Pear, hazelnut & chocolate cakes (GF)

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It has been a long year since I last posted on Pippa Bakes – sincere apologies to my avid followers, all two of you. Complaints on a postcard to my old landlord, because my last London rental came with the baker’s worst nightmare: a terrible, terrible oven. It was gas, the temperature varied by ten degrees from corner to corner and it took an hour to even vaguely reach temperature. Thankfully, I have now left that flat and it’s Terrible Oven for pastures new and considerably better equipped.

I have spent the past blog-less year writing a list of flavour combinations, and this one appeared twice, so it won by default. Individual cakes have such an elegance and delicacy; I like to think these wouldn’t look out of place in an Ottolenghi deli window. Here, the sponges are gluten-free (chocolate and hazelnut), baked with pieces of pear, and topped with hazelnut chocolate Italian meringue buttercream – a light foil to the slightly dense, rich sponge – and decorated with praline and pear crisps. This recipe has lots of steps, but not many ingredients, which is just the way I like it. Techniques such as making caramel, meringue buttercream and forming quenelles may sound intimidating, but I promise they are far simpler than they seem (and incur far fewer disasters in real life than on Bake Off).

A note on equipment: you will need a sugar thermometer, a standalone mixer, a food processor and a 12-hole dessert pan, mini-sandwich or cakelette tin – they’re often called different things but are all the same thing. I use this Lakeland 12 Hole Loose-Bottomed Mini Sandwich Tin. A friand tin would also do, though give a slightly different shape, or alternatively, skip the tin-buttering skip and make them in a muffin tin in cake cases.

For the sponge
160g blanched hazelnuts
2 ripe conference pears
160g butter, plus extra for greasing
160g dark chocolate
6 eggs, separated
160g caster sugar

For the praline, praline dust and chocolate praline paste
140g blanched  hazelnuts
200g caster sugar
60g dark chocolate

For the Italian meringue buttercream
40ml water
150g caster sugar
1 teaspoon golden syrup
1 egg white
200g unsalted butter, cubed
2 tablespoons chocolate praline paste (see above)

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Method
Grease the cake tin with butter. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan and place both lots of hazelnuts (300g total) on a baking tray. Toast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, removing when they are golden. Reduce the oven temperature to 160°C fan. Transfer 160g to a food processor and blitz until you have a fine flour. Be careful not to over-process, as the oils in the nuts will eventually produce a paste. Roughly chop the remaining 140g of hazelnuts and set aside.

Slice the pears in half width-ways, separating them into the narrow tops and bulbous bottoms. Set the tops aside. Peel and core the bottoms, then roughly chop into 2-3cm pieces. Set aside.

Melt the butter and chocolate over a bain-marie or in the microwave. Set aside to cool. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until creamy and light. Add the butter-chocolate mixture and the ground hazelnuts and fold to combine.

In the bowl of a standalone mixer, whisk the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Stir a tablespoon of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to loosen it, then add the chocolate mixture to the egg whites in two lots, folding carefully together to combine while retaining as much air as possible.

Spoon the mixture into the cake tin until each recess is two-thirds full, then press three pieces of chopped pear into the top of each. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until risen and a cocktail stick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the tin and leave to cool.

While the cakes are baking, make the brittle. Ready a sheet of baking paper. Place the caster sugar in a thick-bottomed pan and heat over a low heat. Swirl the pan as the sugar melts to incorporate it all, but don’t stir. Once all the sugar has dissolved, continue to heat until it turns a dark copper colour, then stir in the toasted, skinned hazelnuts (140g). Working quickly, pour the mixture on to the baking paper and leave to cool.

Once the brittle has hardened, snap off 12 shards from around the edge to decorate the cakes and set aside. Roughly break the rest into a food processor and blitz until you have a fine dust. Remove a tablespoon for decoration, then continue to blitz until the oils come out of the nuts and a paste begins to form. To make the chocolate hazelnut paste, add the melted chocolate and blitz again until combined and as smooth as possible (it will still have some crunch).

Having removed the cakes from the oven, reduce the temperature to 120°C fan. Line the baking tray you used to roast the nuts with the sheet of baking paper from the brittle. Slice the pear tops you set aside earlier into thin (2mm) rounds; no need to peel. Space them out on the tray and bake for an hour, turning halfway through. Turn off the oven and remove the pear rounds to crisp up further as they cool.

Finally, make the Italian meringue buttercream. Put the water, sugar and golden syrup in a nonstick pan and fit with a sugar thermometer. Gently heat to make a syrup, stopping when it reaches 240°F. Meanwhile, whisk the egg white in the bowl of a standalone mixer until it holds soft peaks.

Remove the syrup from the heat and, with the whisk still going, pour into the beaten egg white in a slow, steady stream. Once it’s all in, leave the mixer going until the mixture is at room temperature – you can test it by feeling the sides of the bowl – and you have a smooth, glossy meringue. It may take 5-10 minutes.

Next, still whisking, add the butter a few cubes at a time. It may look like it is curdling, but carry on beating – I promise it will come back together! Finally, add two tablespoons of the chocolate praline paste (or more to taste) and beat to combine. You are now ready to assemble.

Form a quenelle of buttercream (pass a tablespoon of the buttercream back and forth between two identical spoons until it forms a smooth, even oval, slightly pointed at each end, as demonstrated here) and place it off-centre on each cake. Sprinkle a little praline dust over the top, then add a praline shard and a couple of pear crisps, as pictured.

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