A plain walnut cake

When we came back from our trip to France two weeks ago, along with the copper kugelhopf tins, bottles of olive oil and plaits of pink garlic, I stuffed into my luggage a plastic bag filled with walnuts – a gift from the man at the brocante from whom I’d bought the cake tins. 

They’ve been sitting in a bowl in the kitchen ever since, a nutcracker poised hopefully on top. I’ve made the odd crack-and-grab raid, snatching one or two as I walk past, or nibbled a few after dinner with some cheese. But I have been longing to make a cake. Not a classic coffee and walnut cake – though I love that – but a very simple thing. I wanted a low, plain cake, one that would allow the creamy lusciousness of the fresh walnuts to shine – at least enough to make the shelling of them worth it.

So on Saturday, I sat in my kitchen, rhythmically shelling 500g or so of walnuts, sending shards of shell onto high shelves and skittering across the floor, much to the excitement of the cat. As I cracked, and picked and extracted the meat from the nuts, I watched the news from Paris on the television. 

I have loved France, the fantasy of it and the complicated reality of it, ever since I first visited Paris with my school when I was 10. I sit here typing and deleting, typing and deleting, finding it impossible to convey my deep affection for a country which has helped form me almost as much as the one that birthed me. What Ian McEwen had to say here expresses it. And this much-shared segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO… well, I was just cheering my head off at this.

‘If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche.’ 

For the cake:

I took my inspiration from this recipe from the very useful site of the French food magazine Marmiton. I love it. I hope you do too. I tried serving it in several ways. With poached quince and quince ice cream after Sunday lunch, with cream and then with thick Turkish yoghurt, but really it’s best with nothing at all, just by itself, with perhaps a glass of sweet wine or rum to sip along with it.

100g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
160g shelled walnuts, from about 500g whole nuts if you’re shelling them yourself
140g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
40g plain flour
½ tsp flaky sea salt
3 eggs
2 tbsps rum

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4.Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin. Line the base with parchment and butter the parchment.

Reserve 8-10 perfect walnut halves to finish the cake – if you like, leave them off if you think this is just far too much adornment. Put the rest of the walnuts into a food processor and pulse until most of the mixture is quite fine (you still want a few small chunks in it). Tip a third of the sugar into the processor and pulse once to blend. It should have the texture of slightly gritty sand. Of course, you can chop the nuts finely on a chopping board with a large knife if you like.

Beat together the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the walnut mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the rum then gently fold in the flour and salt until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the walnut halves on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. It should be lightly golden on the surface but don’t overbake it – you want it to remain soft in the middle. 

Place the tin on a rack and leave the cake to cool completely before removing it. It keeps quite well for a few days in an airtight container.

An apple cake, to eat warm or cold

You know about my surfeit of apples. This is one of the other ways I’ve been using them up, with a recipe that wobbles tenderly between pudding and cake, something to be eaten warm at the end of an autumn dinner or cold with a cup of something, either at tea time or better yet, at breakfast like a sybaritic bircher muesli.

When the cake comes out of the oven its quite soft. That’s the moment to serve it with some good vanilla ice cream or clotted cream. As it cools, it firms up a little and then it’s good with thick cream or yoghurt (or simply on its own, if it’s Lent or something).

When I was thinking about this recipe, I had in my mind a simple apple cake, with chunks of apple and just enough sweet cake mixture to hold them together. This I based on Marie-Hélène’s Apple Cake from Dorrie Greenspan’s Around My French Table (if you have even the tiniest of a glimmer of a Francophile in you, you should have this book. It’s a treasure), adding a bit of cardamom because I love it with apples, and a slosh of applesauce for texture and because I have jars and jars of it. Then I thought scattering on a streusel topping would be good, partly because I just like the word streusel and also because adding a little walnut crunch to the sweetness is always a good thing.

 Warm, it’s more like a pudding, cold it’s more like a cake.

For the cake:
140g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
4 apples*
2 large eggs
150g caster sugar
3 tbsps dark rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
120g unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus a little more for greasing the tin
150g cooked, puréed apple

For the streusel:

60g plain flour

60g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
60g light muscovado sugar
60g shelled walnuts, chopped

* It’s good to use a combination of apples if you can, for the combination of textures and flavours. I used a Bramley, a James Grieve and a couple of Cox’s.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Grease a 23cm springform tin with some of the butter. Line with baking parchment and butter the parchment. Place the tin on a baking tray.

To make the streusel, in a small bowl rub together the flour and butter until roughly combined – you still want the butter to be in quite big pieces – then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt together in a bowl until well combined and aerated.

Peel the apples, core them and cut them into large-ish chunks. Wedges of about 3-4cm are about right.

Put the eggs and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attached (of course, you can do this by hand if you prefer. It’s not one of those cakes which is terribly arduous). On a medium speed, whisk them together until light and foamy – a ribbon of batter should remain on the top of the mixture for a second or two when you lift up the beaters. Whisk in the rum and vanilla. 

Remove the bowl from the stand mixture and with a spatula, first stir in half of the flour then half of the butter. Gently fold in the remaining flour, then the butter until only just combined. Fold in the applesauce, then the cut apples just until they’re evenly coated with batter. Scrape the mixture into the tin and smooth it down gently. Sprinkle on the streusel topping and bake for 50-60 minutes – it should be golden on the top and feel slightly springy to the touch, but still have some softness to it.

 Scattering on the streusel.

Cool in the tin for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of the tin, release the catch and carefully remove the cake. Gently peel off the parchment and either serve warm as a pudding, with ice cream or clotted cream, or cold, with whatever you like. It will keep, covered, for a couple of days.