Way back in my teens and early twenties I used to work for my stepmother over the summer. She had what would now be called a boutique hotel. We did dinner, bed, and breakfast. Dinner was the fun bit. The menus changed daily and were based on what we could get, or what turned up (there was a shady character known as Kevin the poacher who sometimes appeared of an evening with fish. He was basically poaching from my father, but we bought it anyway).
I started to learn about wine in those summers, became committed to cooking seasonally and locally, and discovered a lot of excellent desserts. A hazelnut and raspberry meringue cake was a favourite, something I always wanted for my birthday but never made because winter raspberries are not appealing.
I used to bake a lot more than I do now, and kind of miss writing about cakes especially. Valentine’s Day seemed like a good excuse to make something, and a packet of hazelnuts left over from Christmas made some version of this cake seem like a good idea. The recipe is in Jane Grigson’s fruit book where she makes a few suggestions for alternatives to raspberries.
February is not the easiest month for soft fruit, but I bought a bowl of rock hard plums from the market and slowly baked them with sugar, vanilla, and some Madeira until they gave up and relaxed. They turned out well, the plums still sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the meringue and the texture of the cream. The hazelnuts give the meringue both flavour and texture. It would probably have looked a bit prettier if I hadn’t poured the plum syrup over the cream (it might have been good to have whipped it into the cream) but it tasted great.
The meringue recipe asks for 125g of hazelnuts baked in a low oven (gas 2/around 140 °C in a fan oven) for 10 minutes until they’re brown all the way through. Let them cool and then grind to a coarse powder (some lumpy bits are good). Whip 5 egg whites to stiff peaks, slowly add 300g of caster sugar whilst still whipping, and then whip in half a teaspoon of white wine or cider vinegar. Gently fold in the hazelnuts.
I made this as a 2 layer cake, quite large because I wanted the meringue to be reasonably thin. Once it was in the oven it occurred to me that I could have made it into 3 layers. It could just as easily have been a sort of pavlova/tart affair. We used to make this in cake tins, which meant everything was the same size, but I find it easier to use baking sheets and judge the size by eye (the meringue used to be a devil for sticking to the side of the tins).
However it’s done it wants to be sitting on some greaseproof paper and cooked for 35-40 minutes at gas 4 (160°-180°C depending on your oven). Let the meringues cool, and then fill, or top, with fruit and whipped cream just before dinner.