Walnuts: The Himalayan stars4 min read . Updated: 05 Oct 2013, 12:06 AM IST
A perfect autumn cake made with walnuts that have just arrived from the hills
In Scotland, if I suddenly had the urge to make Coffee and Walnut Cake, I would either root around in the kitchen cupboards to see if I had a packet that wasn’t past its “use by" date or go to the supermarket. I would never stop to consider whether walnuts were in season or not. Last week at INA market, Coffee and Walnut Cake was the last thing on my mind—in fact, I was thinking of baking something with seasonal fruit. Then I stopped at the dried fruit and nut stall and the owner said the new season’s walnuts had arrived and pointed to the piles of knobbly unshelled nuts that looked as if they had just rolled in from the Himalayas.
Walnuts are common enough in Britain but we take them for granted as we do most of the packaged food that is available year-round. We usually keep them for Christmas and pile them, in their shells, in bowls for decoration; although by the time we’ve remembered to eat them, they’re often unpleasantly bitter. We also sometimes pickle them and then they resemble tiny shrivelled brains. We rarely get to taste walnuts like the ones I bought at the market the other day: fresh, soft, melting, almost milky. Walnuts this good deserve star billing: as a perfect partner for the Himalayan fruits of the season, pears, apples and pomegranates or in a simple salad of bitter leaves. But I wonder if walnuts might well be at their happiest snuggled up with coffee in a rich buttery crumb.
While I would always choose a coffee cake over a chocolate one, I never make Coffee and Walnut Cake at home because, inexplicably, no-one else in the family likes it. Which meant that last week, in the interests of trying out a recipe for Mint Lounge readers I had to eat a whole cake by myself. I also had to spend a lot of time in the swimming pool.
It’s the simplest of cakes, made the way I remember being taught to make it in domestic science classes at school. You could get all fancy and use single estate Indian coffee like one of the Blue Tokai range but I actually prefer the nostalgic comfort of Nescafé. Since I recently learned that British cookery writer Elizabeth David drank nothing else, I feel no need for shame.
My walnut week was a reminder that for baking in India, it’s not just fruit that is seasonal; nuts, grains and flours also have their perfect moments. This cake looks like a Himalayan autumn afternoon and is just right for that moment, when you’ve kicked off your boots after a walk through the rustling leaves and settled down with a cup of tea in front of a roaring fire.
Those beautiful mountain walnuts, crisp and creamy, were a world away from the stale tasteless ones that lurk in my cupboard in Scotland.
Coffee and Walnut Cake
200g soft French unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
200g all-purpose flour (maida), sieved together with 3 level tsp baking powder
65g walnuts, chopped
2 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 1 tbsp of boiling water
For icing and decoration
200g soft French unsalted butter
400g icing sugar
2 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
12 walnut halves
Grease and line two 21cm cake tins with removable bases. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a large bowl, beat the butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy—either with a hand-held mixer or a freestanding one. Gradually mix in the eggs, adding a spoonful or so of the flour/baking powder mixture to stop it from curdling. When all the eggs have been well incorporated, fold in the remaining flour/baking powder gently, with a metal spoon. Then fold in the chopped walnuts and coffee.
Divide the mixture between the two prepared baking tins. Spread the mixture until smooth and level. Bake for about 20 minutes, swapping the positions of the tins after 10 minutes to ensure an even bake. When the cakes are ready, a skewer should come out of the middle almost clean. Leave the cakes to cool for 10 minutes in the tins then turn them out on to a baking rack to cool.
To make the icing, beat together the butter, icing sugar and coffee until you have a smooth, light mixture.
When the cakes are completely cool, put one sponge top down on to a large plate and cover it with about one third of the icing. Place the other sponge on top (with the top upwards) then smooth the rest of the icing on the top and sides. Place the half walnuts, evenly spaced, all around the edge of the cake.
The cake keeps well for a few days in an airtight tin.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.
Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns