Some of my obsession with storage jars is simply a need for order and calm in the kitchen. (Life is too short to waste any of it looking for something in a cupboard.) But most of it is about common sense and saving money. Keeping lentils and haricot beans in a jar is more about tidiness than anything else, but some ingredients really spoil if they are left in opened cellophane packets. Nuts – especially walnuts, hazelnuts and those expensive little macadamias – become rancid all too quickly. Shelled nuts hate the light, especially strong sunlight, and they cost far too much to waste. One answer is to buy them in their shells, but seriously, who wants to shell a whole load of hazelnuts every time they want to make a cake? Not this cook, that's for sure.
If you have a food processor it is worth grinding your own nuts. The ready-ground ones are an easy option, but you need to check the sell-by date and use them quickly once opened. Ground nuts dry out rapidly. This week I have been using my squirrel store of hazelnuts for little cakes so light that they almost floated away, and a more robust nut slice, freckled with crushed praline.
Over the years I have used all sorts of nuts in chocolate cakes, but nothing quite beats the marriage of dark chocolate and hazelnuts and almonds. Take a couple of minutes out to toast them and they are even better, by which I mean nuttier. The flavour of any nut deepens with toasting. It only takes a couple of minutes, but it's worth it. Always toast before you grind otherwise you will dry the nuts out.
Better still is to coat hazels or almonds in caramel to make praline. It isn't difficult but needs a watchful eye. The easiest way to make a decent praline it to leave the sugar and nuts to cook together for a few minutes over a low to moderate heat. The sugar will gradually melt and go through a series of colours from palest amber to deep mahogany.
Caramel and chocolate are ingredients that seem to bring out the flavour of any nut, which is why this week I used them together in a bit of easy but very special baking.
Blackberry and hazelnut friands
Moist, nutty little cakes.
Makes 8-12butter 180g plain flour 50gicing sugar 180gground hazelnuts 100glemon zest 1 tspegg whites 5blackberries 60g
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 5. Lightly butter 12 shallow bun tins.
Put the butter in a small pan and melt over a moderate heat then watch it carefully until it becomes a dark, nutty gold. Take great care not to let it burn. Leave it to cool a little.
Sieve the flour and sugar into a large mixing bowl then add most of the ground nuts. Grate in the lemon zest.
Beat the egg whites to a soft, rather moist, sloppy foam – they shouldn't be able to stand up.
Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients then pour in the egg whites together with the melted butter. Mix lightly but thoroughly, then pour into the buttered tins. Roughly chop the blackberries and drop into the tins. Scatter the remaining hazelnuts over the top.
Bake for 10-15 minutes, remove from the oven, then leave to settle before carefully removing from the tins with a palette knife.
Chocolate hazelnut slice
A deliciously addictive chocolate slice, crunchy with praline and frosted with a layer of hazelnut buttercream. I used a standard commercial hazelnut spread for this. There are more upscale versions available, but I am not sure you really need to spend that sort of money in this instance.
For the praline:skinned hazelnuts 250gcaster sugar 6 tbspdark chocolate 200g, about 80% cocoa butter butter 100gcaster sugar 90geggs 2self-raising flour 120gcocoa powder 2 tbsp
For the hazelnut cream:butter 150gicing sugar 150gsoured cream or double cream 2 tbspNutella or similar hazelnut chocolate spread 200g
Set the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Line an 18cm square cake tin with paper on the base and up the sides. Lightly oil a baking sheet.
Make the praline by putting the skinned hazelnuts into a nonstick frying pan and toasting over a moderate heat until deep gold. Add the sugar and, watching carefully, allow the sugar to melt without stirring. Shake the pan occasionally, or mix the nuts and melting sugar lightly with a spoon, but take care not to stir too much. As soon as the caramel is dark honey in colour, tip the mixture on to a lightly oiled tray. Once it is cool, blitz half to coarse crumbs in a food processor and reserve the other half.
Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Add the butter in small lumps and leave to melt without stirring. Gently stir in the sugar and the crushed praline, followed by the lightly beaten eggs. Take care not to overmix, then fold in the flour and cocoa powder. The mixture will thicken and appear a little grainy. Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, and smooth lightly. Bake for about 35-45 minutes until the cake is lightly firm at the edges and still quite soft in the centre. Remove and leave to cool in the tin. Don't attempt to take it out of the tin before it's cold.
To make the frosting, put the butter into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until soft and pale, add the icing sugar and mix until you have smooth buttercream. Mix in the cream or soured cream then add the Nutella and continue beating until smooth – a matter of seconds. Spread the frosting on to the cake. Cut the cake into nine equal squares then top each one with a piece of the reserved praline.
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