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Hazelnut Torte takes on a sophisticated elegance as it shows off a thick layer of strawberries and cream. Photo by Sue Doeden

Hazelnut Torte with Strawberries and Vanilla Cream

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I was watching an old rerun of the Food Network's Barefoot Contessa the other day. Ina Garten whipped up a soft and fluffy angel food cake, making the task look as easy as slicing some strawberries to serve with each thick chunk of cake.

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I've always liked angel food cake, especially the kind flecked with rainbow-colored confetti that comes from a boxed mix. I've never made an angel food cake from scratch. After a total disaster with a from-scratch chiffon cake when I was about 12 years old, I've steered clear of any recipe that requires separating eggs and beating whites to just the right stage to produce a light and airy cake.

That's why I love making Hazelnut Torte. Separating eggs is not necessary to create this rustic cake that has moist texture and nutty flavor reminiscent of an old-fashioned Eastern European dessert.

Hazelnuts are toasted, skinned and finely chopped before getting processed in a blender with whole eggs, sugar, breadcrumbs, baking powder and vanilla. It's as easy as slicing strawberries and whipping up some Vanilla Cream to squeeze between the two baked layers of cake.

Plenty of ground hazelnuts mixed with a generous number of large eggs produces a uniquely moist, flavorful torte with a nutty texture. The torte takes on a sophisticated elegance as it shows off a thick layer of strawberries and cream. Mascarpone, a sweet Italian cream cheese, is whipped into the Vanilla Cream, allowing the cake to stand up to several hours of storage in the refrigerator without losing its beauty.

This versatile Hazelnut Torte can also take on an air of simplicity. Dust one layer with powdered sugar and cut it into dainty wedges to serve with fresh berries and a puff of whipped cream on the side. If you aren't serving a crowd, tightly wrap the other layer of cake and freeze it for serving another time.

Don't stop here with the Vanilla Cream. Mascarpone makes it thick and stable, perfect for frosting cupcakes, slathering over a carrot cake and mounding on top of cream pies. For a berries and cream dessert, form shallow nests of Vanilla Cream in small dessert bowls and fill them with bright, fresh berries for a light and lovely ending to a dinner party.

I do love angel food cake for soaking up sweet juice of summer berries. Although Ina Garten does make it look easy to create an angel food cake, I don't care to separate eggs, beat whites and wonder what to do with the remaining yolks.

And chiffon cake, almost unheard of these days, uses yolks and oil, and just like angel food cake, is leavened with beaten egg whites. I'll pass, thank you.

I'll take Hazelnut Torte, the cake that's easy to make.

Hazelnut Torte with Strawberries and Vanilla Cream

2 cups hazelnuts

8 large eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fine, dry breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone, room temperature

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups sliced fresh strawberries

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place hazelnuts in a single layer on a large, ungreased baking sheet. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and dump hazelnuts on a clean kitchen towel. Rub hazelnuts briskly with the towel to remove skins. Discard skins and set hazelnuts aside to cool. When the nuts have cooled, chop with a sharp chef's knife or in a food processor.

Butter and flour 2 (10-inch) springform pans.

Place eggs in blender. Process until blended. With blender on high speed, remove small insert in blender cover and add chopped hazelnuts, 1 1/2 cups sugar, breadcrumbs, baking powder and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Process 30 seconds or until blended. Mixture will be thick. Stop blender and scrape down sides with rubber spatula once during the processing.

Divide batter equally between the two prepared pans. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on metal rack.

Carefully remove sides of springform pans. Transfer one cake to serving platter.

Beat whipping cream, mascarpone, 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract in a large bowl with electric mixer at medium speed until thick and peaks form when beaters are lifted.

Spread half of whipped cream mixture over layer on plate. Combine strawberries and liqueur. Place 3/4 of strawberries over whipped cream mixture. Top with remaining cake layer. Spread remaining whipped cream mixture over top of torte. Pile remaining strawberries in center of top of torte. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to a few hours before serving. Makes one 10-inch torte.

Tips from the cook

--If you'd rather not use a blender to mix the cake batter, grind the hazelnuts in a food processor or nut grinder and use an electric mixer to beat the eggs and blend all the ingredients together.

--The cake layers can be baked in 9-inch springform pans. Bake time will be slightly longer. You may want to be adventurous and slice each of the 9-inch layers in half to create a torte with four layers.

--Try using raspberries rather than strawberries for another delicious torte.

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