When I first started as a pastry chef, I was handed a recipe for a chocolate-hazelnut torte and told to fix it. Not just make it, but make it special. I think I succeeded, and apparently so did the judges at the very first Taste of Ashland (Oregon), who awarded this torte a first for flavor.
The key to the depth of flavor in this torte is to make pralin, which is nothing more than praline ground fine. Praline, for the purposes of this recipe, is made by adding toasted, skinned hazelnuts to caramelized sugar.
80 grams hazelnuts
150 grams granulated sugar (divided)
4 large eggs (divided)
30 grams all-purpose flour
170 grams bittersweet chocolate
170 grams unsalted butter
1 teaspoon Mexican vanilla
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
Start by toasting and skinning the hazelnuts. Spread hazelnuts on a sheet pan and put into a preheated 350°F oven for about fifteen minutes, until the nuts are fragrant and the skins are beginning to peel. Remove from the oven and put the nuts onto a clean side towel. Wrap the nuts in the towel and let cool for about 10 minutes, then rub the nuts together inside the towel to remove the skins. Carefully open the towel (the skins will get all over the kitchen if you aren't careful) and remove the nuts that have been completely skinned, then continue rubbing and removing until you're bored with the whole process and call it good. The skins are bitter, so it's important to remove most of them, but unless you want perfection, it isn't necessary to get them all.
Next, you'll make hazelnut praline. You'll need a sheet pan ready for the candy. Either lightly oil it or set a Silpat on it. Put 100 grams of the sugar into a pan with an equal amount of water. Set a pastry brush in a glass of hot water by the pan, then bring the sugar to a boil. Be careful, this stuff will get really hot and will stick to skin. If any sugar crystals begin to form on the side of the pan, brush them down with a wet pastry brush. Cook the sugar until it begins to turn color. At that point things start to change every second, so be prepared. What you'll want to do is add the nuts (carefully avoiding splashes), stir, and pour into the sheet pan. The color you want is a rich amber, about the color of the amber with the mosquito in it in the movie Jurassic Park. The moment you see the color you want, remove the pan from the heat, add the nuts, stir, and pour.
Once the praline has cooled enough to handle, break it into small pieces. Once again, be careful, because if you've done it right the praline can have edges nearly as sharp as glass. Put the praline pieces into the work bowl of a food processor along with the flour and optional salt, then pulse until the praline is reasonably small. Then process until you have a nice powder. A few larger bits of praline will be just fine, adding to the flavor and texture of the finished torte.
Remove your eggs from the refrigerator, separate them, and let them come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare your pan(s). You can use an 8" springform, or a removable-bottom 8" cake pan. If you don't mind a thinner finished torte, 9" pans will work fine. I used four 4" springforms. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment, and coat then entire inside surface with butter and flour, or use a baking spray like I do. Now is also a fine time to preheat the oven to 375°F.
Put the chocolate and butter into a bowl over, but not in, lightly simmering water. While it's melting, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining 50 grams of sugar to the ribbon stage (pale yellow, slightly thickened, falls from the whisk in ribbons). Once the chocolate and butter are completely melted, stir to combine them, add the vanilla, then fold into the yolk and sugar mixture. Fold the pralin and flour into the mix. Almost done, just one or two more steps.
Whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Mix a scant third of the whites into the batter to loosen it, then gently fold in the remaining whites, being careful not to deflate them. You may have noticed that there is no baking powder or other leavening in this recipe, just the egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s).
Baking time, as always, depends on all sorts of things. And as always, I set my timer to go off at about the halfway point so I can rotate the pans. For the 4" pans I used, baking time was about 25 minutes. Larger pans will take 35-40 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center and pull it out. If there are crumbs, the torte is done.
Expect deflation. In the three minutes it took me to set up the camera for an out-of-the-oven shot, the tortes deflated from near the top of the rim to the point you see. As they continue to cool in the pans, they'll continue to deflate in the center, leaving a cracked, slightly sunken top. That's exactly what you're looking for.
After they've cooled, remove them from the pan(s), wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least overnight to let the flavor develop. This torte will hold uncut for at least three days before it starts to dry out. It's also freezer friendly, so making small tortes is a nice way to ensure that you have a special dessert on hand for those impulsive moments.
Chocolate-Hazelnut Torte is best served with Chantilly, which is softly whipped cream that has been infused with vanilla and very lightly sweetened. Those little 4" tortes are good for four servings each--this is a very rich, dense, intensely-flavored torte.
This torte is really easier to make than it may seem. It's a bit more effort than a typical American cake, but well worth it.
Next, it's time to return to bread with a classic Provençal breakfast bread, Gibassier.