5 Ingredients or Fewer

Calabrian Walnut Cake (Torta di Noci)

by:
October 29, 2014
16 Ratings
Author Notes

As walnut cakes go, this must be the simplest and most essential of them all. The cake itself is made of just three ingredients–walnuts, eggs and sugar. A little lemon zest adds a delicate, fresh aroma and powdered sugar makes it pretty.

It's a traditional cake from Calabria in southern Italy–the sort of cake that was born out of age-old peasant traditions; the sort of cake that your nonna might whip up and have sitting on her kitchen bench, ready to be offered to guests with a short, dark stove-top espresso for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Yes, cake for breakfast.

This walnut cake seems rather humble when compared to other Calabrian sweets, which have a tendency to be deep fried, filled with custard or jam, and covered in honey, dark chocolate, or sprinkles.

This cake, however, is elegant in its simplicity and so incredibly moist–it reminds me of the Spanish Tarta de Santiago Almond Cake. The walnuts are pulverized in the food processor, so it's chunkier and a little more rustic than a cake made with almond meal. In my opinion, it needs nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar.

This recipe is taken from a 1960s volume of Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni, who suggests splitting the cake and sandwiching it with a light lemon butter icing. It remains moist for several days–if it isn't eaten all by then.

**** An update to this recipe 11/9/14 ****
After reading a couple of comments that people have had difficulty with this cake (removing it from the pan, crumbling, being underdone inside), I wanted to retest this recipe again and offer some more advice–including testing the suggestion by the original author of this recipe, Ada Boni, who advises to fill this cake with a lemon buttercream. So–first, some better description on the texture of this cake. It is a very moist cake, it may even appear underdone to some - but do not fear. Let it rest a day. This cake is possibly even better a day or two old.

Secondly, I would advise using baking paper to line your cake tin. Use springform if you prefer. Bake as described (I actually find personally that this cake cooks better at a slightly lower temperature, around 350F as walnuts–like a lot of nuts–have a tendency to burn easily). Remove from the oven when the top of the well-browned cake is firm to the touch. Let the cake cool in the tin before removing from the tin. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until chilled. This seems to give it a bit of time to settle and will be easier to handle. It will still crumble a little when slicing but if you are careful, you won't have any problem getting pretty, nice slices.

Now on to the buttercream. This is a WONDERFUL idea! It's even better than the cake on its own, lifts it to something extra special. I followed a couple of recipes I found online for lemon buttercream using 2 egg whites, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 stick of butter and the zest of 1 lemon. Whip the whites with the sugar over a double broiler for a few minutes minutes or until the mixture is warm and you can no longer feel the sugar granules if you rub it between your fingers. Remove from heat, beat 8 more minutes or until mixture has returned to room temperature. Slowly add the butter bit by bit, beating all the way until you have a glossy, smooth buttercream. Add zest and chill the mixture. Carefully cut the cake in half so you have two thin discs (this is a little tricky with a crumbly cake but if the cake is well-chilled it is easier). Fill with about half of the buttercream mixture. Place the top disc on top and cover the rest of the cake with the rest of the icing (I covered the top and just did a "crumb coat" around the sides). I topped it with some diced candied fruit for decoration but it's lovely just as it is. This lemon buttercream is a great pairing for this cake and it also is wonderfully forgiving as it hides any flaws, including crumbling, splitting or even an inside that might seem too soft/moist - it's hard to describe but the buttercream just holds it all together in the most amazing way! It also keeps very well for a few days and holds together very, very nicely. So for anyone else having a little trouble handling this flourless cake, I would highly recommend trying the lemon buttercream filling! —Emiko

  • Serves 6 to 8 people
Ingredients
  • 3/4 pound (340 grams or about 3 cups) shelled walnuts
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup (225 grams) caster sugar (superfine sugar)
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Confectioners' sugar for dusting
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Pulverize the walnuts in a food processor until you have a coarse meal, the texture of sand.
  2. Prepare a round 9-inch cake pan by greasing and lining it with parchment paper.
  3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Add the lemon zest and walnut meal and stir to combine. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they form stiff peaks. Fold the whites bit by bit into the walnut mixture until well combined.
  4. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and bake at 375º F (190º C) for about 50 minutes, or until the top is firm and browned nicely. Let cool completely in the pan before removing. This cake is even better the day after it is made or after it has had some time to settle -- wrap in plastic wrap tightly and let chill in fridge until 1 hour before serving. Dust with confectioners' sugar or do as Ada Boni suggests and fill or cover the cake with a lemon buttercream.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Debora Ajenblit
    Debora Ajenblit
  • Skyler23
    Skyler23
  • java&foam
    java&foam
  • Alex Txn
    Alex Txn
  • nancy essig
    nancy essig
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.

86 Reviews

Diane A. October 23, 2020
This was amazing! I used a springform pan. The next time I will bake it at 360 rather than 375 (the edges burnt a bit). But a real winner of a recipe!
 
Debora A. September 6, 2020
One reviewer said she cut sugar in half. I was not quite as brave so I used only 2/3 cups. My oven does better baking at lower temperature so I baked at 350 for 1 hr 10 minutes. Came out perfect. Next time I will try with half a cup. I think the cake would be good without the lemon zest but it added a hint of freshness so it's a great addition.
 
arlette May 10, 2020
Hello! I absolutely LOVE this cake!
1- I was wondering...is there anyway to replace the sugar with honey?

2- In the past I've used a food processor but currently I don't have one. I think I'll finely chop the walnuts. Anyone else done that? I read some of the reviews but didn't see anything on that.

3-*Would love to have a keyword search feature to search reviews.*



Thx a bunch! :)
 
arlette May 11, 2020
So I made it with Honey! I'm posting this in case someone would like to try honey in this recipe in place of sugar.
PS: I would use a lighter tasting honey next time, maybe like an orange blossom.

I used 2/3cup of honey and lowered the temp to 350.
Baked it for 40mins. Turned it very nice.
I did notice a slight difference in taste.
With the sugar the lemon rind taste really comes through, which is so nice.
I grounded the walnuts in a Vitamix blender; very briefly, carefully and in small batches to keep it all consistent. :)
 
Skyler23 January 15, 2020
I've made this cake several times. Its insanely good...gets better as it 'ages'. Its dense, nutty, and a great comfort cake for your afternoon tea. My celiac suffering sister in law was in heaven to be able to enjoy a treat that is so so good and gluten free! Make it, you will love it!
 
java&foam November 14, 2019
Cake came out as pictured and was very moist, especially with the lemon buttercream mentioned in the recipe notes. Things of note:
-Without access to castor sugar, I used the food processor to create some. My egg yolk/sugar mixture never got creamy/pale. It was rather thick and dense like cookie dough, which was only compounded by the addition of the walnuts. However, once the whipped egg whites were gently incorporated it turned into the batter I was expecting. Possibly my yolks were smaller than normal or the homemade "castor" sugar wasn't fine enough, but it worked out in the end.
-I stirred the lemon zest into the sugar and let it sit for an hour before starting the recipe, rather than adding it after beating the sugar and egg yolks. The sugar really extracted the oils from the zest and I ended up with a wonderfully fragrant cake.
-Cooking time: Using the 9-inch diameter pan called for my cake was well browned and firm well before the 50 minutes, around the 35 minute mark. I tested with a thermometer and removed when it was 190F in the core. Once cooled it was perfect inside.
-Based on my prior experience removing nut-based cakes from their pans, I opted for a springform pan and it released/removed perfectly.
All in all, a great cake! Thanks for the recipe!
 
PG B. October 24, 2019
Can this recipe be made into sheet cake?
 
Alex T. September 2, 2019
I made this cake today, with half a cup of sugar and a half cup of Splenda (instead a cup of sugar); This is a top notch yummy cake, and very easy to make. Thanks for the recipe.
 
ZestnBest August 22, 2019
Just tried this recipe tonight, and signed up to the website I found it on just to be able to say how AWESOME it is. I followed the recipe almost exactly ( except for adding an extra egg; going by the consistency of the yolk and sugar mixture based on watching my mother make many similar such cakes)
The texture and taste is sublime. The simplicity of it, incredible. And I would say that for a cake, it's within a reasonably healthy range.
 
Lina July 30, 2019
Is it possible to halve the ingredients to make a smaller cake that serves 3-4? I have a 6" cake pan I'd like to use... and since the recipe is so simple, I thought it might be possible.

(170 grams or about 1.5 cups) shelled walnuts
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup (55 grams) caster sugar (superfine sugar) I'd like to make it less sweet
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
 
Ellen April 26, 2019
Cake is delicious fresh but refrigerating makes it moist. I reduced the sugar by half and it was perfectly sweet.
 
nancy E. April 19, 2019
Emiko, some people here say they toasted their walnuts first which makes sense. How can the walnuts inside the cake get that nice flavour if not toasted? What do you recommend?
 
Kris April 19, 2019
We didn't toast and it was fine. But we like to eat raw walnuts.
 
nancy E. April 19, 2019
Thank you
 
elisa March 31, 2019
I absolutely love this cake, it’s my new favorite dessert! I have made it six times now, and anyone who eats it immediately becomes addicted. I don’t know how only these four ingredients can make such a perfect taste and texture, but I am beyond pleased that Emiko has shared this recipe.
I find that that once you add the walnuts to the egg yolk and sugar blend, it is very hard to fold in egg whites. I find that mixing in the walnuts slowly with a wooden or rubber spatula, a little at a time helps. You do have to use some muscles but the payoff is definitely worth it. Thank you, Emiko!
 
Stacy I. December 31, 2018
I'm not sure what went wrong with this cake. I used the weighted measurements and the egg walnut mixture was a thick, dry mass. Impossible to fold egg whites into. I managed anyway, but the whites were deflated in the process. It also baked up in about 20 minutes. I'll wait until tomorrow to cut into it...
 
Sophia F. February 17, 2018
I didnt have enough walnuts so i used a variety of nuts to compensate and added a dash of cardamom. It was delicious. Its not too sweet as it is but you could reduce it to about 3/4 cup sugar i feel.
 
la G. December 24, 2017
Great cake...making one today! Our third xmas in a row. Simple and delicious.
Satisfies our need for a gluten and dairy free cake. I make a glaze out of a juiced pomegranate and icing sugar which adds a lovely pink hue.
 
phyllisc June 19, 2017
Lovely recipe. I followed directions and weighed all ingredients. The cake came easily out of the pan after cooling completely and cut well after refrigerating overnight. Amazing to get such complex flavor from so few ingredients. Wondering if size of eggs might be making a difference to some bakers. I like cakes slightly less sweet - would reducing the sugar a little make a difference? I think grated orange rind would be great in this cake. Thanks for such a simple, lovely, somewhat addicting cake which soars with a cup of espresso.
 
macfadden November 12, 2016
I followed the recipe exactly and it made a fine cake, though I Wasn't blown away. I wasn't sure if the walnuts were meant to be toasted or not first, but I used raw ones and it turned out fine. The texture is rather nubby, as the pictures suggest, and it is not overly sweet.
 
Ghazzzit October 2, 2016
I completely forgot the zest, but this cake was incredible nonetheless!

I toasted the walnuts (had about .65lbs) before processing them into a meal, then made up the remaining .1 lbs in weight with store-bought almond meal (meal not flour). Otherwise followed the directions with all ingredients at a happy room temperature (eggs on the counter for a full day before separating). As Kris did, I used an 8 inch square pan lined with parchment and grapeseed oil. Allowed it to cool about 2 hours before removing the cake. This was incredibly moist and delicious but didn't have any of the problematic "under-doneness" or crumbling earlier described - likely due to the less oily almond meal making up the difference in weight.

Thanks for the fantastic recipe!
 
Kris March 16, 2016
I finally got around to making this cake and loved it. I made it in a 8 inch square pan . I also used the zest of a small tangerine (instead of lemon zest) and the juice as the batter was thick. The cake is quite crumbly but I didn't have trouble slicing it the next day even though I couldn't resist tryibg a few edge pieces from the crisp cake.
 
cookinalong February 26, 2016
Although I've made this cake several times and it is very nice, I don't think it belongs in the "one bowl cake" category. It isn't the fussiest cake by a long shot, but not the mix it, dump it, put it in the oven kind either.