts in any form, and this cake looks like the perfect showcase for their beautiful delicate flavours. Gorgeous post 🙂

  11. HI Emiko, lucky you and a life in Italy.. So wonderful to have found your delicious blog. Now I can’t complain about nothing interesting to cook.. Carla

  12. Happy Birthday Emiko! Auguri!! And, what a beautiful cake to celebrate.

  13. Valeria says:

    Home is a strange concept, you are right. I was born in Veneto and yet, Langhe has been my home for more than one year now, and nothing feels more “home” than this place. You are right, it is like food and wine lovers’ heaven, it really is. I am so in love with this place, it’s traditions and humble, genuine people, its good, simple and yet astonishing food. Thank you for sharing this recipe and the story behind. Stories of langhe people, like many others, are with telling and writing about. So much knowledge and wisdom would be lost otherwise. I am glad that this was your birthday cake, I couldn’t imagine nything more satisfying. Home is where your heart is. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you back in Langhe soon.

    • Emiko says:

      I certainly hope to go back to the Langhe soon – there is so much more to explore there. That means hopefully we’ll cross paths again soon! 😉

  14. Vaniglia says:

    Tanti auguri Emiko…
    Scusa, un po’ in ritardo.
    Un abbraccio forte e caldo, come una casa, ovunque essa sia… 🙂

  15. Michelle McAlister says:

    I’m going to make this. It looks beautiful! I spent a year in Italy and always try to cook as they do. I’ll be following all your veg recipes. Thanks for the beautiful, alluring photography, too. It really inspires me to create masterpieces! Grazie!

  16. Simona says:

    Hello Emiko! I just discovered your blog and I’m browsing through your post made of amazing recipes and pictures! You are “bravissima”!! I love this cake and I’m wondering how you made that icing on the top of the cake? Thanks!

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Simona, thanks for your comment! Just above the start of the recipe I described the icing I made (a cup of icing/confectioner’s sugar and a tablespoon of espresso) as well as some other alternatives. It’s also wonderful on its own without any icing, for something simpler.

      • Simona says:

        Hi Emiko! Thank you for your answer! I did the cake this weekend for a picnic (without any icing) and it had a great success, it was delicious! I’ll certainly do it again and try with the icing… Grazie!

  17. Ieva says:

    It was absolutely euphoric and splendid! I did make it for my birthday as well and everyone was ‘yumming’ out loud how good it was! (p.s. I used nocciola di piedmonte)
    thank you for this amazing recipe!

  18. Derek says:

    Hi Emiko
    This sounds like my perfect cake. Before I make it I just want to check that 1 1/2 tablespoons of baking powder is correct? Sounds an awful lot.


    • Emiko Davies says:

      The original recipe calls for that amount but Italian “lievito” for baking and regular baking powder is a bit different, I think you could make it teaspoons and not have any problems!

  19. Carly says:

    What can I use to pulverize the nocciole if I don’t have a food processor?

  20. Ansley says:

    This cake is delicious — I love the combination of hazelnuts, coffee and rum. So good! I absolutely love your stories, recipes and photos.

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