The Walnut Variation: A Cake

By • April 29, 2014 56 Comments

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Author Notes: Recently, I discovered The Worlds's Best Cake -- a lovely vanilla affair with whipped cream, meringue, and almonds. It was indeed amazing, and I thank Sweet Paul for the introduction. Ever since I made this soft, chewy, crisp, crunchy, and billowy cake, I've been pondering variations on the theme. This is the Walnut Variation: coffee-flavored cake, cinnamon meringue, toasted walnuts, and maple vanilla whipped cream. The technique is Sweet Paul; the flavor variation is mine.Aliwaks

Food52 Review: WHO: Aliwaks is a longtime Food52er from Philadelphia.
WHAT: A stunner of a cake -- full stop.
HOW: Bake two cakes with meringue on top of them; whip some cream; stack. Watch your dinner party go silent.
WHY WE LOVE IT: This cake is a total show-stopper. It’s dramatic and showy, and it tastes that way too: Deep from brown sugar and walnuts and lightly spiced, you’ll want to make this for every occasion, ever. We already do.
The Editors

Makes 1 cake

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 10 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped and toasted
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  1. The night before: Separate eggs and let egg whites sit on the counter overnight, covered with a clean cloth. Pour cream into a saucepan. Split and scrape vanilla bean into the cream and heat until just boiling. Remove from heat and let cool. Cover and chill overnight.
  2. The next day: Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare a 9 x 12-inch cake pan with buttered parchment. (Alternatively, you can prepare two 9-inch round cake pans.)
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar until creamy and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Whisk together flour, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. Add mixture to butter and sugar in 3 increments, mixing fully between additions.
  5. Whisk together egg yolks and milk. Add to batter in 3 increments, incorporating fully each time. Scrape batter into prepared pan.
  6. In a clean mixing bowl (I wipe down my bowl and whisk attachment with vinegar), whip egg whites until foamy. Add sugar and cinnamon and whip to soft peaks.
  7. Spread the meringue over cake batter, cover with toasted walnuts and bake 35-40 minutes, until the meringue is crackly. Let cake cool completely.
  8. Meanwhile, remove vanilla bean from cream. Add maple syrup and whip cream to soft peaks. Cut cake in half and place one half on a cake plate, meringue side up. Cover with whipped cream. Top with remaining half, meringue side up. You will end up with a 2-layer square cake from your single-layer rectangular cake. (If you're doing this in two round cake pans, just top one with the other.) Let sit 1-2 hours.
  9. To go completely over-the-top, serve with a dark chocolate sauce punched up with a few dashes of walnut bitters.
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Comments (56) Questions (1)

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21 days ago JBF OF BROOKLYN

Baked this last night in 2 9" pans. Looks beautiful. After completely cooled covered in saran to hold overnight. I did not layer with whipped cream yet. Uncovered this morning and meringue is like foam rubber. How can I revive? so it's crunchy?

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21 days ago Aliwaks

JBF- here's what happened the saran wrap created condensation- not sure if you can revive I'd try leaving it in the oven for a bit on 200- I leave it out uncovered or under a cake dome with one of those silica packs from a pair of shoe sin side-

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28 days ago Kaylee

I just made this! Truly delightful. The espresso powder was perfect and the walnut/espresso combination was killer. I love the sweetness of the cake, in that it is not overpowering. The cake batter seems like you will not have enough to fill both cake pans, but then, magically, you do! Wonderful recipe.

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3 months ago Eva

Absolutely delicious, unusual, enchanting.

One question: is the meringue supposed to be crisp? Mine isn't, though the cake itself is fully baked and the meringue is dry and toasty and cracked...it's more of a chewy texture. I was disappointed, because it LOOKS crisp. But I suppose it just doesn't have the time in the oven to dry out?

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5 months ago Donna

I made this cake this AM for our Real Estate Broker's Open House. Twenty-five of his colleagues came to look at our house, and eat cake! It was stunning and delicious, and not a crumb was left by the time I got home! I'll let you know how quickly the house sells :)

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5 months ago Jsel19

The kind of butter in the recipe is unspecified. Does this mean you use salted butter? Thanks.

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5 months ago Aliwaks

Unsalted, if you use salted leave out the salt.

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5 months ago Jsel19

Thanks for the terrific recipe! The cake was wonderful, a perfect celebration cake for my sister's birthday.

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7 months ago Emily

I live in Denver...anyone have any suggestions on how to alter the cake recipe for high altitude?

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10 months ago Jane Carrool

My family has made a version of this cake for over 100 years. Family birthday cake - called "Fairy Pie." Old English recipe.

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10 months ago kzmccaff

Just made this cake and it was beautiful and delish! I think springform might be the best pan to bake this in, but a normal 9" worked too (I used parchment in both pans, and used coconut spray in one and veg oil in the other--the coconut spray worked better! FYI). I was worried when I put the cake batter in that it wasn't enough batter, but it worked beautifully. Wonderful flavor. The walnut really is what comes through. And the textures are lovely--the crisp / chewy meringue, the creamy whipped cream, the light and crumbly cake, the crunch of the walnut. And if you do as the recipe says and take a few steps the night before, it really is a breeze to pull together!

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11 months ago Eggplayer

I just made this cake, following the recipe to the letter. I baked the cake layers in an 8-inch springform pan. It turned out beautifully. I wish I could post a photo of it. Our book group raved over it. We all agreed that the best part (besides its stunning looks) is enjoying the textures. It was not cloyingly sweet, which we thought was a major plus. I will definitely make it again for a special occasion. I would say that making this cake is not for the faint of heart or the beginner baker. It's a bit tricky getting the cake out of the pans and also cutting into it so that it doesn't fall apart. However, I was able to do it and it was worth all the wringing of hands ;-)

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12 months ago Amber

Just made this cake. Baked it for about 40 minutes in disposable 8 inch round pans that I buttered well. The cake is simply lovely. They were easy to remove from the pans as I just cut the sides and took it out with the help of two spatulas. I'm a bit nervous about the whipped cream making it soggy as I'm preparing this prior to going to a party, but hopefully as we should eat it about 2 hours after adding the whipped cream, it will hold up well. The individual components tasted lovely uncooked...and I'll update on how it held up later.

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12 months ago Amber

Glad to report it turned out quite well. I love the rustic yet impressive look of it. The whipped cream held up nicely for the 2 hours...I popped it in the refrigerator for most of that time to hold the whipped cream in place. I also didn't use all the whipped cream called for. Only 2/3 or so fit in the middle, and it still came oozing out the sides. The flavor was quite nice. The cake layer and whipped cream aren't very sweet, and the meringue layer is quite sweet - so they balance each other out nicely. Next time I think I'll try it with the vanilla/almond flavors.

Oh and a quick tip about making the meringue. I prepped all the ingredients ahead of time, and then I made the meringue first. Afterwards I used the same beaters to make the cake layer. That way, I didn't have to worry about possibly ruining the egg whites if the slightest bit of water/oil was still left on the beaters.

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about 1 year ago cincoymaya

The cake came out looking beautiful and was easy to unmold and flip which surprised me. I made adjustments for elevation (4800 ft) but it fell a little anyway. The cake was a bit under-baked at 35 min. though I tested it with a wooden skewer. My husband said it was good but not wonderful though I thought it was very good. The major complaint is the whipped cream which I think is making the cake a bit soggy.
I'm looking forward to seeing more of your recipes Aliwakes. Thanks for an interesting cake.

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about 1 year ago charliesofia

Great cake! I just won huge points at work for bringing it in - thank you! I did have an issue with the cake layers being underbaked however... just wondering if there are any suggestions as to how to test for doneness when the cakes are swathed in meringue. Any ideas? Thanks!

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about 1 year ago Aliwaks

The same thing happened to me the first time I made the original cake, so I actually upped the baking time a few minutes the next time. The last time I made it, I made it in an electric oven and I thought the cake was a bit overdone at 40 min.

So to answer your question...I started just using a wooden or metal skewer to test rather than a toothpick or fork, and have moved some of the meringue out of the way then pushed it back again,

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about 1 year ago Ceramic

Made this for a birthday celebration earlier this month-- and not one scrap was left at the end of the evening. Used buttered parchment and the cakes left the pans fairly easily after I loosened them with a spatula. Mine also didn't look as gorgeous in the picture, but my dinner guests didn't seem to care. Subbed coconut palm sugar and used half almond flour, half regular. Can't wait for another worthy celebration so I can bake this again.

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about 1 year ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

it's a truly genius cake... loved it.

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about 1 year ago Carol Brinkman

I like the taste and look of the cake, but it was very, very dense. Much too heavy for me. I made it in two 8" pans and the meringue flowed over the top of the pans. Interestingly though, I had little difficulty unmolding the pans. Too dense, too labor intensive and not a cake I would make again.

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about 1 year ago Regine

Correction to prior post. I meant "cake batter" not "cake better."

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about 1 year ago Regine

Although some Food52ers are suggesting and probably accurately so (from a mathematical point of view) two 8 inch instead of 9 inch pans, I would love to know which size pan was used in that food52 picture of the cake. I am thinking that maybe the cake better is meant to be thin so as to further accentuate the flavor and crispy-ness of the meringue. I have not yet made this cake but I will soon

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about 1 year ago Kt4

I would also like to know the size of the rounds pans that Food52 used

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about 1 year ago ENunn

Congratulations, Aliwaks! This looks incredible. I have been dreaming about meringue lately, and this is the answer to those dreams. I am GOING to make time to try this. It's so pretty, too.

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about 1 year ago Nancy McMurchy

I am 68yrs. & the version with almonds was my mothers favourite cake for special occasions...she called it Almond Torte. I made it for my fathers 80th & it brought tears to his eyes. Thanks so much...I lost my recipe thru the years & delight in being able to create this taste one more time again.

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about 1 year ago bookjunky

As it looks like someone else pointed out, based on the area of a 9x12" pan (108 sq. in) you should use two 8" pans (50 sq. in each) not two 9" pans (63.5 sq. in each) in order to come closest to the right amount of batter.

The cake itself looks awesome. I saw the original recipe, which looked intriguing, and this looks even more delicious. I hope I can find a pretext to make one soon. It's difficult because I bake too much already for our family of three to keep up with. I need to entertain more!