Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Herb & Eatery's GF Almond and Walnut Coffee Cake

One thing you learn about pastry chefs: they are all about precision. Case in point. I was with pastry chef Adrian Mendoza of Herb & Eatery last week so he could teach me how to make his Gluten-Free Almond and Walnut Coffee Cake. We got to talking about the kitchen and he told me a story about a new pastry assistant who came to work. When it came time to label a batch of pastries, she automatically ripped off a piece of masking tape to write on with her sharpie. Nope. Mendoza told her she needed to use a scissors to cut the tape. Apparently, she laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't.

"I know it seems like a small thing," he acknowledged. "But I'm meticulous about what I do and those details create discipline in the kitchen, which you need in baking. So, yeah, I had her go back and cut the label with scissors."

Mendoza grew up in Apple Valley, California. He didn't grow up cooking, although he enjoyed watching his mom. But once he got into high school he attended after school cooking classes from 3 to 7 p.m. three to four times a week.

"I loved it," he said. "But I didn't think about becoming a chef. Actually I was thinking of becoming a mechanical drafter. I loved the precision. I remember learning how to build bridges from toothpicks."

But when Mendoza graduated from high school, he decided to leave home for San Diego to attend the Art Institute's cooking program. It was a choice, he said, of working behind a desk all day or being able to move around and produce something creative that people would enjoy. He also got a job at MacDonald's--on Aero Drive. There, he said, he learned about organization skills and timing. And, he got a job working on the savory side at Oceanaire, which is where he met Chef Brian Malarkey, whom he works for now and at Malarkey's previous restaurants.

Mendoza also took some time to go to L.A. to work, including a one-year stint at Spago plating desserts. A bakery then hired him, and sent him to France for two weeks to train on equipment.

"That's where I got really in depth with croissants and baguettes," he said. In fact, Joanne Sherif of Cardamom Cafe and Bakery, whom he worked for part time while he was working at Oceanaire, told me recently that she thinks he makes the best croissants in San Diego--and they are magnificent.

Today, Mendoza works with six assistants--a bread baker and five pastry assistants--along with an intern to produce a wealth of breads, croissants, bagels, bialies, and sweets for both Herb & Eatery and Herb & Wood. The morning I was there, his assistants were working on a huge batch of Sea Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies. Earlier in the morning there were loaves upon loaves of challahs--both plain and topped with spices. They were almost gone by the time I was ready to leave a couple of hours later. I was able to snare one small plain one and a bagel--a really great bagel, in fact.

But what I was there for was the coffee cake. Now I'm not gluten free so I didn't care about that aspect of it, but I love a good coffee cake. The fact that it is gluten free makes it that much more interesting in terms of baking science. Mendoza uses Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, which is easily found at Whole Foods, Sprouts, Amazon, and Sur la Table. That means if you aren't interested in baking this cake gluten free you can simply use all-purpose flour in the same measurements. He also adds almond flour or almond meal, which, he says, acts as a tenderizer. You can buy it or grind it yourself from almonds.

The cake is pretty easy to make, but it has three distinct components. There's the cake batter, the streusel center--with walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon--and a crumble top--with butter flour, sugar, and sea salt.

We started with the crumble. Mendoza used a food processor (but you could use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment). It's a simple process of combining the dry ingredients in the bowl and pulse until combined, then adding the butter and pulsing until the mixture forms pea-sized pieces. Put the mixture into a bowl and refrigerate until you're ready to use it.

Then we moved on to the streusel center. You'll want to toast the walnuts to bring out the flavor. Don't care for walnuts? Not a problem. Use pecans or pine nuts or cashews. Or a mix. Again, you'll combine the ingredients in the bowl of the food processor and pulse about 20 times until the walnuts are about 1/4" pieces. Put that aside.

Okay, so then it was time for the cake batter. We switched to a Kitchen Aid mixer. Our butter was at room temperature and, as you can imagine, all the ingredients were already measured and waiting. First you'll cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla, starting on low for about 20 seconds and then amping it up to medium high for four minutes. What you're doing, Mendoza explained, is building air to help absorb the eggs. Your key to completion is light and fluffy butter and sugar.

And, by the way, you'll notice that Mendoza uses crème fraiche in the batter. He doesn't buy it, of course. He makes it. It's just two ingredients--cream and buttermilk. If you want to make it yourself, use a 4 to 1 ratio of cream to buttermilk and leave it on the counter, covered, for two days at room temperature. You'll have a terrific, tangy sour cream.

Back to the batter: While the butter, sugar, and vanilla are creaming, sift together all the dry ingredients but the almond flour (over parchment paper so you can pick it up and use it as a funnel to add to the wet ingredients. Once, the dry ingredients are sifted, you can add the almond flour on top. Put that aside and--once the butter mixture is fluffy--add the eggs, one at a time, stopping and scraping down the mixture with each egg. Then you'll add a third of the dry ingredients, mix on low briefly, then add half of the crème fraiche, then the dry ingredients, the rest of the crème fraiche, and then the rest of the dry ingredients--scraping down with each addition. Don't over mix the batter or it will turn gummy.

We're almost there; it's all assembly now. You can make the cakes in muffin pans, as we did, or cast iron pans (which will take a little longer to bake). Whatever you choose, butter the pans (Mendoza uses a spray product called Vegalene, which is gluten free). You can also use cupcake liners.

To add the batter you can use a spoon or ice cream scoop--or a pastry bag, which Mendoza used. He uses KopyKake disposable bags (Amazon sells them). Place a 1/8" layer of the batter at the bottom. Then a small handful--about a tablespoon or two--of the streusel over that. The another thin layer of batter followed by a couple of tablespoons of the crumble topping.

Bake in a 350° oven for about 30 to 35 minutes or until golden dark brown.

I have to say that gluten free or not, this is a terrific coffee cake. The cake itself is moist and you'd never know that alternative flours were used. You get a fun surprise in the middle with a bite of the streusel--and I'm all about a good crumble. The cake just works. I brought some to my mom and she loved it. It's a hugely popular menu item at Herb & Eatery, but Mendoza told me the staff does give customers a heads up that while they do their best to segregate their gluten-free baked goods from their conventional wheat pastries, there is always a risk of cross contamination of flours in the air. If that's an issue, be forewarned. If not, enjoy!

GF Almond and Walnut Coffee Cake
from Adrian Mendoza of Herb & Eatery
(printable recipe)

1 stick plus 1 ½ tablespoon butter, cold, ½" cubes
½ cup Cup4Cup gluten-free flour
½ cup almond flour or almond meal
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoons sea salt

1. Combine all dry ingredients in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the blade attachment or in the bowl of the kitchen aid fitted with the beater attachment.
2. Process until combined.
3. Add the butter and pulse or mix on low until they are pea-size pieces.
4. Place into a mixing bowl, cover, and keep under refrigeration.

Streusel Center:
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted at 325° for 10 minutes
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon

1. In the same bowl of the processor, combine all ingredients and pulse about 20 times until the walnuts are ¼" pieces.
2. Set aside.

Cake Batter:
1 ½ cup butter, room temperature
1 ¾ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 extra large eggs, cage free
2 ½ cups Cup 4 Cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup almond flour or almond meal
1 ½ cups crème fraiche

1. In the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract on low speed for 20 seconds.
2. Increase the speed to medium high and allow to blend for 4 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, combine the dry ingredients except the almond flour, and sift. Add the almond flour on top.
4. Scrape down the butter mixture and add the eggs in 1 by 1 scraping down after each addition.
5. Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, mix on low for 10 seconds, add ½ of the crème fraiche and, scraping down after each addition. Repeat until you finish adding the in dry ingredients.

To Assemble:

1. Spray pans well or can line with cup cake paper.
2. Place batter into pastry bag and snip a ½ “ tip or can use a spoon.
3. Place a 1/8th inch layer of batter first.
4. Place 1-2 tbsp of walnut streusel.
5. Place another 1/8th to ¼” layer of batter on top.
6. Followed by 1-2 tbsp of crumble topping.
7. Bake in a 350F oven for approximately 30-35 minutes until golden dark brown.
8. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pan before taking out, they are fragile.
9. Dust with powdered sugar or however you would like to decorate. A scoop of ice cream on top with fresh berries is a nice dessert.

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