To be honest, I was never a big fan of walnuts. They were always the disappointment at the bottom of my Christmas stocking, the annoying chunk of sour crunch in my otherwise gooey brownie, the waxy and bitter nut that looked more like an insect than an edible. But then a dear friend gave me a pound of shelled local walnuts as a gift, and I was determined to appreciate and savor them. By toasting them until they smelled like baking bread, grinding them into a flour-like meal, and pairing them with orange zest, sweet pears and vanilla, I became transformed into a walnut lover.
This torte offers an unusual combination of lightness and nutty richness, delivering bright, delicate flavors in a decadent (almost buttery) form. Moist and fragrant, it's been known to make walnut lovers swoon, while walnut loathers just might be converted by it, like I was.
This recipe first appeared on my web site, buttersugarflowers.com —ButterSugarFlowers
[plus 1 tablespoon] granulated sugar, divided
Grand Marnier or similar orange liqueur
small pears (ripe but not mushy, preferably Bartlett)
flour (whole wheat, all purpose, or a gluten-free blend)
eggs at room temperature, separated
pure vanilla extract
vanilla bean paste, or seeds scraped from 1 medium vanilla bean pod
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven 15-20 minutes, until very fragrant. While walnuts toast, cut a circle of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of a 9" springform pan. Place parchment in bottom of pan, then whisk together 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the oil and the liqueur in a bowl. Spread it evenly onto the parchment.
Peel pears and slice in half, removing stems, seeds and veins. After nuts are toasted and cool enough to handle, firmly place one walnut half in each of the pear’s cut-out centers. Place the nut-stuffed pears sliced-side-down into the pan, narrow ends toward the center. (Depending on the size of the pears, it’s possible that not all halves will fit into pan; feel free to trim them to fit, or simply do not use all halves.) Leave the oven on at 350 F.
Once the remaining walnuts are completely cool, rub them between your hands with a clean dishcloth to loosen and remove most of the peels. (This can make a mess; I like to do it outside or over the sink.) Discard the loosened peels; many will stay stuck to walnuts’ crevices, which is fine. Transfer nuts to the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times, just until a fine to medium even meal is formed, being careful not to blend it too long or create nut butter. Measure out 1.5 cups walnut meal, firmly packed, and whisk the flour into it in a separate bowl. (Use the remaining nut meal as you wish. It’s great on yogurt or salad.)
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks well with 1/3 cup of the sugar, mixing until pale and smooth, then add both vanillas and blend. Fold in the nut/flour mixture and the orange zest. Sift the salt and baking powder over the bowl and mix by hand. Mixture will be very thick.
In a separate bowl (preferably the bowl of a standing mixer), beat the egg whites on high until they begin to become white and opaque. Keep mixer going and slowly add the remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Stop mixing only when the whites are thick, shiny and almost stiff to the touch. Scoop out little less than a cup of the egg whites, and gently mix it into the nut batter to loosen and moisten its texture. Then very gently fold in the remaining egg whites, slowly folding until the last traces of white are barely visible. Gently spread batter evenly over the pears in the pan.
(Tip: If there’s a chance your springform pan might leak like mine does, place a layer of tin foil on the oven rack before baking.) Place pan in oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, until top of torte is dry and firm, and a wooden toothpick inserted in its center comes out clean and not sticky. Let torte cool completely before unlocking sides of pan, inverting it onto a plate, and removing parchment. Eat within 24 hours, storing in fridge if not serving within a few hours.