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Rich and Simple Ð A Nutty Way to a Happy Ending

Brian Shaw
Special to the Nevada Appeal

I’ve always been a big fan of desserts. Possibly because my mother was good at them and kept a constant supply of cakes, cookies and pies around the house. Possibly because in my 20s and 30s I drank like a fish and am still trying to replace the spirits with sugar. But from the standpoint of how they work on a menu, desserts have two useful functions.

If something has gone wrong with a guest’s experience, reservation snafu or entrees taking forever to come out of the kitchen, a great dessert is a good way to say “I’m sorry.” And if the guest’s experience has been all positive, a great dessert is the knock out punch.

The first time we served today’s torte was for a dinner hosted by the Lake Tahoe yacht club during the Concourse d’Elegance (wooden boat show). The sample I made prior to the party tasted great but had collapsed in the center. Since we didn’t have the capacity to produce the 24 tortes needed for the party, we were using a pastry shop in Incline to do the actual production. When I gave the recipe to the pastry chef I warned him that mine had gone flat and that he should make a prototype before making the big batch. He looked at me with the irreverence with which all pastry chefs view cooks and apparently dismissed the idea.

The day of the party arrived as did 24 little pink boxes, each containing a collapsed nut torte. I was horrified, but it gets worse.

We had decided to serve a simple side of sliced organic peaches with the torte, and had been in almost daily contact with a specialty produce market in Truckee who had in turn been in touch with the grower. Even though I had been assured by both that they would be coming in ripe, we ordered them four days in advance just in case they required incubating. They arrived hard as rocks.

On the day of the event, after having exposed the peaches to every grandmothers’ trick for ripening, we set the four cases under a folding table on the lawn outside the kitchen. Indirect sunlight was our last hope.

The afternoon I finally got up the nerve to check on my fruit, I went out back to find half the peaches missing and a lady sorting through those that remained. Seems some of the people driving by had spotted our little produce stand and pulled over to do some shopping. The lady looked at me and said almost with contempt, “These peaches aren’t ripe.” The only thing I could say without spewing profanities was, “No kidding?”

The party went off without any more hitches, they loved the dessert which we garnished with fresh berries that were laying around, and not one comment about the collapsed cakes.

We have since made the torte a few more times, and have made the adjustments so that it is less temperamental. And it’s very user friendly in that you can refrigerate it for up to five days wrapped in plastic. Just bring it to room temperature before serving.

Here’s the point of this story. When working with food, no matter how thoroughly you try to anticipate all the pitfalls, sometimes flat happens.

Virginia City Nut Cake

makes one 9-inch torte

For the crust:

1/2 cup coarse ground almonds

1/2 cup coarse ground pecans

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

To grind the nuts, place them in a food processor and pulse four or five times making sure not to overdo it. Put the ground nuts in a bowl along with the sugar and flour. Cut the butter into little pieces and work into the nut mixture until the butter has disappeared Ð kind of like a pie crust. The mixture should be crumbly. Spray or lightly butter the bottom on a 9-inch spring form pan and press the nut mixture into the pan. It will just start to come up the sides but not much more than that. Wrap the bottom of the pan in foil, place on a baking tray and bake at 350 for about 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t let it brown. It will puff up a little, so press it back down using the back of a spoon while it’s still hot.

For the filling:

2 cups brown sugar

3 eggs plus one yolk

2 cups of chopped nuts •

1 1/3 cup shredded coconut

3/4 cup (scant) flour

Lightly butter the sides of your prepared pan. Beat the eggs and yolk just to combine. Add the remaining ingredients and mix to combine. Place in the pre-baked crust and bake for 50 to 55 minutes. The torte should be a nice, light brown and be set but a little spongy when pressed in the middle. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan. Cool completely then wrap in plastic and refrigerate until ready to serve. Bring to room temperature, dust with a little powdered sugar and a little fresh fruit if you like.

• We used almonds, pecans and walnuts, but any combination will work like hazelnuts and pecans, walnuts and almonds, etc.

• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C Street in Virginia City.