A Tender Walnut-y Torte with a Touch of Magic

March 14, 2018

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.

Photo by Jenny Huang

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.

And so she lived her life, meeting hardship, loss, and difficulty with ingenuity and effort.

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.

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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.

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!

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Written by: Julija


Greenstuff March 15, 2018
Thank you for sharing this history. And thank you for your tip about rancid walnuts. Until I lived in California, I thought most all walnuts in the markets were rancid!
Julija March 15, 2018
I used to think I hated walnuts until I moved to the West coast and started avoiding the packaged ones in the baking aisle!
bittersweet March 14, 2018
"To do something well was the meaning of life itself." That and "the value of being occupied" are words to live by. Thank you for the wonderful story of Teta Ole and the lovely walnut torte recipe.