A friend of mine told me a story about a lasagna that she and her husband had made. It was from Cooks Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen, and she said it was the most time consuming, involved recipe they had ever made. It took hours. Three of them.
Was it delicious? Absolutely. But was it worth all the effort? Eh… that was a harder question to answer for her. Had they served it to guests, I opined, who had no idea how much work the dish had taken, the guests might have been bowled over by how perfect it was. If I work on something for three hours (and nothing goes awry) I expect it to be transcendent.
Which brings us to Chocolate Hazelnut Crepe Cake. From the pages of one of my most cherished cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, this recipe is a titanic list of from-scratch tasks. I was put in charge of making a cake for a bridal shower that Rebecca was helping to plan and host, and I wanted to do something impressive. And that is something that this cake does. It impresses.
First, if you can pull it off, it is a work of art, with glossy chocolate draping, fluffy hazelnut custard, and golden candied hazelnuts. Second, the cake is rich and satisfying without being cloyingly sweet. As a result, you can taste each individual ingredient. Guests oohed and ahhed and moaned and loved it, but when I took my first bite I couldn’t help but think, “Is that all there is?”
I cursed myself silently and immediately because it was very good after all, and everyone else seemed to be audibly enjoying themselves. Why couldn’t I just get in on the love fest?
Because all I could think of was, “…That wasn’t worth it.”
Gah! Curses again! How selfish! This is something I need to work on, I thought. My brain kept going back to all the steps: roast the whole hazelnuts, let them cool, remove as much of their pesky skins as possible, food-process them until mealy but not too much because if you end up with nut butter you have to start over… My brain spun and spun.
Ultimately, I came to this conclusion: Do you express your love through food? If you do, then this cake, with its heaps of steps, mumble cussing at hazelnut skins that won’t detach, nimbly removing individual candied hazelnuts from rapidly hardening caramel, and crepes on crepes on crepes on crepes… is simply a larger expression of your love. Your friends and family can taste the effort you put into it. That’s why they like it so much.
When will I be making it again?
Ask me in a year or so.
Chocolate Hazelnut Crepe Cake
(from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook)
- 9 tbsp unsalted butter (used for both crepes and pastry cream)
- 2 1/3 cups milk
- 6 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tbsp melted butter for cooking crepes
Hazelnut Pastry Cream:
- 1 1/2 cups raw hazelnuts
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 2 tsp hazelnut liqueur (Frangelico)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 1/3 cup whole milk
- 7 tbsp sugar
- 5 large egg yolks
- 5 tbsp cornstarch
- Butter reserved from the crepe batter
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp water
- Pinch of salt
- Hazelnuts reserved from pastry cream above
- 6 oz (about a cup) semisweet chocolate
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp heavy cream
- 1 tbsp hazelnut liqueur (Frangelico)
Make the crepe batter – In a small sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once it’s melted, reduce the heat to medium-low. The butter will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden, and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir the butter frequently, scraping up any delicious bits from the bottom as you do. Don’t take your eyes off the pot: it browns in less than a minute then quickly burns. Remove the butter from the heat once it turns brown and aromatic. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to lukewarm.
In a blender, combine the milk, eggs, flour, salt, granulated sugar, and 6 tbsp of the cooled browned butter (with delicious scrapings). Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to 2 days.
Toast and skin hazelnuts – Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet, and toast them for 12 minutes, rolling them around once or twice so they toast evenly. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn.
Let the hazelnuts cool. Taking a small handful at a time, roll them between your hands to remove the skins. Do this over a baking sheet or something similar so it will catch the husks.
Make the hazelnut pastry cream – In a food processor, grind 1 cup of the toasted hazelnuts (set aside the last 1/3 cup aside for decorating), confectioners sugar, liqueur, and salt together. It will grind to a coarse chop followed by a mealy powder. Keep running the machine until the mixture begins to come together in damp-looking crumbs that combine in small clumps, and then stop. If you keep running the machine, it will turn into hazelnut butter.
In a saucepan, combine the hazelnut paste, milk, and sugar over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring a bit so it doesn’t scorch. In a medium bowl, whisk together the yolks and cornstarch until smooth. Stream a small spoonful of the hot milk into the egg yolk bowl while whisking. Repeat this a few times with additional spoonfuls of the hot milk. By the time you have done five or six additions, you’ll find that the egg yolk bowl is hot; then you have added enough. Now go in reverse, slowly pouring the warm egg yolk mixture back into the hot milk in the saucepan, whisking constantly, until the two are combined. Return the saucepan to the stove and, continuing to whisk, bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 2 minutes; the mixture should thicken upon boiling, to a loose pudding consistency. Remove from the heat, and stir in the reserved 3 tablespoons of browned butter from the crepe better recipe. Transfer it to a bowl, press a piece of plastic against the top of the custard and chill in the fridge until fully chilled.
Make Crepes – Preheat a medium (9 inch) skillet over medium high heat. Once it’s heated, brush pan lightly with melted butter. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet, swirling it until it evenly coats the bottom, and cook, undisturbed, until the bottom is golden, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip (look for the driest-looking and darkest edge, lift it gently with a spatula so that it gets a second to cool and use your fingers to help flip it over) and allow to cook for another 5 to 10 seconds. Continue making crepes, transferring the finished crepes to a paper-towel-covered plate to cool. Continue with the remaining batter. this should yield 19 9-inch crepes; the pastry cream volume is enough for about 16, which is enough to complete the cake.
Assemble the cake – Lay the first crepe on your cake stand or plate. Spread with 1/4 cup pastry cream. Repeat with all the remaining crepes but the last one, which will act as the cake’s lid. Chill the cake in the fridge until you’re ready to coat it in chocolate draping.
Candy hazelnuts – Spread out a piece of parchment or wax paper on your counter, and have a set of tongs ready. In a small, heavy saucepan, cook sugar and water together over high heat until the sugar melts and begins to turn a pale beige color, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and the hazelnuts, rolling them around to coat. The caramel will look a shade darker while you do this, a light copper color. Once it has, remove the mixture from the heat. Remove the hazelnuts one by one with the tongs, spreading them out on the parchment so they don’t touch. Wait until they are cool to the touch. Set aside about a quarter of the candied nuts and crush them with a heavy spoon.
Make the chocolate draping – Put chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Heat cream and liqueur to a simmer in a small saucepan and pour over the chocolate. Let it sit for a minute, then whisk until smooth. If this wasn’t enough heat to create a very thick but still (barely) pourable smooth mixture, put a very small amount of water in the saucepan that previously heated the cream, bring it to a simmer, place the bowl of chocolate and cream over it, and stir it until it thins and smooths out to desired consistency.
To finish – Remove the chilled crepe cake from the fridge. Pour chocolate mixture over the top, spread with your spatula to cover the top crepe, gently nudging the chocolate over the edges in a few places. Decorate the top with the candied hazelnuts (whole and crushed). Set the cake in the fridge until needed.