Nuts in Baking

Cakes are soft and spongy and often have the various creams and chocolates – well, ordinary cakes that is. When you chop and use candied and/or dried fruits, nuts and spices you come up with extremely different genre of cake. In the years gone by, before wedding cakes began to get all the fancy icing and became huge and ostentatious, it used to be the tradition in UK to have only this variety of cake for wedding celebrations and often a piece was kept by the couple – to be had at their first wedding anniversary. 

Which Nuts

The earliest recipe from ancient Rome includes pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins that were mixed into a mash of barley. A few centuries later, during the middle ages, preserved fruits were being added and the term fruitcake (for the cake not to indicate a mad human being) was used. 
Today almost all nuts, including hazelnuts, pecans and a host of others are used in cakes of different variations but initially Europeans were baking fruitcakes using nuts from the harvest – for good luck in the following year, saved and eaten before the harvest of the next year, so often a year old.

Soaking of Nuts

To imbue the nuts with flavours additional to their inherent aroma, it was customary to soak them in alcohol spiked with spices. Probably the German stole the recipe that originated five hundred years ago has dried fruits and almonds with spices that give it a totally distinct flavour. The German cake has more ratio of cake batter as compared to nuts and fruits, especially when compared to the American fruitcakes.

Methodology of Cake Baking

The two methods of making cakes followed by bakers are - ‘The Creaming’ method and the ‘Wet then Dry’ method. In the Creaming the ingredients usually include butter, sugar, eggs, milk and the dry products including the flour, raising agent and any additions of nuts. Cream butter is not melted, just softened with sugar. Eggs are added one by one – all additions of nuts are done before milk and flour to avoid over mixing the flour.
The second method is that when the wet ingredients (including oil or melted butter); here the sugar and eggs are mixed until pale and fluffy and oil and other wet ingredients are added. These tend to be wetter than the creaming method cakes.

Indian Preferences

In India walnuts, pecan nuts, hazelnuts, almonds are mostly used because they become dry and increase in size through which they preserve the food taste, and the flavour is highly improved. Along with these nuts macadamia and Brazil nuts too are largely popular. 
For all walnut lovers the brownie with walnuts is a delight but when once in a while a bad walnut explodes in the mouth it is the worst taste and takes a while to be rinsed out! Walnuts in the shell should be stored in a cool, dry place. One needs to be more careful with the shelled walnuts because walnuts contain high percentage of oil, which easily turn rancid. Exposure to light, moisture or heat will reduce their shelf life. Once opened, walnuts are best stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. For long-term storage, one can also freeze shelled walnuts in airtight plastic bags, they thaw quickly at f r o m temperature.  
In case of a dry fruits cake it is always good to bake at a low temperature and use a water bath in the bottom shelf of the oven which helps to keep the cake moist too. Also to make sure nuts don’t sink to the bottom making the end product bottom heavy it is advisable to coat the liquor soaked nuts with flour. Honey as part replacement for sugar in the recipe is also one technique that can be uses as on account of its hydroscopic property it helps draw moisture from air.
If most other nuts have an international appeal, the cashew nuts are somehow more Indian in their flavour – after all we do consume copious amounts through Diwali and in Indian sweets. But if you have been missing cashew nuts in your cake, there is a definite reason. Cashew nuts are used as per the customer demand normally. Sogginess of cashew nut is avoided by first putting the nuts wrapped in icing sugar & then roasted in oven.
Due to their higher moisture and oil content cashew may not be suitable for a particular recipe. Broken cashew nut yields good results when used in a biscuit with high temperature bake might not be the best option for a dry fruit cake!
Soaking of nuts in liquor is recommended for anything from 12 hours to 24 hours but if you leave them longer – it might not be harmful to the nuts; though might not give increased improvement in the result. A liquor, a liqueur or plain water soaking would get you the desired feel of the nuts.
A minimum of 6:1 ratio of mixture and dry fruits should be good to give a mouthful of nuts every time you bite into it. By roasting the dry fruits the moisture content evaporates and the dry fruits absorb the moisture from the mixture.
There should be a good mix of rich moistness and a good blend of fruitiness and sweet spices with nuts contributing to the crunch,’ and that truly sums up the saga of a nutty fruitcake – with tea or coffee or just to munch on its own!

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