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Every so often, we scour the site for outstanding recipes from our community that we then test, photograph, and feature—this sweet, tender Eastern European cake comes from julija.
One of the most valuable lessons my great-aunt, Teta Ole, taught us was the value of being occupied—even in small tasks like sewing or gardening or baking. To do something well was the meaning of life itself. Watching her work was like seeing something magical. I always knew who my fairy godmother was, and made room in my closet for beautiful hand-sewn dresses whenever she came to visit. When something was lacking, she seemed to pull things out of thin air, producing exactly what you needed before you even had a chance to imagine it.
She loved recounting stories from her childhood in Lithuania, like the time she shocked the neighbors by expertly working the loom at 3 years old. Or how at 7, she and two younger brothers made the family’s bread when her mother was sick in the hospital, stoking the fire and mixing and kneading the dough by hand. And so she lived her life, meeting hardship, loss, and difficulty with ingenuity and effort.
Teta Ole raised my mother, who lost her own mother at an early age. After World War II, the family moved from Lithuania to a German displaced persons camp, and then to Pittsburgh. Throughout those moves, she lived to serve others—her family in particular, but also to her friends and neighbors.
Teta Ole’s favorite recipes were things she made for weekly meals: roast chicken to feed herself and my grandfather in their old age, or soured milk (like kefir) to have every night after dinner with some potatoes. But she also made beautiful cakes and cookies.
One of my favorite of her recipes is her walnut torte, which she made when my siblings and I visited. I've translated this recipe from her recipe card handwritten in Lithuanian, and added some more instructions, since the original was fairly bare-bones. It takes me right back to her sunny kitchen in Pittsburgh, where she always had one ready for us.
Despite its deep walnut flavor, the cake is surprisingly light and complements the subtle sweetness of the jam. Because this cake is so simple, it’s important to taste your walnuts before blitzing. If you have rancid walnuts, the whole torte will taste bad. Avoid bad nuts by buying ingredients from bulk bins that see a lot of traffic. Also, if you’re not nuts about walnuts, you can use blanched almonds instead, just like Teta Ole often did.
For the crust
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (or gluten-free all-purpose flour)
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (although the original recipe calls for 1/2 tsp. - I like the little extra kick of salt)
- 1 cup apricot or plum jam
For the filling
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1/2 pound toasted, ground walnuts (make sure you cool them before you grind them in a food processor - they can be a little chunky)
Do you have a recipe that's been passed down in your family? Or one you want to make sure your future generations make? Let us know in the comments and it might be featured as one of our heirloom recipes!