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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Loaf cake, three ways: lemon drizzle, chocolate pecan & banana

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The humble loaf cake is an under-appreciated thing. Quick, simple – hello no icing – and not too fragile to transport in foil on the underground (a very real and pressing concern of mine), they’re not going to qualify as a showstopper anytime soon, but they sure do go down well with a cup of tea. It’s all about priorities.

I’ve got three different recipes for you, all of which can be made in a standard 900g loaf tin. The lemon drizzle is one of my most popular cakes and still manages to keep that lovely citrusy tang which is so often lost in baking; I like to finish it with some cornflower or rose petals as the bright colour makes a beautiful contrast to the yellow of the sponge, but it’s just a frivolity really. My chocolate pecan has a hint of coffee in it to help bring out the depth of flavour in the cocoa powder and is lovely and dense (thanks to a much higher flour-to-egg ratio than the lemon); perfect warm with a dollop of sour cream and a cup of something hot. And lastly, the banana bread – not the prettiest of things, it has to be said, but it is one of the few cakes that I think you can justify eating for breakfast, and for that, it’s my favourite. The riper the bananas the stronger the flavour but you don’t have to wait until they’re black if you don’t have some to hand when the craving strikes; just make sure they’re soft enough to mash easily.

Lemon drizzle

150g unsalted softened butter
150g caster sugar
150g self-raising flour
25g cornflour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
3 lemons
150g granulated sugar

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Preheat your oven to 180°C fan and grease and line your loaf tin. Grate the zest of 2 lemons and juice one of them (keeping the spare fruit for later).

Place the sugar, flours and baking powder in a bowl and mix. Add the butter, eggs, and lemon zest and juice and beat together for as short a time as possible to blend evenly together. With an electric beater, it should take no longer than a minute.

Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes, until it is golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Leave it to cool slightly in the tin while you prepare the drizzle. Simply juice the remaining two lemons and mix in the granulated sugar. If you prefer a smoother glaze to the traditional grainy version, give the mixture a few short bursts in the microwave until the sugar dissolves a little.

Pierce the top of your loaf with a knife, roughly every 2cm, stopping just before the bottom of the tin. Pour the drizzle over the top and leave to set in the tin.

Chocolate pecan loaf

200g unsalted softened butter
200g soft light brown sugar
140g plain flour
60g cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon coffee granules (espresso if possible)
1 tablespoon milk
Around 50g pecans, finely chopped (I use a food processor for this)

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Preheat your oven to 180°C fan and grease and line your loaf tin. Dissolve the coffee granules in one tablespoon of boiling water and stir in the milk. Set aside.

Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, weigh out the remaining the dry ingredients.

Add the eggs to the butter and sugar mixture, one at a time, beating between each addition. If the mixture begins to curdle, add a spoonful of the dry ingredients to bring it back together.

Lastly, add the dry ingredients and the coffee and mix until combined. Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and scatter the pecans over the top to cover. Bake for about an hour, until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Banana bread

125g unsalted softened butter
175g light muscovado sugar
280g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs
125ml of milk
3 bananas, mashed

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Preheat your oven to 180°C fan and grease and line your loaf tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, weigh out the remaining the dry ingredients.

Add the eggs to the butter and sugar mixture, one at a time, beating between each addition. If the mixture begins to curdle, add a spoonful of the dry ingredients to bring it back together.

Next, add half the milk, followed by half the remaining dry ingredients and beat together. Repeat. Lastly, mix in the mashed bananas and pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for about one hour, until it is golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. If the top begins to brown too much before the centre is cooked, cover with foil to stop it burning.

For best results, make all three at once at let cake-carnage ensue.

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