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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Coffee-infused Semolina Almond Gâteau

This is more of a European style cake -- not overly sweet or loaded with a lot of frosting.  It's lighter than typical American cakes, but still very satisfying.  It actually comes across a lot like a coffee cake, to some degree because of the heavy dose of cinnamon.  The original recipe contained no salt, also typical of European desserts; I added some to my personal  taste.

This wasn't hard to make at all, just a little fussy because of the separate components.  And then there was the question of what to bake it in...  I have 4 pans all labelled as 8", and 3 of the 4 are all different sizes.  (How do these things happen?)  I finally opted for the only two pans I had that were the same size, which was 8½", resulting in a cake that was slightly flatter than desired.

Here's what I used:

¾ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon fine salt
3 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup strong coffee
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons semolina
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/3 cups ground almonds

¾ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup water, approximately (see note)
1/3 cup strong coffee

Halva cream:
4 ozs. halva, broken in pieces
3 tablespoons strong coffee
½ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened

To decorate:
¼ cup pistachios, chopped, or other nuts

Preheat oven to 425F. Grease and line two deep, 8-inch round cake pans with waxed paper.  To make cake, in a bowl, cream sugar, butter, and salt until light and fluffy.  Gradually beat in eggs and coffee.  Stir in semolina, baking powder, cinnamon, and ground almonds. Divide between prepared pans and bake in oven 10 (8) minutes. Lower temperature to 350F and bake 10 to 15 minutes, until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Let stand in pan 2 minutes, then turn each out onto a wire rack placed over a plate.

Meanwhile, make syrup. Put sugar and water into a saucepan and heat gently until sugar has dissolved. Boil 4 minutes, remove from heat and stir in coffee. Bring back to a boil, pour over hot cakes, then allow to cool.  To make halva cream, in a saucepan heat halva, coffee and sugar gently until smooth; cool.  In a bowl, beat butter until soft, then beat in halva mixture.  Sandwich cakes together with half of halva cream. Spread with remaining cream and decorate with nuts.

Note:  the cookbook left the water out of the ingredient listing, so I had to guesstimate.  If you have a recipe that uses a similar technique of moistening the cake with liquid, try following those quantities.  Otherwise, you want at least 1 cup of liquid to pour over the cakes, possibly up to 1½ cups.  I think I had about one cup, and my cakes could have been a little more moist, but it's hard to know what's going to be too much when you're pouring it on.  You don't want soggy cake!

The batter is quite thick and the cake initially dry, as there's very little liquid in the recipe, but it's salvaged by the coffee syrup that gets poured onto the hot cakes and immediately absorbed by the semolina.  It's a very effective technique, producing a light but moist crumb with a nubbly texture.  Since my cakes were thinner than the recipe called for, I baked them for slightly less time (noted in parentheses above).

If halva isn't available, you could use any nut butter, but it would have to be very thick.  (Buy a natural nut butter, let it separate, and then use the thick paste that settles out.  Adjust the butter quantity accordingly to achieve the correct texture.)  You would also want to increase the sugar, since halva is quite sweet.  In California, you can't buy truly raw nuts -- they have to be pasteurized.  For that reason, the "raw" pistachios available to me don't have that bright green color (or that fresh flavor), but are more a sort of grey-green-brown.  Not very attractive.  So I opted for almond slices to decorate my cake instead.

Conclusion:  This is an excellent cake for a midday coffee break or a light dessert.  It won't be to everyone's taste, as many people are accustomed to the heavy, rich cakes that are typically served for American desserts.  But it has a wonderful combination of flavors and makes an elegant offering.

Recipe:  Halva Gâteau from A Gourmet's Guide to Coffee & Tea by Lesley Mackley

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