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Chocolate Hazelnut Cake

If ever there were a cake to knock the socks off you chocolate lovers, this is it. Picture a light chocolate sponge cake, with a luscious mousse and chopped hazelnut filling, smothered in a decadent chocolate ganache.  We first tried it at Bàcaro, our favorite restaurant in the Cayman Islands where we spend a week each winter. After enjoying it twice in one week, I asked for the recipe and Head Chef Federico Destro generously gave it to me. It was written in metric measurements, but I’ve converted them into the cups more familiar to Americans. However, if you buy a kitchen scale, I recommend using the metric system measurements, since baking by weight is always more accurate than using cups.

Federico’s recipe says it makes 30 portions, but the portions at Bàcaro are much smaller than what I served at my recent dinner party. I cut mine into 24 portions, still a huge amount for most home cooks, but I froze half of the cake for later gratification. It freezes perfectly with the chocolate mousse inside, but wait until the day you serve it to pour on the ganache, otherwise you risk losing that lovely sheen and soft texture.

Make sure you sift the dry ingredients and have the eggs at room temperature before beating them with the sugar. Beat for the required 10 minutes to give them the volume necessary for the cake to rise, since it contains no other leavening.

Pour into a pan that’s been buttered and floured. I also lined the bottom with a piece of buttered parchment paper to help release the cake without sticking.

When it cooled, I cut the cake in half down the middle since half serves 12 people, and cutting it in half then makes it easier to cut it into horizontal layers. You’ll spread the mousse between the two layers.

In my experience, the mousse is the hardest part to make, since it uses Nutella, which is stiff and difficult to incorporate smoothly with the melted chocolate, egg whites and whipped cream.

Blend in just about a third of the egg whites with the melted chocolate and Nutella to get the mixture a little lighter. Keep whisking until it starts to loosen a bit.

Add another third of the egg whites after the initial egg whites have been whisked in. It will still be stiff, but a little easier to whisk.

By the time you add the last third of the egg whites and the whipped cream, it will become much lighter in color and texture.

Spread the mousse over the bottom layer of the cake and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts.

Place the top layer of cake over the mousse, then drizzle some of the diluted espresso coffee over the cake. As you can see, I lined each section of the cake in the pan with plastic wrap, to make it easier to remove one section and leave the rest in the freezer. Place the cake in the freezer for at least 4-6 hours.

After removal from the freezer, carefully cut into 12 sections.

This is the messy part — pouring the ganache on top. The recipe below includes more of the ganache than Chef Destro recommended, partly due to the fact that I’m not a chocolatier and wasted a good bit of chocolate, and partly due to the fact that I’ll take any occasion to eat more dark chocolate!

Here’s the way it’s served at Bàcaro, and you can see how much smoother the outer coating is, when a real professional is pouring the chocolate!

Still, there were no complaints about my version either. Place the cakes in the refrigerator, but set aside about 1/4 cup of the ganache and refrigerate it too. When it starts to harden just ever so slightly, scoop a little out with a demitasse spoon to make a chocolate ball on top, and place a hazelnut on top of the chocolate. I also added a small sliver of gold leaf — totally optional, but don’t forget the whipped cream!

The recipe may seem daunting, but you can make it the day before a dinner party or event, and keep it refrigerated. One caveat though – they look really tempting to husbands grazing for a midday treat. You’ve been warned.

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Chocolate Hazelnut Cake
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • FOR THE SPONGE CAKE:
  • 10 eggs
  • 2 cups (300g) sugar
  • ¾ cup (50g) cocoa powder
  • ¾ cup (50g) corn starch
  • ½ cup (50g) all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup hazelnuts (150 g)
  • 1 cup diluted espresso (250 ml)
  • FOR THE MOUSSE:
  • about 1⅓ cup (300g) dark chocolate
  • 1 13 ounce jar (300g) Nutella
  • 1¾ cup (400g) heavy cream (whipped to medium hard peaks)
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 4 tbsp rum
  • 4 eggs
  • FOR THE GANACHE (This is enough for half the cakes, since I froze half the cakes unfrosted. Just double if frosting the entire cake).
  • 2 cups (about 425 grams) heavy cream
  • 12 oz. chocolate (I used three, 4 oz. bars of Hershey's Special Darrk)
Instructions
  1. TO MAKE THE SPONGE CAKE:
  2. Whisk the eggs and sugar at high speed for about 10 minutes.
  3. Sieve the cocoa powder, flour and corn starch and add them to the egg mixture gradually and folding slowly.
  4. Pour the mass into a half-size hotel pan (my pan measured 15" by 10" x 2.5" but the chef used a pan that was 20" x 10" x 2.5")
  5. Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes or until cake pulls away from sides of pan.
  6. Let cool at room temperature, then wrap with plastic film and store in the fridge or freezer until needed.
  7. Cut the cake in half to make for easier handling, then cut each half in half horizontally, in order to have two layers.
  8. Then put some plastic wrap on the bottom and sides of the pan where you baked the cake, and put the layers inside, with separate pieces of plastic wrap for each half of the cake.
  9. That way, you can easily remove only half the cake and leave the rest frozen for later use.
  10. Each half of the cake made 12 servings, (30 for Chef Destro who cuts smaller portions) so unless you have a crowd of 24, you can keep half frozen.
  11. TO MAKE THE MOUSSE:
  12. Separate the egg whites from the yolks and set aside.
  13. Whisk the yolks with sugar and rum.
  14. Add the chocolate (previously melted) folding it slowly, then add the Nutella and combine (This is the hardest part because the Nutella is quite stiff. But keep at it.)
  15. Whisk the egg whites to hard peak, then gradually fold them into the chocolate mixture (again it's hard because the Nutella is so stiff, but once you have all the egg whites added, it loosens up and when you add the whipped cream, it will be just right consistency.)
  16. Fold in the whipped cream and set in the fridge until ready to use.
  17. TO ASSEMBLE THE CAKE AND FILLING:
  18. Leave the cake in the pan and remove the top layer.
  19. On the bottom layer of the sponge cake, drizzle with half the espresso.
  20. Set half the mousse on top of it and sprinkle with the hazelnuts.
  21. Place the top layer over the mousse and drizzle with the other half of the espresso.
  22. Cover and chill in the freezer for at least 4-6 hours.
  23. FOR THE GANACHE:
  24. Heat the cream, turn off the heat and add the chocolate, stirring to combine until smooth.
  25. TO FINISH THE CAKE WITH THE GANACHE:
  26. Cut the frozen cake in 24 portions, if you plan to serve all at one time.
  27. In that case, double the ingredients for the ganache.
  28. Otherwise, place half the cake in the freezer and cut the other half into 12 portions.
  29. Place them on a perforated rack and quickly coat them with the warm ganache.
  30. Place back in the freezer to harden.
  31. Repeat the coating process once more and place in the fridge until ready to serve.
  32. Save a bit of the ganache to use as a center dollop with a hazelnut perched on it.
  33. If you have any gold leaf, add a small piece to the top.
 

 

Caribbean Rum Cake

If you were baking in the 1970s, no doubt you came across the rum cake recipe from Bacardi’, the well-known rum company from Puerto Rico. I made plenty of them back in the day, and they were always a big hit and easy to make, using a box mix. On a trip to the Cayman Islands a couple of weeks ago, where Tortuga rum cakes are as ubiquitous as fish tacos, I naturally had to try their version. For a packaged cake, it was remarkably good, but I knew there had to be a made-from-scratch recipe to duplicate the cake, reminiscent of those Bacardi’ cakes I enjoyed decades ago.

A short search online turned up a recipe from the King Arthur Flour website, a company whose products and whose recipes are always reliably good. While the King Arthur cake doesn’t include walnuts, the classic Tortuga cake is dotted with them inside the cake. I prefer the walnuts crowning the cake, as the old Bacardi recipe calls for, so that’s how I made it, and I’m glad I did.

The cake, which also contains a full cup of rum, has a moist, tender crumb and a delicious buttery flavor, almost like eating a rummy butterscotch lifesaver – only better. I’ve never tasted hot buttered rum, but I imagine this must be the cake version of that drink. It’s definitely not for tea-totalers.

The rum cake isn’t the only reason to recommend a visit to the Cayman Islands. Just to give you an idea of what the beautiful island of Grand Cayman is like, (there are three islands in the Cayman Islands, and Grand Cayman is the largest) here are a few pictures from our recent vacation there. The main attraction is the beautiful Caribbean sea, in various shades of blue. This is the famous “seven mile beach” with soft, pale sands and shade in many places. You’ll find world class hotels along the beach, as well as condos for rent. It’s easy to rent a sailboat, paddle board or other water vehicles right from the beach.

Need a respite from the sand and sea? You could easily spend a couple of hours visiting the Queen Elizabeth Botanical Garden, with its beautiful flowering plants and historic exhibits.

The grounds of the botanical gardens also contain a preserve for the blue iguana lizard, found only on the Cayman Islands. They nearly became extinct, with only 12 of the animals recorded in 2004, but through conservation efforts, about 700 have been bred and released in the sanctuary since then.

If you drive to the northern part of the island, you’ll come to a place called “starfish point,” where the beautiful sea creatures are omnipresent.

Speaking of sea creatures, Grand Cayman is a great place for snorkeling, as you can see in the photo below. They were swirling all around me and I felt like I was in the midst of an aquarium!

You can even swim with sting rays if you’re so inclined. They come right up to you in the clear turquoise waters off a certain part of the island.

The food there is really delicious too, which is why the island is sometimes referred to as “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.” The cuisine runs the gamut – from a food truck’s barbecued chicken and ribs to break-the-bank refined elegance at Eric Ripert’s “Blue” restaurant in the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

There’s so much more to see and do in the Cayman Islands, including fishing, shopping, and visiting museums. We hope to go back next year and I hope you get a chance to visit sometime too. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of those beautiful beaches and content myself with another piece of Caribbean rum cake.

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Caribbean Rum Cake
 
A rum-soaked cake with a tender, moist crumb.
Author:
Ingredients
  • FOR THE CAKE:
  • 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 3.4-ounce box instant vanilla pudding mix (not sugar-free)* (I used a smaller box of 1.5 oz)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup milk, at room temperature
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • ½ cup rum, plain or spiced (I used Bacardi gold rum)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon butter rum flavor (I omitted this)
  • ⅓ cup chopped walnuts
  • FOR THE SYRUP:
  • 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup rum, plain or spiced
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Place the flour, sugar, pudding mix, baking powder, salt, butter, and vegetable oil in a mixing bowl, and mix at medium speed until everything is thoroughly combined and the mixture is sandy looking.
  3. Beat in the milk, then beat in the eggs one at a time.
  4. Scrape the bowl thoroughly, and beat briefly to recombine any sticky residue.
  5. Stir in the rum, vanilla, and butter-rum flavor, if using.
  6. Generously butter a 10- to 12-cup Bundt pan with cooking spray, then spritz with cooking spray.
  7. Sprinkle the inside of the pan with the chopped walnuts.
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread level with a spatula.
  9. Bake the cake for 50 to 60 minutes.
  10. When done, a cake tester, long toothpick, or strand of uncooked spaghetti will come out clean when inserted into the center.
  11. Remove the cake from the oven.
  12. Leave the cake in the pan to cool slightly while you make the syrup.
  13. In a medium-sized saucepan combine the syrup ingredients, except vanilla.
  14. Bring to a rapid boil then reduce to a simmer and cook (without stirring) for about 5 to 8 minutes, until the syrup thickens slightly.
  15. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
  16. Use a long skewer to poke holes all over the cake.
  17. Pour about ¼ cup of the syrup over the cake (still in the pan). Allow the syrup to soak in, then repeat again and again until all the syrup is used.
  18. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and allow the cake to sit overnight at room temperature to cool completely and soak in the syrup.
  19. When ready to serve, loosen the edges of the cake and invert onto your serving plate.
  20. If the cake won’t release, don't force it.
  21. Place it in the oven, turn the oven to 350°F, and warm for about 10 minutes, to soften the sticky syrup.
  22. (If your oven is one that preheats by making its upper element red-hot, place the cake on a lower rack and tent it with aluminum foil to protect it.)
  23. Remove the cake from the oven, and tip it onto the serving plate.
  24. Serve with hot coffee or tea.
  25. The cake is very moist, fragrant and potent.
  26. Wrap securely (or place under a cake cover) and store at room temperature for several days. Freeze for longer storage, up to 1 month.
 

Blue by Eric Ripert

Dear Mr. Ripert – How in the world do you do it? Your three-star Michelin restaurant in New York City – Le Bernardin – captivated me years ago from the first sip of champagne. But I didn’t expect to be equally enchanted thousands of miles away in the Cayman Islands on my visit to Blue, your restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

 However, I had a suspicion that something great was afoot when we stopped for drinks at the bar one night. The piña loca tipped me off. I mean, I knew we were in for a treat just from watching your bartender shake the drinks at the bar and deliver them in those beautiful glasses. It didn’t hurt that the charred pineapple juice and agave were mixed with cachaça.  (In case you’re taking notes, Mr. Ripert, a caipirinha – also made with that Brazilian spirit – is my favorite cocktail, although a Hendricks gin and tonic is a close second. But I digress, sorry). Anyway, we may have been tipped off by the drinks, but when we tasted the complimentary salmon rillette, it just heightened our eagerness to come back the following night for a full meal. I loved how your chef combines smoked salmon with poached fresh salmon and shallots in white wine and other ingredients. Those little toasts were the perfect transport for this delicious snack and a great way to get our evening started. I hope you don’t mind my sharing that recipe at the end of this letter.

So there we were, the next night at 6:30. Unfashionably early, I agree, but hey, we couldn’t wait much longer to savor the full menu. I loved the understated, yet elegant decor, and the wall art, designed by British artist Grahame Menage to represent the outlines of the Cayman Islands and other Caribbean nations. Oh, and please thank your lovely manager Christina who seated us at a quiet table with ample light — all the better for taking photos. Is she just naturally engaging and helpful, or do you instruct all your staff to be so kind? Because without being intrusive, everyone couldn’t have been nicer.

I was so eager to get started, I got fidgety waiting for the first course, although my husband Ron told me to cool my jets and be patient. He was so right. Patience was rewarded not long afterwards, when the chef,  Thomas Seifried, sent out this amuse bouche, including a taste of that now-familiar salmon rillette — it’s that dab in the middle cushioned by small round crackers, but you already knew that. Well, thanks for reminding me how much I loved it the night before. The little sample of raw snapper with a petite potato chip on top and surrounded by avocado cream and citrus vinaigrette was a lovely tease for the palate too, but can I just wax rhapsodic about that soup in the little cup on the left? Just know that I would happily drown in that luscious concoction – made with sunchokes, brown butter and croutons. We were both wishing for a lifetime supply of that soup (Sunchokes aren’t really a staple in our pantry, but if you sent me that recipe, I would search them out).

But we knew there was plenty more to come, beginning with the “almost raw” section of the menu. My husband chose the conch dish, tender slivers of the locally caught seafood, sprinkled with bits of puffed quinoa, basil aioli and espelette pepper.  The ponzu sauce added just the right acidity, with its flavors of rice vinegar, soy sauce and yuzu (I admit I had to look up ponzu sauce, but I first learned about yuzu – an Asian citrus  – at Le Bernardin years ago).

I opted for the snapper trio – served with slices of king crab and dollops of wasabi and avocado cream, and bathed in a seafood emulsion. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to do what we Italians call “la scarpetta,” swooshing my bread through the sauce to savor every last drop. At least I didn’t lick the plate — well, not yet at least.

Speaking of bread, I didn’t want to make a pig of myself and choose all four offerings, so I stuck to the sourdough.  I’m coming back for the others on my next visit though.

Next came the “barely touched” portion of the menu, and I’m sure you don’t know this, but when it comes to octopus on a menu, I’m a real sucker  – no pun intended (well, maybe yes it was). I have to say that I’ve eaten lots of grilled octopus in my life, but never served with a creamy chorizo emulsion. Who thinks up these unusual flavor combinations? The smoky flavor of the sauce was the perfect partner for the “meaty” chunks of octopus.  If only I had the recipe, I might rethink my Christmas eve octopus salad in favor of this.

Let me also take this opportunity, Mr. Ripert, to give a shout-out to ViJay, our server for the night, who also recommended excellent wines to pair with each course. I am usually cautious in choosing red wines to drink with fish, but ViJay suggested the perfect accompaniment each time, whether red or white. Just one example of the night’s sampling included a smooth, vibrant Portuguese red wine from the Douro Valley that cut through the richness of the octopus and the sauce.

And like me with octopus, when my husband sees pasta on a menu, he’s gonna go for it. I think he went a little weak in the knees when this appeared at the table – a tangle of fettuccine enrobed in a truffle sauce containing king crab and lobster, topped with a healthy portion of sliced truffles. Can you say ecstasy? He would have, if he could have stopped long enough to speak. Me? I was speechless too, once he let me have a taste.

Just when you think you’ve had enough truffles, (Forget I said that. You can never have enough truffles, can you?) your chef sends this voluptuous dish compliments of the kitchen – Danish langoustine atop Iberico ham, crème fraîche, a balsamic-mushroom vinaigrette and more shaved truffles. If I’d known this was coming, I might not have ordered the lobster from the next portion of the menu – the “lightly cooked” section.

Just kidding. I wouldn’t have wanted to forgo this delectable dish of butter poached lobster served with edamame beans in a fragrant lobster-ginger consomme. And how clever to include that wonton stuffed with a mousse of halibut, lobster claw and shrimp.  It was a real treat for all the senses. By the way, I forgot to mention that I love the Limoges Bernardaud porcelain plates you use in your restaurants. The white on white recessed dots are subtle yet distinctive, without stealing the show from the food.

This dish my husband chose for the main course, Mr. Ripert, might just be the “sleeper” on the menu. It doesn’t have the sexy visual appeal of some the other dishes (don’t be offended – it is mostly brown after all, except for the bits of friseé) but wow, what a fabulous flavor – not just from the delicate fish, but from that nutty brown butter sauce infused with tamarind.  Look away while I do that scarpetta thing again.

Big decisions were ahead for dessert. Even though only four offerings are listed, aside from ice cream and sorbet, it was difficult to choose. My husband selected the “Mont Blanc”  – a heavenly whipped chestnut cream spiral with rum-candied chestnuts, studded with gold leaf, and served with a quenelle of ice cream. OK, I’ll stop drooling now.

I was having a tough time. Should I order the coconut dessert, served with passion fruit and pineapple? Or should I order the babà, the Neapolitan treat I love? I decided on the coconut, and it arrived looking like a modern sculpture. Don’t get me wrong, I ate almost the whole thing, but it was encased in white chocolate, and I should have mentioned, I’m a dark chocolate lover. When Christina stopped by to ask about our desserts, she admitted that the babà was her favorite. Darn, I said. I knew I should have ordered that!Well, that’s all she needed to hear. She hurried off to the kitchen, and returned with a gift for me — my own babà, studded with caramelized pears, Cayman honey and almond crumbs, all served with a silky sauce and yogurt ice cream. Funny how I felt stuffed after all the courses and the first dessert, but the babà went down like manna from heaven. Quick, is anybody watching while I lick the plate?

Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another thing, out comes this tray of scrumptious mignardises – petite financiers, geleés, macarons and chocolates.

Thanks for such a great dinner. Sorry it took us so long to get here (considering you opened the restaurant in 2005). What a nice touch giving us that box of macarons to take home with us too.

Oh Eric, (can I call you that now that I’ve spent three hours in your restaurant?) like I said earlier, I really never expected such a Lucullan feast down here in the Cayman Islands, but Blue is every bit as wonderful as Le Bernardin, and you’ve even got that spectacular seven-mile beach outside your door. No wonder it received the five diamond award from AAA.

And as much as we love the Big Apple, the Cayman islands has won our hearts too, especially since our extraordinary meal at Blue. Hope to see you next year. And next time, I promise to keep my fingers off the plate.

Sincerely yours, Linda and Ron

Salmon Rillette
 
Author:
Serves: serves 6
Ingredients
  • 2 cups white wine
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 1 pound fresh salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 ounces smoked salmon, diced
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
  • ½ cup crème fraîche
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
Instructions
  1. In a shallow pan, bring the white wine and shallots to a boil.
  2. When the shallots are cooked, add the salmon and gently poach the salmon until it is just barely opaque.
  3. Remove the salmon from the wine and immediately drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  4. Strain the wine, reserving the shallots.
  5. Place the salmon and shallots in the refrigerator to cool.
  6. Combine the poached salmon and shallots in a mixing bowl with the smoked salmon, chives and some of the mayonnaise and lemon juice—use the mayonnaise and lemon juice sparingly to begin, and adjust to taste.
  7. Mix the rillette—do not over-mix or mix too hard.
  8. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Serve cold with toasted baguette slices.