The tease is at least partially over, and here, as promised, is the recipe for a cake so delectable, I don't know why we're not all making it all the time. It's a very perfect, slightly intense holiday dessert, meant to be enjoyed in thin slices. It's excellent served either at a reasonable interval after a festive meal, or perhaps during an afternoon visit with friends, over tea. It would also be great with champagne, or perhaps mulled wine. I believe that even those who don't particularly like walnuts would enjoy this torte. Somehow the bitterness that some people find problematic in walnuts is transformed into pure sweet spongy nuttiness with this recipe. Balanced with the bittersweet lushness of plenty of dark chocolate in the filling and icing, it's simply a delight. It is not a difficult cake to make, really, especially if you have a food processor and a stand mixer (and I used to make it even in the bad old days when I only had a hand-held mixer). It is, however, a finicky recipe, and a bit time-consuming. It warrants some degree of care, so it's best to make it when you can move through the steps in a relaxed way. Rushing through something like this is, in my experience, a recipe for nothing more than disaster.
I've meant to blog about this recipe for years, but I don't make it very often, since it is rich, dense, serves a large number of people and is really a special occasion dessert. Finally the perfect moment to make it arose -- and therein lies a tale.
More than two decades ago, my mother's closest friend gave her a cookbook which had just been published, called Nela's Cookbook (upon recent examination, I discovered that this delightfully readable book was edited by none other than, of course, Judith Jones). It was a tome of the recipes and anecdotes of Nela Rubinstein, wife of the famed pianist Artur Rubinstein. Nela was a celebrated hostess and cook among "their set", who included fellow musicians, various politicians, intelligentsia and nobility as well. Nela (who died in 2002, just three days before my own mom) was Polish, and many of her recipes reflect this heritage.
Until I read this cookbook, I was not aware of the delicacy and refinement of many aspects of this cuisine, which also contains a balance of robust, somewhat heavier dishes. In this way, as well as in other particulars of specific recipes, it's extremely similar to the Russian cuisine beloved of my mother, and, by extension, our whole family -- a sort of cooking that encompasses both highly refined, Francophilic food and hearty, peasant-based soups, stews and dark breads.
My mother's favorite recipe out of this book was the Torte Orzechowy, a rich, chocolate-iced walnut torte, which, while she was up to it, she made every year for my birthday. She was thrilled to have come upon this cake that I adored and craved, especially since I had long become the family baker. My mother had felt for a while that it wasn't quite right that I should have to make do with a bakery cake when I was the one that always came up with extravagant confections for everyone else's birthday. She made this for me for many years, as long as she still could. My father would help her beat the egg whites, since they were still using an old rotary eggbeater and it took the kind of muscular strength that wasn't easy for elder people.
About a year and a half ago, the lovely Bakerina stayed up all night at my house in her quest to complete Blogathon 2006. Before G and I crashed that night, I was doing my best to keep her entertained and give her blogging material. I gave her homemade peach sorbet and showed her Nela's Cookbook, and, like any right-minded baker, she was immediately taken with the recipe for Torte Orzechowy. "I want to blog about this," she said. "Ummmm," I said. "What is it?" she said immediately. "Ummm, well, I've always sort of meant to blog about this cake. I kind of have a history with it, you see. My mom used to make it for my birthday." "Ah, then I'll wait for you to blog about it. Besides," said she, "There's another cake in here that I'm equally taken with, and I'll blog about that." She was talking about the Sand Torte, which she of course not only blogged about, but also eventually made very successfully (this being a cake that I had a spectacularly gummy, unrisen, dead-weight failure with about a decade ago, and have never attempted since). And of course I was being utterly small-minded and silly about this, since really, the world-wide interweb's most enjoyed and utilized recipes are those that many of us have blogged.
In any case, when Bunni approached me about a surprise birthday party for Bakerina, I offered to bake the birthday cake -- and knew that there was only one cake that would do. It rose and baked beautifully, and was eaten with delight by all the guests -- at least those who didn't have nut allergies (sorry, didn't know). My one criticism of this particular effort on my part is that I was trying to gild pure gold, and used Nela's variation of raspberry jam as a filling, which she suggests using instead of chocolate filling for one layer. I put it in along with the chocolate filling, going for overkill. It was only after I tasted it that I remembered that I hadn't really loved this variation as much when my mother used it one year, preferring just the flavors of nuts, rum and chocolate, although I often love jam in things like this. Most importantly, Bakerina was duly pleased and surprised by her soirée; our hostess Bunni made a copious, multi-coursed, elegant and delicious meal, and plenty of wine and conversation were enjoyed by all.
Since my mother's death, I've only made this cake a few other times -- notably for Passover seders where I was a guest, and wanted to bring something wonderful. It makes an excellent Passover cake with the substitution of matzoh meal for the bread crumbs. But Passover is far away.
My current holiday hunch is that, since it is a rather spongy, springy, egg-based cake it would behave like a roulade batter and make an excellent Bûche de Noël. I think the nut-rich batter could be baked in a parchment-lined, buttered-and-floured 10"x15" jelly-roll pan, and rolled
while still warm to keep the cake layer malleable, then unrolled, filled, re-rolled and iced -- just as you would any other jelly-roll sort of cake. The
baking time would need to be monitored carefully. I'd probably start with about fifteen minutes baking time, since the sheet layer may be rather thin, and begin testing
for doneness from there. The filling and icing that go with it would work for this purpose too -- the texture of the icing would be perfect for striating into trompe l'oeil bark. I'm aching to try this, and may just do it for a holiday party.
I'm typing this pretty much as it is written in Nela's Cookbook, but interjecting a few modifications into the text -- some of these were made because I, in my haphazard fashion, thought I had everything I needed, but had to make a couple of quick substitutions. The modifications in methodology (adding the sugar in three stages, mainly) I made because I think they give a better result, with more volume to the finished batter and thus more lightness to the cake. I've put my own mods in italics, so you can distinguish them easily from the original recipe.
Nela says: "This rich, dark, nut layer cake is perfect
for large parties, since one serves it in small pieces. As a rule I
cut a circular core, about 1 1/2 inches from the edge, then cut the
circular rim in truncated wedges and the core in pointed wedges. For
this cake, I use the processor to grind the nuts and the big mixer
(fitted with the whip) for the eggs. This is one of my mother's best
recipes, one we have always made for special events such as birthdays
1 pound (450 grams) walnut meats, ground to powder
(makes 6 cups/1 1/2 liters, not pressed down)
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar (divided into three 1/2 cups)
11 eggs, separated (I used 10 jumbo eggs, since that's what I had in the house)
1/2 cup heavy cream (I forgot to put this in [!] and it still turned out lovely, btw)
Grated zest of 1 large orange (I used the grated zest of a clementine, and 1/2 tsp. Boyajian orange oil)
1/2 cup (1 deciliter) unseasoned bread crumbs
1/3 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. dark rum
Shelled walnuts for decoration (optional)
Butter and flour 3 9-inch layer pans or one 10-inch springform (I also used parchment circles, buttered and floured, on the bottom of each tin. It's worth noting that this cake bakes very differently in different pans; I didn't have 3 9" layer pans of the same sort, so I used two heavy, dark pans, and one old light-colored, lightweight aluminum pan -- in which the cake took MUCH longer to bake, fell a bit, and was not as stable).
If you grind the walnuts in the processor, grind them with 1/2 cup of the sugar to prevent oiliness (I zested the orange/clementine in long strips, ground it in the processor with the 1/2 cup sugar and proceeded to use this orange sugar to grind the walnuts).
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until they become very pale and form the ribbon (I used only 1/2 cup of sugar here, and reserved the last half cup for beating with the egg whites, in order to stabilize them). Add the cream (I forgot, but no matter). Mix together the grated nuts, orange zest, bread crumbs, and salt. Beat the egg whites till stiff (I beat them about halfway, then added the salt here, rather than with the bread crumbs, and began to sprinkle in the last 1/2 cup of sugar while I was still beating them, until they became thick and stiff and shiny, but still pliable, like Italian meringue) and fold them into the yolk mixture (I do this very slowly and carefully, trying to ensure that I don't break down the aeration in either mixture any more than necessary). Sprinkle the nut mixture over the batter, gently folding it in until evenly combined. Distribute the batter equally among the 3 layer pans or spoon it into the springform.
Bake the layers for 25 - 30 minutes. Halfway through baking, exchange the layers from the upper to the lower racks, from the front to the back of your oven, so that all will bake evenly. The springform version takes 50 minutes to bake.
Let the cake cool for 5 minutes in the layer pans, then unmold the layers onto racks. In the springform pan, cool the cake for 20 minutes, then unlatch and remove the wall of the pan.
To cut a large cake into layers, cut it vertically in half, then cut each half into 3 equal layers. When you reassemble the circles, the frosting will hide the cuts (I've never actually tried this).
Before filling and frosting the cake, sprinkle the layers with rum. They should then sit for 30 minutes (to absorb the rum) before you assemble the cake. Spread the lower layer of cake with half the Chocolate-butter Filling (following recipe), put another layer of cake on that, and spread with the rest of the filling. Top with the third layer, then frost the assembled cake with the Chocolate Mazurka Icing on page 337 (recipe follows). Decorate, if you like, with halved walnuts.
4 ounces (115 grams) semisweet chocolate (I think this is a good place for at least a 70% chocolate, since it is cut equally with butter)
1 stick (4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, cool room temperature
2 Tbsp. dark rum
Pinch of salt
Melt the chocolate over very low heat, and allow to cool. Cream the butter and combine it with the chocolate (which should be cool enough to touch comfortably) and the rum and the salt.
Nela says to use a chocolate like Tobler "Tradition". It's worth noting that this recipe was written before we had so many different chocolates with differing cocoa contents available to the home cook. For this glaze, I use either a 60% or a 70% chocolate, depending on my audience and their tolerance for bitter chocolate, or I use a combination, which also works well.
This makes a shining glaze 1/4 inch thick (on cooling, the glaze is quite a bit duller, especially after it's been spread -- but still delicious).
6 ounces (180 grams) best bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup (1/2 deciliter) water
1/3 cup (3/4 deciliter) heavy cream
2 tsp. unsalted butter
Melt the chocolate with the water over low heat. Add the cream and butter and raise the heat to medium. Let a little moisture evaporate, but remember that this misture will thicken as it cools. Take it off the heat when it has the consistency of thick honey. (At this point the recipe directions diverge a bit from our intended use, since it is published first in the cookbook as an icing intended to be poured warm over a sheet of baked pâte sablée, for the Polish confection known as "mazurka". Cool slightly, and pour/spread over the assembled Torte Orzechowy.)