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Nut flours are available at most grocery stores, so why bother with making your own?
My files are loaded with versions of “Nutty Sponge Cake.” It seems I’m very bad with titles, but very good with nut cakes.
The recipe below is light, moist, and flavorful. It’s also simple to make and versatile. You can vary the type of nut and the fineness of the flour, you can add 1/2 cup or so of coarsely chopped nuts to the nut flour, or mix in some bits of ground up chocolate. Go ahead and pair different nuts with different citrus zests or almond extract or vanilla or a little brandy or rum…
When it comes to the nuts, I like to start with whole nuts rather than a purchased nut flour or meal. I process the nuts in a food processor or blender for a medium-textured meal or put them through a small, inexpensive nut grater/grinder that clamps onto a cutting board for a very fine fluffy flour.
There are two reasons why I do it myself. When I returned from France in the early 1970s ground almonds—so easy to buy in Paris—were nowhere to be found in stores at home. Since I was eager to resume baking all kinds French chocolate nut tortes, I simply got used to processing the nuts myself.
Why do I still do it myself? Because you cannot buy nut flour that is as fresh as what you can make yourself from whole nut pieces, especially when the new fall nut crop is in. And, when it comes to almonds, I have grown to prefer using whole almond meal (which includes the skins) rather than the blanched meal preferred in French pâtisserie, unless I am making something extremely delicate and refined. Even then I’m apt to think twice; I figure that whole natural almonds are less processed, thus fresher and more flavorful than almonds that have been blanched. A little nut skin is not a bad price to pay for quality.
But too much nut skin is a different story. Purchased nut flour may contain more skin than the flour you make yourself because processors may include a very high proportion of fines (leftover dust) from chopping and slicing machines. This explains why pecan pieces are so much more expensive than pecan flour!
DIY gets you better quality, if not a better price.
All of this is not to say you can’t use purchased nut flour. It may be somewhat finer than that which you can produce in a food processor or blender, but less fine than what you can make with a countertop grater/grinder. Sometimes the fineness of the nut flour is critical to the success of a recipe, but this is not one of those times.
The recipe that follows is versatile: It works beautifully with processor ground nuts or with very finely grated nuts, or with different nuts—just so long as you observe one measuring rule. If you are going to use purchased nut flour, or a nut grater instead of a processor, or a different type of nut—because nuts vary in density—it’s best to use the weights rather than the cup measure given in the recipe to compensate for all of the variables.
Adapted from Flavor Flours (Artisan 2014)
Serves 10 to 12
cups (200 grams) walnut pieces
5 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or 1 tablespoon brandy or rum
1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar, divided
1 small unsprayed or organic lemon
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Confectioners' for dusting, optional
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, optional
Berries, plain or sweetened, optional
Cake photo by Bobbi Lin; almond photos by James Ransom