The walnut tree was the king of the garden. It was the tallest and the most magnificent tree. It was the only tree around the house that I could not hug on my own. Throughout the year it rose undisturbed on a slight hill at the back, yet every autumn the garden life would centre around it. As nothing grows under the walnut tree, did you know why, it was a perfect spot for piling up the leaves and having bonfires. And the best thing about the bonfires was surely a baked potato dug out of the hot ashes and eaten then and there under the walnut tree after a hard day of garden work.
At the start of September I would be excited to look for the first walnuts. Sitting in their hard green hulls they were a real challenge to get yet the greatest treat to have. Once I cracked and removed the tough green layer, flaked the fine fibre net off the shell and got my fingers all yellowish on the way, I would tackle the nut. Breaking the shell with a stone and then carefully peeling off the light green skin. It all took time and came at a cost but the taste of the white fresh walnut was worth every minute and every stain. As the autumn came, there were more and more walnuts and we would harvest them every day. The hulls would turn darker and easier to remove and the fruit would turn drier and more mature. We picked the walnuts into large wicker basket and once it was full we took them to the attic and spread onto old newspapers to dry. Day by day and batch by batch we brought the nuts into the kitchen. My grandpa, Bronek, was the nutcracking master and I was the nutcracker apprentice. He cracked the nuts open and I picked out the nut meat. My grandma, Zosia, in a rather squirrel fashion popped them into storage tins and tucked away for later in the larder. The fertile and abundant walnut tree in our garden inspired one of the most famous and favourite of my grandmother’s cakes. The walnut and coffee cake. When Zosia was perfecting the recipe year after year, little did she know about the nowadays trends of using local seasonal ingredients and gluten-free baking. And yet the cake ticks all the boxes. It is the cake of all my childhood celebrations – birthdays, namedays and anniversaries. Making it now brings back the memories of my grandfather grinding the nuts, of my grandmother beating the eggs and of my eight-year-old self licking the coffee cream out of a big blue mixing bowl.
Coffee and walnut cake
For the walnut sponge cake:
250 g ground walnuts (40 – 50 walnuts)
250 g icing sugar
8 eggs – whites and yolks separated
3-4 tbs dried breadcrumbs
For the coffee cream:
250 g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
125 g icing sugar
2 egg yolks
one cup of strong coffee brewed Turkish style (pour boiling water over 3-4 tsp of ground coffee)
Preheat the oven to 160 °C and get the round cake tin ready. Grease it with butter and sprinkle with dried ground breadcrumbs. Gently move the tin around to spread it evenly and shake off any excess.
Beat the icing sugar and eggs yolks together until you have a smooth pale paste. Slowly add the ground nuts and the breadcrumbs. In another bowl beat the egg whites until firm and stiff then gently fold into the mixture and combine. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for approx. 45 minutes. If a toothpick comes out clean it’s ready. Place on a wire rack to cool down.
While the cake is in the oven get the coffee cream ready. Beat the egg yolks and butter together. Add sugar and combine well. Spoon by spoon add the coffee (with the grounds as they add a lovely texture) until the cream loosens but still holds together.
Once the cake has cooled down completely cut it into three even layers. This does require precision (which is why I usually ask my husband to do that) but do not worry if they are not perfect. Just choose the best one for the top layer. To assemble – place the bottom layer on a plate or a cake stand and spread one third of the coffee cream. Add the middle layer and spread another third of the cream. Place the top layer and evenly spread the remaining icing on the top and side of the cake. Decorate with some walnuts. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.
Enjoy and don’t be shy to ask for a second piece.