- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

My thoughts always turn to the new crop of nuts and baking as fall approaches. Nut-based cakes and other desserts are perfect for cooler weather. Palates sated with the fruits of summer welcome the moist richness nuts add to foods. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts (filberts) and pistachios all provide flavor and an incomparable texture to baked goods, especially cakes.

Exotic nuts, such as macadamias, cashews, Brazil nuts and pine nuts, are used a little less frequently in baking but often find their way into savory recipes.

Nuts in the shell are great (and healthy) for snacking or nibbling after a meal. Shelled nuts figure more prominently in baking and are available in many forms. Whole, halved, sliced, slivered, granulated (coarsely chopped) and ground (nut flour) are different forms in which you may encounter nuts for sale.

Natural nuts (especially almonds and hazelnuts) have the skin still on the kernel. Blanched nuts are skinless.

Many people don’t realize that the packaged nuts we buy in the supermarket or the loose ones sold in bins in discount and health-food stores are not merely the shelled versions of nuts fresh from the tree. All retail nuts, whether in the shell or out, have been dehydrated. The process helps prevent spoilage during the subsequent year. Good storage techniques help keep nuts fresh.

As good as the flavors of commonly available nuts are, those nuts bear as much resemblance to nuts fresh from the tree as a cornflake does to an ear of sweet corn.

If you ever have the opportunity to taste nuts before they have been dehydrated — sometimes specialty stores near nut-growing areas carry them in season — don’t pass it up. You’ll be in for a treat.

Use the following easy methods to get the most out of the nuts you buy for baking and cooking.

Storage: Always keep nuts in tightly sealed plastic bags in the freezer. Moist refrigerated storage can encourage the growth of mold, and storage at room temperature, especially in today’s overheated houses and apartments, can lead the delicate oils in the nuts to become rancid, contributing a stale, bitter flavor.

Toasting: Many recipes call for toasted nuts. I like to place nuts in a small to medium roasting pan and bake them in a preheated 325-degree oven, stirring often. The deeper pan makes it easy to stir for even coloring. Don’t let the nuts turn too dark: Their oils may burn and cause a bitter flavor to emerge.

Blanching: For some recipes, skinless nutmeats are specified. To remove the skin from almonds or pistachios, place the nuts in a saucepan and cover them with water. Bring to a full, rolling boil over medium heat and drain immediately. Turn the nuts out into a cloth towel and rub them to loosen the skins. Then go over them one by one to separate the kernels from the loosened skins. I usually like to dry out nuts blanched in water in a 325-degree oven for about five minutes and cool them before proceeding with the recipe.

To blanch hazelnuts, toast them as specified above until the skins crack. Test a couple of nuts by rubbing them in the corner of a towel. If the skins flake off easily, they are ready. Rub in a towel as directed for almonds and separate the kernels from the skins. Pecans and walnuts are not usually skinned.

Chopping: The best way to chop nuts is by hand. Using the food processor always results in pulverizing some of the nuts too finely. Use a large cutting board and a long, sharp chopping knife. A neat and easy way to chop hazelnuts, which would roll all over the board if you tried to chop them, is to crush them gently but firmly with the bottom of a saucepan. If you need them more finely chopped, they’ll be easy to finish off with a knife.

Grinding: Many recipes call for nuts to be ground, a technique easily accomplished in the food processor. Just make sure the nutmeats are at room temperature. (Frozen nuts will never grind finely but just become moist little cubes that are too coarse to include in delicate cake batters.) Freshly toasted nuts that are still warm will turn to nut butter almost immediately. Use an on-and-off pulsing action with the food processor to grind nuts finely. Keep a watchful eye on them. Even room-temperature nuts can become pasty if overprocessed.

The recipes that follow make the most of the flavor and texture of nuts. Each keeps well, eliminating last-minute fuss.

Brown butter-hazelnut financier

This traditional French cake was the rage of Paris in the late 19th century, and several pastry shops made their reputations on it. One of the pastry shops famous for it was near the Paris stock exchange, but I always joke that the name derives from the richness of the cake, and that may not be too far from the truth.

1 cup (about 4 ounces) whole hazelnuts, toasted and skinned

1½ cups sugar, divided

1 cup all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

10 tablespoons (11/4 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for cake pan

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup egg whites (from 7 or 8 large eggs)

Pinch of salt

Confectioners’ sugar and whipped cream for garnish

Take one 10-inch round pan, 2 inches deep, butter it and line the bottom with a disc of buttered parchment or waxed paper.

Pulse hazelnuts and 3/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the nuts are finely ground. Pour into a bowl and stir in the flour.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low heat and continue to cook for a minute or so until the butter turns light golden. Remove from heat and let cool, then add the rum and vanilla.

Place egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip the egg whites on medium speed until they are white, opaque and beginning to hold a very soft peak. Increase speed to medium high and add remaining 3/4 cup of sugar in a slow stream, continuing to whip egg whites until they hold a soft, glossy peak.

Remove bowl from mixer and fold in hazelnut mixture with a large rubber spatula. Fold in the butter mixture last. The egg whites may deflate at this point, but the cake will rise well nonetheless.

Scrape batter into prepared pan, then smooth the top. Bake the financier on a rack in the middle level of a preheated 350-degree oven for about 50 minutes, or until it is well-risen and golden. The center should feel firm when pressed with a fingertip.

Run a small knife between the cake and the side of the pan to loosen it. Invert the cake to a rack and remove the pan and paper. Turn the cake right side up on another rack and cool completely.

To serve, dust cake with confectioners’ sugar immediately before serving. A little whipped cream also would go well with the financier.

Keep cake under a cake dome at room temperature or wrap it in plastic. For longer storage, wrap and freeze. Bring cake to room temperature before serving. Makes 12 servings.

Farina gargantag (Armenian almond-farina cake)

This moist almond cake, enriched and flavored with a lemony sugar syrup, is an Armenian specialty. The recipe comes from my dear friend Sandy Leonard, who lives in the Armenian enclave of Watertown, Mass. Try adding ½ teaspoon rose water to the syrup along with the lemon juice for additional flavor.

BATTER:

Butter for preparing pan

5 large eggs

1 cup sugar

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup (about 4 ounces) coarsely chopped almonds, blanched or natural

Grated zest of 1 medium lemon

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups farina or Cream of Wheat

1 tablespoon baking powder

LEMON SYRUP:

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, strained

24 whole blanched almonds for garnish

Butter a 9-by-13-by-2-inch pan and line the bottom with a rectangle of buttered parchment or waxed paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip eggs and sugar on medium-high speed until light, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Remove bowl from mixer. Fold in melted butter, almonds, lemon zest, vanilla and cinnamon, one at a time. Stir in the farina or Cream of Wheat mixed with the baking powder.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on middle rack of preheated 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until cake is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cake in the pan on a rack.

For the syrup, bring 1 cup water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove pan from heat and allow syrup to cool to lukewarm. Stir in the lemon juice.

To finish, cut the cooled cake into strips, then across diagonally into diamonds. Pour warm syrup over the cake. Allow to cool completely.

Top each piece of cake with an almond. To serve, use a narrow offset spatula or cake server to remove pieces of cake from the pan. Drizzle any syrup left in the pan on the pieces of cake when you serve them. Store cake in the pan, covered with plastic wrap at room temperature. Makes about 24 small servings.

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