I have another recipe from our trip to the Sancerre region to share. Something a little sweet this time. It started with one of my favorite stops when we visit R.’s grandparents: the nearby oil mill. Just in the next town over, we always make a stop in the little shop and mill run by just two people. They process hazelnuts and walnuts, shelled and brought in by locals in exchange for a relative quantity of oil, on the original old stone table and mill wheel in a cramped room with only one window and an old guardian dog. When they are producing toasted (traditional) walnut oil by heating the nuts then grinding them, the smell is divine.
R.’s grandmother uses the toasted walnut oil in her signature vinaigrettes but I always get one of each oil (hazelnut and walnut) and use them on anything that seems willing: salads and tartines, even risotto with blue cheese and apples – divine. And when we were back for this trip, my stock was very low and I was eager to visit the mill for some new bottles. But this visit, while I was investigating the oils, pottery, and knives offered in the little shop (the room next to the mill room) I came across little bags of hazelnut and walnut flours. “We are trying to use the nuts completely,” the owner explained to me, “so we grind the nuts further into flours, now.”
Before she even explained I had picked out one of each and was greedily trying to decide if it would be enough. “The toasted walnuts are too dry after pressing to be used for flour,” she went on, motioning to dark brown pressed blocks of the toasted walnut grindings, “but the untoasted hazelnuts and walnuts have enough moisture left to make very good flours.” I couldn’t wait to try them out. She pulled out five or six copies of recipes for cakes and breads but my mind was dreaming up too many possibilities to try them first. I’ll have to get back to those some one of these days.
As the afternoon went on, we traversed the hills of vineyards stopping at every beautiful spot we came across but the path always leads to Sancerre. Perched on a steep hill overlooking all those rolling hills, Sancerre is an ancient town that serves as a hub for the nearby villages. R.’s father and uncles went to high school here as did his grandparents. The stones are thick with his family’s history. We park near the top and walk the steep streets to the center of town and poke around the same little path, here the well lit from below the ferns growing on its sides, here the church, here the bookstore, everywhere wine shops. But, especially in the fall and winter when the sun fades early on and the air cools quickly, what the two of us always want is a cosy café with tea and maybe something little sweet. Something to warm us for the ride back to the farmhouse. But Sancerre sleeps early in the off season and we don’t usually find what we are looking for.
When we got back to Paris, I considered what to try first with my flours. I feel the need to use them carefully until I can get back and get more (read: hoard them)! But with some deep colored plums waiting to be finished, I knew what I’d love to try first: a cake. The kind of treat that we might like to have with a cup of tea after an afternoon of exploring the vineyards. Something full of flavor and just a little sweet. So here is that little cake for the cool afternoons of autumn made with the flour of the season’s nuts: Brandy Roasted Plum & Hazelnut Cake.
Brandy Roasted Plum & Hazelnut Cake
makes one 6″ cake
1 tbsp. brandy
90 g / 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 c. lightly packed brown sugar
1/2 c. hazelnut flour
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 c. buttermilk
1/2 tsp. demerara sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/ 425°F. Cut the plums in half lengthwise, remove the pits, and lay them face up in a baking dish. Sprinkle the brandy over them and roast until juicy, 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
2. Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of the 6″ cake pan. Butter the pan and lay the parchment on the bottom then flour the pan. Preheat the oven, or reduce the heat from the roasting, to 170°C / 325°F.
3. In a mixing bowl beat the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light. Add the egg and beat well until combined and fluffy. Fold in the flours and baking powder until starting to combine then add the buttermilk and fold until all ingredients are just combined.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and tap gently to level the batter. Arrange the cooled, roasted plums on top of the batter then sprinkle them with the demerara sugar. Bake until a tester comes out clean when inserted into the center, about 25 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes then remove to finish cooling on a rack. Have a slice with a cup of afternoon tea.