Apricot Cheesecake Tart

I have yet to taste a cheesecake I wouldn’t like. The creamy sweet cheese filling simply works no matter what you pair it with. White cheesecake with hint of vanilla is a classic. Chocolate? Everything is better with chocolate, and cheesecake is no exception. How about fruit? Pretty much any fruit is delicious on a bed of fluffy cheese – you can go for strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples in the fall or cranberries in winter, and your cheesecake will be a winner every time.

The dessert I’m offering to you today is not your typical cheesecake though. It’s more like its distant relative – first of all, there is only a small amount of cream cheese in the filling compared to cheesecake as we know it, and second, I’ve decided to forgo the graham cracker/cookie crumb base and poured the filling into a flaky tart shell. The additional cream cheese you’d normally see in the filling is actually hiding in the crust, and makes it very rich and tender. (Bonus: this crust is also very easy to roll out, as long as you give it time to properly chill in the fridge.) This cheesecake tart is my last tribute to my beloved apricots this year. Apricots are always the first fruit to announce the coming of the summer season, and also the first one to go. I’ve been wanting to try this recipe for weeks, and when I finally decided  to give it a go this weekend, I had a really hard time finding them. It seemed last week they were everywhere, and now, only couple of days later, they just disappeared from the face of the Earth. It took a lot of driving around and many smiles at guys in produce departments – but as you can see, in the end I brought home what seemed to be the last two pounds of apricots in the Pacific Northwest, and put them to a good use 🙂

This tart is not a high-end dessert by any means; it’s simple and somewhat homey looking, but that doesn’t take away from its appeal at all. I think it’s very cheerful and the orange apricots waggishly poking out of white cheese filling kind of look like eggs sunny side up 🙂 And the taste is superb:  the subtle tartness of the apricots balances out the sweetness of the filling, and the jelly glaze gives it shine and accentuates the fruity apricot flavor. A perfect way to say farewell to apricots in my book. Put your best smile on and run to your nearest greengrocer or farmers market – if you’re lucky, you might still be able to find some apricots, and if you won’t eat them all on your way home as I usually do, I promise this tart is the second best way to use them!

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Apricot Cheesecake Tart

(adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Pie and Pastry Bible)

Cream Cheese Tart Shell:
  • ½ cup (113 g, 4 oz.) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • a little over 1 1/3 cups (185 g, 6.5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour (for gluten-free tart see Note)
  • pinch salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 85 g (3 oz.) cream cheese, chilled and cubed
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream, cold
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
Cream Cheese Filling:
  • 1 egg, separated, + 1 egg white
  • 57 g (2 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons white sugar (to taste)
  • pinch cinnamon
  • pinch nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup (175 g,  6 oz.) heavy cream

+ 1 egg white, for brushing the tart shell
approx. 1 kg (2 lbs.) fresh apricots, stoned and halved
1 cup apricot preserves, divided
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier (or other orange liqueur), divided

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Method:
  1. To make the pastry shell, place the flour mixed with salt and baking powder into the bowl of your food processor. Add the cubed cream cheese and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add butter and pulse again until the butter is the size of peas. Lastly, add vinegar and cold cream, and mix just until the dough comes together in a ball. Wrap the dough and chill for at least 30 minutes before proceeding.
  2. Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until it’s a little bigger than your 10 inch (25 cm) tart pan with removable bottom. Chill the rolled out dough for about 15 minutes, so it’s easier to transfer to the pan. Lightly butter the pan and ease the dough into it, pressing it firmly against the sides. Dock the dough with a fork and put the tart pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven to 425 °F (218 °C).
  3. When the oven is preheated, place the tart pan onto a baking sheet, and place a sheet of parchment paper on the surface of the dough. Fill the parchment with dry beans/rice, and prebake the tart shell for about 15 – 20 minutes. Remove the parchment paper with the beans/rice/pie weights, prick the dough again, and bake for 5 – 10 minutes longer, until pale golden brown. (If the edges brown too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil). While still hot, brush the tart shell with an egg white. Let the tart shell cool slightly while you prep the filling and fruit.
  4. To make the cheesecake filling, process the cream cheese, sugar, and spices in the food processor until smooth. Add egg yolks, egg white, cream, and 1 teaspoon of Grand Marnier and pulse to combine. (There still might be pieces of cream cheese in the mixture.) Set the filling aside.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  6. In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup of apricot preserves with 1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier until hot. Strain the preserves into a small bowl.
  7. To assemble the tart: Brush about 2 tablespoons of apricot preserves on the bottom of partially cooled tart shell. Pour about half of the filling into the tart. Arrange apricot halves on top of the filling, and carefully pour the rest of the filling around them, taking care not to pour the filling on top of the fruit.
  8. Bake the tart for 30 – 35 minutes, or until the filling is puffy and slightly browned. (Cover the edges with aluminum foil to prevent burning.)
  9. Let the tart cool slightly. Reheat the rest of the apricot jelly and spoon it evenly on the top of the tart, both apricots and filling. Chill the tart for at least 1 hour before unmolding and serving.
Note:

I subbed Bob’s Red Mill Pie Crust flour mix with good results, but I imagine you could use any gluten-free flour mix and the tart will turn out well.

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Tapioca Cheese Wraps

I’ve been baking gluten – free for quite some time now, but compared to years and years of regular baking I still consider myself a newbie in this area. Gluten – free baking gives me an opportunity to learn, try out new recipes, methods, and flour combinations, which I like. I’d even say gluten – free baking is somehow more interesting to me than regular baking – there is this sense of uncertainty and anticipation I rarely have when baking wheat – based goodies anymore, and I love it. Gluten – free baking keeps me on my toes constantly. I still can’t be sure how a new recipe for bread will turn out, so I sheepishly put it in the oven and then keep peeking through the steamed – up oven window what is it doing in there. I haven’t had to throw out anything in a long time, which is good, because gluten – free flours aren’t exactly cheap. Nevertheless, some of the goodies have been better than others, and it’s still very much a learning experience for me. When the effort turns out to be a success, it makes me very happy, much more so than when I pull out (yet another) wheat cake from the oven. And these wraps I’d definitely call a success – when I took the first one off the griddle, I actually did a little happy dance in the kitchen!

I realize that for someone who isn’t gluten – challenged it might seem silly. Everybody knows there are all kinds of wraps at every corner in every supermarket. You might think I haven’t accomplished anything dance – worthy and that I should just get a life. But if you think so, you probably haven’t had a chance to taste any store – bought gluten – free wraps. They do exist, of course, made of brown rice or other gluten – free grains, but we’ve tried couple of them and decided not to bother. To me, wrap is something you can actually, you know, wrap around other ingredients, but these wraps were bland, and so tough and stiff that even warmed up, you were lucky if you’ve managed to fold one over without breaking it.

Not the case with these babies! Looking at them, they kind of remind me of potato lefse, with their brown speckles scattered all over… but there are no potatoes in them, just loads and loads of cheese. The recipe is similar to Brazilian Cheese Puffs, but has even fewer ingredients. The cheese is what makes them super flexible, so you can roll, roll, roll your wrap and don’t even have to be that gentle about it! My men wolfed them down with just some ham and cheese rolled in, and gave them a thumbs up. They work well as an alternative to sandwiches, but with their superb rolling capacity, I see many possibilities in our future: quesadillas, hummus and veggie wraps, even various meat and veggie fillings tucked in. It is without a doubt my new favorite gluten – free recipe!

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Tapioca Cheese Wraps (makes 10 wraps)

(adapted from http://www.glutenfreeonashoestring.com)

  • 1 cup (250 ml, 8 oz.) whole milk
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½ cups (300 g, 10.5 oz.) tapioca starch/flour
  • 3 tablespoons (42 g, 1.5 oz.) mild tasting oil (I used mild tasting olive oil)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 200 g (7 oz.) grated cheese (the original recipe called for part-skim mozzarella; I used medium cheddar)
  • 55 g (2oz.) grated Parmesan cheese

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Method:
  1. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk and salt to a simmer. Remove from heat and immediately mix in all the tapioca flour and oil. The mixture will look “shaggy” and you won’t be able to make it uniform; but that’s ok. Let it cool for about 15 minutes before proceeding.
  2. Transfer the tapioca mixture in a bowl of the food processor fitted with an S – blade. Pulse couple of times to smooth out the dough. Add the egg and mix to combine. The dough will be very stretchy. Add both cheeses and let the machine work to smooth it out (about 1 minute).
  3. With a wet spatula, remove the dough from the food processor. Divide it into two equal parts and wrap each one in a saran wrap. Place the dough balls into the freezer for 30 minutes or chill them in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (up to overnight).
  4. Unwrap one dough ball, place it on a work surface sprinkled with more tapioca starch or gluten – free flour, and divide it into five pieces (each about 3 oz., or 85 g). Dust the dough with more tapioca, and roll it out into an 8 inch (20 cm) circle. (When rolling, move the dough often, and sprinkle it liberally with tapioca or gluten – free flour to prevent sticking.)
  5. Heat a 10 inch (25 cm) non-stick skillet over a medium heat. Place the rolled-out wrap onto the hot skillet and cook for about 2 – 2½ minutes, until one side is cooked and the wrap can be moved easily with a spatula. Flip the wrap and press it down with the spatula. Cook for another 40 – 50 seconds. Remove the wrap onto a plate and cover it with a moist dish towel. Make the other four wraps in the same way, and stack them up under the towel. Repeat the same process with the other cheese dough ball.
  6. Serve immediately, or wrap the wraps in a saran wrap/Ziploc bag and store them in the fridge for up to a week. To warm them up, place them onto a preheated skillet for a minute, or just nuke the in a microwave until they’re soft and pliable again.

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Note:

The original recipe says to only use tapioca starch from one specific manufacturer, and specifically warns NOT TO USE tapioca from Asian food stores, because the recipe won’t work. I only buy tapioca at Asian food store ($ .79 versus $4 is a big difference!) and I’m happy to report their tapioca flour worked just fine and the wraps were easy to roll out. If you are just starting your gluten – free journey and you’re suffering from a sticker shock looking at the price of gluten – free flours, please check out your local Asian/Indian food stores! They often carry many different gluten – free flours/starches at a fraction of a price of your regular grocery/health food store. But be careful and always check where/how the flours were made to avoid cross – contamination. That way both your tummy and your wallet will be happy 🙂

Three Jam Crostata

My summers growing up were pretty simple. The school was out, and since my parents and their siblings were working, they used to pack up their troubles and send them off to grandma’s.  All the cousins met up at the rural house in the country and we had a great time together. If we wanted to have fun, we had to come up with something fun to do. Nobody was driving us places, hovering over us fretting if we used sunscreen and if our young brains were stimulated enough. Grandma gave us something to eat three times a day and if we fought too hard and there was blood, I *think* she washed us up and slapped a Band-Aid on. That was it. Aaaah, memories.

Grandma also made sure we weren’t just wandering around doing nothing all day, and had no problem taking advantage of free child labor she had awaiting her pleasure. She had a big garden with fruit trees, and since it was summer, there were always cherries and apricots to process and preserve. We were in charge of pitting/halving the fruit and I positively hated this part of my summer vacation. To my child’s eyes the sea of fruit seemed bottomless, and just as we put away all the fruit one day, there was always more when we woke up.

It’s funny. How often we eventually get to like what we hated as kids? I used to despise spinach, and now eat so much of it my blood should be green, and preserving fruits and veggies is one of my greatest summer pleasures. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing those neat rows of jars filled with summer abundance in the pantry; plus, I get to play with flavors and combinations, and make each batch a little different.

This crostata (tart in Italian) showcases three kinds of jam at once, and manages to do so gorgeously! If you’re not a jam making fanatic as I am, you can just use your favorite store bought jam, and be done in no time. Playing with decorations and painting is totally optional, but so much fun 🙂

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Three Jam Crostata

(inspired by http://www.findyourcake.it)

Crostata:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 50 g (1.5 oz.) potato starch
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 egg yolks, cold
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest

+ 1 egg yolk to paint the dough decorations; assorted food colors
1 egg yolk + 1 tablespoon water for egg wash

Quick Strawberry Jam (makes 4 cups)
  • 1 ½ pints (1 ¼ lbs., 560 g) fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon framboise liqueur (optional)
Quick Cherry Jam (makes about 1 ¼ cups)
  • 3 cups cherries (24 oz., 675 g)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Kirsch liqueur (optional)
Quick Apricot Jam
  • 1 kg (2 lbs.) apricots, pitted and halved
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon rum (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the jams, prepare clean glass jars with lids by running them through a dishwasher sanitizing cycle, or sterilize them by submerging them into a clean boiling water for 10 minutes.  You’ll need to warm them up before filling them with hot jam.
  2. For each of the jams, pulse the fruit in a food processor couple of times to break it up a little, and then transfer it to a deep saucepan. Add the sugar and the lemon juice/zest, and cook on a medium heat until thick to your liking (10 – 15 minutes, for thicker consistency cook longer). Check the consistency by putting one drop of preserves on a cold plate that has been in the freezer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add rum/liqueur if using.
  3. Ladle the hot jam into the preheated jars, and screw the lids on. You can either can the jars by submerging them into boiling water for 10 minutes, or just turn them upside down on a clean towel, let them cool and keep them in the refrigerator. (This is what I do when I preserve small quantity of fruit such as in this case – the jams are gone within a week anyway 🙂
  4. To make the crostata: Place the dry ingredients in a bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S – blade; pulse to combine. Add the cold cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles peas (you should still see small pieces of butter, that’s what makes the pastry tender and flaky.)
  5. One by one add the egg yolks and the zest, mix just until combined and the dough comes together in a ball. Wrap the dough in a saran wrap and chill it for 30 minutes, so it will be easier to roll.
  6. On a floured surface, roll the dough into a circle a little bigger than your tart pan with removable bottom. Transfer the rolled out dough into the pan and press it up the sides of the pan. Roll out three pieces of dough into a rope about ¾ cm thick and braid them together. Place the braid onto the dough in the pan, dividing it into thirds.Chill the dough while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C). Reserve the scraps of the dough for decorations.
  7. Place sheet of parchment paper on the surface of the dough, and fill it with pie weights or dry beans. Parbake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the beans/weights, lower the temp to 350 °F (175 °C), brush the crostata with egg wash and bake for about 10 minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil. Remove the tart from the oven and let cool completely.
  8. Roll out the dough scarps, cut out the decorations and chill them for 20 minutes, so they will be easier to paint. Place an egg yolk in the center of a plate and place 2 – 3 drops of desired colors on the edge of the plate. Mix a little of the egg yolk with the color you’re using and paint the cut out decorations. Place the painted decorations on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake them at 350 °F (175 °C) for about 5 – 7 minutes. Let cool completely.
  9. Fill the crostata with jams, using about 2/3 cup of each strawberry, apricot, and cherry jam. Decorate with the painted prebaked decorations and serve.
Note:

The original recipe instructions said to fill the unbaked crostata with jam, decorate it with unbaked painted decorations and bake it that way. I chose to brebake both the crust and the decorations, because I was worried the crostata filled with jam wouldn’t bake through and the crust would be soggy, and the bubbling jam would mess up the painted fruit decorations. This method took slightly longer, but I think the crostata looks better.

Chocolate Crêpe Torte with Hazelnut Buttercream Filling and Candied Nuts

This weekend we celebrate America’s birthday: There will be fireworks, parades, barbeques, and blue, red, and white desserts. Unfortunately I only remembered this fact when I was halfway done with the crêpes for this torte, and there was no way I was going to come up with something new just to comply with the white, blue, and red requirement of the 4th of July celebrations. First of all, the combination of chocolate, nuts, and caramel sounded too good to abandon it, not to mention IT. IS. HOT out there – so hot that even I am thinking twice before turning on the oven.

We are having a gorgeous summer with the temperatures in the 90’s here and I am thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. Ten months out of the year the weather in the Pacific Northwest is nothing to write home about, but the summers are freaking amazing. I’ve wanted to try a crêpe torte for quite some time, and it seemed this hot day would be a good time for it – no need for the oven and at the first glance the process looked pretty quick and straightforward. It turned out it wasn’t the smartest idea after all – it turns out making 30 crêpes does in fact take some time and standing over a hot griddle was probably worse than baking, when at least I can shut the oven door and walk away. But I’m determined: even though I felt like I was stuck in a hot yoga class,  sweat was pouring down my back the whole time, and I burned my fingertips more than once turning the crêpes, I’m happy to report I made it through, and it was worth it!

Even though crêpes are French in origin, they’re a staple in Slovak cuisine as well, and are my go to meal in those “lazy Mother days”. It never occurred to me to add chocolate to them until now, and it was a brilliant idea (thank you, Martha Stewart!). The frosting the crêpes are layered with reminds me of hazelnut gelato I used to love when I was in Italy as an exchange student many moons ago – it is a simple vanilla buttercream with lots and lots roasted chopped nuts swirled in. Although, calling it “hazelnut buttercream with hint of vanilla” would probably be much more appropriate, because I really went overboard with the nuts. Half of the quantity would be more than enough, but oh well, I’m sure the cake it’s going to be eaten 🙂

I had the most fun playing with the candied nuts though – swirling them in golden caramel and making those pretty spikes on them.  I borrowed the idea from Martha again, and had a sweet one on one time with my teenager, who was more than happy to help when he realized there was caramel involved. (Hey, if you want to see your kid, you do whatever it takes, right?!)

Happy 4th, everybody; enjoy the long weekend and stay safe!

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Chocolate Crêpe Torte with Hazelnut Buttercream Frosting and Candied Nuts

Chocolate Crêpes:

(adapted from http://www.marthastewart.com; recipe makes about 30 8-inch crêpes)

  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks, 170 g) unsalted butter; plus more for the pan
  • 8 oz. (225 g) semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 ½ cups (6.5 oz., 195 g) all – purpose flour (I subbed gluten – free flour mix with good results)
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 ½ cup (20 oz., 590 ml) whole milk
  • 6 whole eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vanilla Hazelnut Buttercream:
  • 2 ½ cup (20 oz., 600 ml) whole milk
  • 3.5 oz. (100 g)  white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1.5 oz. (45 g) vanilla pudding (I used European brand called dr. Oetker, but you can use any cook-and-serve vanilla pudding powder)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 lb. (450 g, 4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3.5 – 7 oz. (100 – 200 g) dry roasted and chopped hazelnuts
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
  • ½ cup (4 oz.,  125 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 oz. (30 g) unsalted butter
  • 4 oz. (115 g) good quality bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/6 cup (0.7 oz., 20 g) powdered sugar
Candied Nuts:
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • whole hazelnuts or other nuts of your choice
    + wooden skewers; a wooden cutting board to secure the skewers; and a big cake pan to catch dripping caramel

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Method:
  1. To make the crêpes, melt chocolate and butter over a pot of boiling water and set aside to cool slightly. Pour milk into your blender, add eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Lastly add the flour, and blend until well combined. The batter should be fairly thin, so it’ll distribute evenly on the hot pan. Refrigerate the batter for 30 minutes before making the crêpes.
  2. Lightly coat the non-stick crêpe pan with melted butter. Heat up the pan until really hot, and then pour about 2 – 3 tablespoons of batter into the pan, and swirl the pan quickly to coat the bottom. (If it’s hard to distribute the batter, thin it out with a little milk until it’s easily pourable. Crêpes are pretty forgiving with regards to measurements.)
  3. Cook the cr̻pe over a medium Рhigh heat until the edges are dry and the middle of the cr̻pe looks cooked, about 30 seconds to a minute. Flip it carefully and continue to cook for 30 seconds more. Remove cr̻pe to a plate, coat the pan with a little butter again and continue baking the cr̻pes in the same fashion, stacking them on a plate. Let the finished cr̻pes cool at room temperature.
  4. To make the Vanilla – Hazelnut Buttercream,  heat the milk, sugar, and vanilla  in a saucepan. Combine the egg yolks with the powdered pudding. Temper the egg yolk – pudding mixture with a little warm milk, and then pour all of it into your milk in the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 2 – 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately press a saran wrap on top of the vanilla crème. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
  5. Cream butter in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a paddle. With the mixer on, start adding the vanilla crème, one tablespoon at a time (it is important that both the butter and the cooked vanilla crème are the same temp, so the mixture wouldn’t curdle). Mix at a low speed to make a smooth creamy filling.
  6. By hand mix in the chopped hazelnuts. Chill the frosting for about 30 minutes until it is easy to spread.
  7. To assemble the torte: Place one crêpe on a plate. Spread about 3 tablespoons of filling on, covering the entire crêpe all the way to the edges. Place another crêpe on top of the filling. Continue layering the crêpes with the filling, ending with a crêpe. Press the last crêpe down lightly, and put the torte into the refrigerator to firm up, 30 minutes to 2 hours.
  8. Make the chocolate glaze: Heat the heavy cream with butter until almost boiling. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Let stand for a minute so the chocolate melts, and then add the powdered sugar and stir vigorously to make a smooth glaze.
  9. You can either pour the slightly cooled glaze over the cake, or let it cool in the fridge until it thickens and frost the cake with an icing spatula. Chill the frosted torte while you prepare candied nuts.
  10. To make the candied nuts, stick the tip of a skewer into a whole nut (prepare about ten of skewered nuts in advance). Place a wooden cutting board on the edge of your counter, and put a big cake pan on the floor under the counter to catch the caramel that’ll be dripping from the nuts.
  11. Combine sugar and water in a non – stick saucepan. Cook the sugar syrup until the water evaporates and the sugar turns into caramel. (Do not stir the sugar while it cooks; if you feel you need to, just gently swirl the pan from time to time. Stirring encourages crystallization. Also, keep an eye on the sugar while it cooks, as sugar goes to caramel and then to burned caramel pretty fast. When it starts changing color to amber, immediately remove it from the heat and swirl the pan while it darkens.)
  12. Let the caramel cool slightly, about 3 – 5 minutes. When it starts to thicken, quickly take one skewered hazelnut and swirl it in the caramel, coating it completely. Put the skewer under the cutting board and let the excess caramel drip into the pan on the floor. The caramel cools pretty quickly at this point and the dripping caramel should leave you with a nice spike on the hazelnut. (Judging the proper thickness of the caramel takes some practice, but making these decorations is so much fun. If the caramel in the pan hardens too much, just gently heat it up until you’re able to coat the hazelnuts again.) Let the candied nuts cool under the cutting board for about 5 minutes and then break off the caramel spike to a desired length and carefully remove the skewer.
  13. Decorate the torte with candied nuts and serve.