Totally in awe is the only way to describe my state at 1:00 am on the eve of my sister’s birthday. À la Vinny, I don’t usually play around with sugar in my cooking. I see it as an ingredient to be swapped out rather than celebrated.
But it was a birthday party, and we needed a cake. Not just any cake… but a gluten-free confection, so the birthday girl could have some, too.
Chef Janet Rörschåch rose to the occasion with a beautiful recipe for an angel-light cake made from eggs and ground nuts, decorated with vanilla-infused fruit and boozy whipped cream. The pièce de resistance was glittering threads of sugar spun from hazel nut centers.
Although I have had zero experience with this sort of thing, the instructions were thorough. I can read. So how hard could it be? I was hooked.
The cake was super easy. And blood-sugar spikes from eating this dessert are not a serious problem. Why? There is no refined flour. And the protein from the eggs, as well as fats from the nuts and cream, impede absorption of the sugar. You get vitamins and minerals from the eggs and fruit, too. Calories? Yes. But empty calories? Not so much.
I couldn’t find the nectarines Janet asked for. So I settled for mangoes. I had a vanilla bean in my spice drawer, a gift from Christmas past, stored tightly in a glass tube. The fruit in its light vanilla syrup tasted wonderful and it cooked up in a flash.
I flavored my whipped cream with a splash from a long-forgotten bottle of Crème de Cacao. Janet used Frangelico, which would have gone better with the nuts in the cake. But after tasting what I had on hand, I went with the cacao. Mm-Mm good!
Janet said to get everything ready before you begin the sugaring process. Vinny always says to Get ready-Get set before you Go! So I began at the beginning, toasting and skinning the nuts. After 10 minutes in the oven, I wrapped them in terry towel and began rubbing. Nuts! Half an hour later I was still trying to get the last bits of papery skin to peel off. Next time, I won’t be so picky.
Janet called for a pot of ice water close to the stove. But I could find no use for it in her instructions. I had to call up her post on my computer, where I learned the ice water is for first aid. Yikes. Hot sugar burns like %&*$#!!! This is NO job for a kid. It’s no job for an amateur cook, either. More time lost, but I was now committed.
Terrified by Janet’s warnings, I turned the sugar and water on medium high, rather than high as instructed. The sugar began to froth. After 10 minutes, when it was supposed to be golden, it had just begun to bubble. At 20 minutes it looked a pale beige. Janet said: do not take your eyes from the pot. At 30 minutes I was going cross-eyed staring at the roiling sugar, which now looked glossy thick but still not what I would call golden. Next time, I’ll start on high.
Then, ZAP. It browned at the edges. I turned the heat off and began waiting the minute or so Janet said it would take to cool. The whole pot of sugar turned brown. I moved it off the burner and stuck in my first skewered nut. The sugar dripped right off. It took about 5 minutes before the syrup would stay on the nut long enough for me to prop it over the edge of the counter.
From that point on, I got about 10 or 12 done before the sugar hardened. I put the pot back on the burner (next time I won’t take it off) and managed to get a few more nuts done…. a persnickety process, indeed!
I ended up with what you see in the picture at the top.
But what surprised me most was what I found floating just above the newspapers on the floor…
A nest of gold filaments so beautiful I wanted it to crown the center of my cake.
Alas! By 2:00pm the next day, the web had dissolved into a sticky unpleasantness. I washed it down the drain. The candied nuts were still presentable, though. They made a lovely crown for the cake. Janet’s nuts were not as brown as mine. Next time, I’ll try to stop the cooking a little earlier.
Scissors came in handy to cut the nest down and separate the hardened sugar strands from one another. Clean-up took about half an hour…
So that’s the story of how it took 2 hours from start to finish in the middle of the night to decorate a birthday cake. Next time, I’ll do better :).
Nutty gluten-free birthday cake with fruit and cream
- 4 extra large eggs, separated
- 1 cup castor sugar (spin ordinary sugar in a food processor if you can’t find any)
- ½ teaspoon real vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
- 1 ½ cups ground almonds (120 grams)
- Set oven to 350ºF.
- Butter bottom and sides of spring-form pan, add parchment to bottom, then butter parchment.
- Whip whites into soft peaks.
- Beat yolks, sugar, salt and vanilla until the yolks are pale yellow.
- Use a slotted spoon to fold whites into yolks.
- Fold in hazelnut flour with slotted spoon.
- Spoon cake mixture into pan.
- Place in center of oven and bake 40 to 55 minutes.
- Ready when there is no jiggle in center or cake skewer (toothpick) comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and set pan on wire rack to cool.
- Run knife around edge.
- Remove from spring-form pan then remove parchment.
Vanilla-Infused fruit in light syrup
- 3 medium mangoes, peeled and diced (about 2 cups)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- pinch of salt
- juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoon water
- 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds removed with knife
- In pot add sugar, mangoes, salt, lemon juice, and water.
- Bring to boil.
- Reduce to simmer until sugar dissolves.
- Turn off heat.
- Add vanilla seeds and pods, and lemon zest.
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 or 2 tablespoons crème de cacao liqueur (use icing sugar if you don’t want alcohol)
- Whip cream to soft peaks.
- Add liqueur and beat 10-20 seconds more.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Candied nuts: Please see Janet’s post for detailed instructions.
To serve: Put a portion of the cake on a dessert plate. Top with some fruit (warm or cold), a dab of whipped cream, and one or two candied nuts arranged artfully.
Angel cake nightmares A one-act play about the perils of following a recipe too closely, with detailed instructions for making a light irresistible delectable cake.