Mistakes Were Made


I couldn’t find my recipe (computer files are no better than a file cabinet if you’re an impatient person who throws something in a bin instead of figuring out exactly where it belongs), so I tried to recreate it from memory. In the first attempt I used too much walnut meal. In the second, my cake rose unevenly so it was hard to cut off a neat top. So I reduced the amount of walnut yet again and added a teaspoon of baking powder—it’s not a large amount and won’t be noticeable in taste, but it should help stabilize the batter. This may seem like a lot of steps for a cake, but the advantage to having different components is that you can taste and correct each part as you go. And the result was worth it.


Coffee Cream Walnut Torte with Raspberries (serves 10)

Cake Base:

9 ounces walnuts. Finely grind in a food processor with 1/2 cup chestnut flour and 1 tsp baking powder. You could use all purpose or a gluten free blend or corn starch. Chestnut flour (which is also gluten free) is naturally sweet, so if you use something else you might want to increase the sugar a bit. The flour or starch keeps the walnuts from clumping together by absorbing some of their oil.

9 eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp cream of tartar

2 drops  lemon or orange oil, optional

9” springform pan, bottom lined with parchment paper and the whole sprayed with Baker’s Joy (or buttered and floured).


16 ounces heavy whipping cream

Up to 3 Tbs. instant espresso, instant coffee, or Dandy Blend (made from beet, chicory and dandelion)—taste as you add. If you want a lighter coffee flavor, use less.

3 Tbs. powdered sugar

2 pints fresh raspberries (frozen will work, too)

2 Tbs. raspberry liqueur or syrup (optional)


Ganache glaze:

Melt (gently) 14 ounces of good quality dark chocolate (for this cake, I recommend between 45% and 55 % cocoa content) with 16 ounces heavy cream and add 2 Tbs. corn syrup (optional, for shine). Any leftover can be frozen. One fool proof way to make ganache is to finely chop the chocolate in a food processor, then pour in almost boiling heavy cream through the tube and process until smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature before covering the cake.

Make the cake:

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until soft peaks form, then beat in half the sugar until stiff (but not dry). Dump into a very large bowl.

In the mixer bowl, beat the egg yolks with half the sugar and salt (and optional flavoring) until thick and lemon-colored.

Gently fold together the egg mixtures in batches, alternately with the ground nut mixture, in three batches, in the large bowl. A sifter or sieve will help distribute the nut mixture evenly. Take care to deflate the eggs as little as possible.

Spoon into prepared pan and bake until the cake begins to shrink from side of pan, about 40 minutes at 350 degrees, or until a pick comes out clean from the center. The batter will rise up an inch or so above the pan as it bakes and then sink a bit once it’s taken out. Let cool for about ten minutes, loosen the spring form, and cool further on a rack. Unmold the cake, use a cookie sheet or flat plate to turn it upside down and finish cooling it on the rack. Peel off the paper from the bottom.

Once the cake is cool, with a sharp and serrated knife, cut off about one inch off the top of the cake and set aside. You could use something flat and strong, like an extra large spatula or a pizza peel to keep from tearing the top as you lift, but if it does tear, don’t worry, the chocolate glaze will cover flaws.

With a small sharp knife, and/or a serrated grapefruit spoon, cut around the inside of the cake, leaving 1 inch walls and a 1 inch bottom. You want the cake to hold its shape with a sturdy frame. Scoop the crumb-center into a bowl, and crumble into pieces, pea-sized or smaller.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then whip in the powdered sugar and instant coffee, until stiff. Gently mix the flavored whipped cream with the cake crumbs and pat back into the cake shell. Top with raspberries and drizzle with the optional raspberry syrup or liqueur. Replace lid on cake and cover the cake with ganache glaze. (I use a small angled spatula to spread the glaze.)

Refrigerate—the cake will last at least four or five days, especially if made with fresh raspberries. Don’t be afraid to take it out of the refrigerator a few hours before serving.




You Remember the Mistakes

Natasha 5 LowRes

Credit: David Baddley

Often when I’m cooking, I think “other people might want to know this,” with “this” ranging from the fact that you can destroy the holding power of a starch by mixing it too much (the subject of a forthcoming post) or the fact that I’ve been tweaking one particular cake recipe since I received it at the age of eighteen.

As a freshman at the University of Virginia, I took an upper level German language class, because, although we spoke German at home, I hadn’t learned the grammar. I took a class with Elisabeth Hölscher Day, a native German lecturer who was the second wife of a dashing English professor, Douglas Day (biographer of Malcolm Lowry and critic of Robert Graves). Pretty and polished, Elizabeth had neat brown hair grazing her shoulders. She wore timeless clothes, not the tie-dye and bell bottoms popular in 1974. One of her teaching methods was asking students to determine their own course grades. Spurred by misguided modesty and the notion that she would override it, I told her I deserved a B. Grading might be the subject of another post…

Anyway, that cake: Elisabeth invited the class for dinner to her mid-century modern house in the countryside outside Charlottesville. The main course was ground beef chili, not spicy, with grated cheddar cheese and sour cream. On the low Danish modern sideboard sat two cakes. A Black Forest torte that was, I later learned, from the Time Life Cooking of Germany book, and the other…a walnut sponge cake, filled with coffee cream and raspberries, coated with chocolate. Elisabeth told me she got the recipe from a friend whose father was a baker. She wrote the recipe on a lined yellow legal sheet that I kept for many years, until I typed it into a computer file.

Over the years, I gradually subbed out ingredients like Crisco and all-purpose flour for cream and chestnut flour. In the early seventies, the only raspberries available out of season at the supermarket were frozen with sugar in a cardboard package sealed with metal ends. You pried open one of those ends with a can opener. The frozen raspberries were runny and broken up, but the syrup added sweetness. When fresh raspberries started being available most of the year, I used them, and the cake lasted  in the refrigerator, but I missed the unctuous syrupy sweet layer. If I want the cake to have that layer now, I drizzle raspberry liqueur or syrup on top of fresh fruit—it intensifies the flavor and color of the raspberries.

The amazing thing about this cake is that none of the ingredients dominate. A side note about walnuts: have you ever eaten a walnut fresh from the tree, so fresh that skin peels off easily? The resulting sweetness has a very different character from the often stale nuts we buy. I had a hard time naming this cake. Honoring its roots, and because it contains no leavening, we can call it a torte. Although the internet is replete with walnut torte recipes, there’s nothing like this one. Yes, it’s walnut but… the coffee is subtle (and if you use Dandy Blend, it’s not existent), the acid fruitiness of the berries is tempered by the creamy crumbs. The chocolate is just a tease, not overwhelming. In what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire, elaborate cakes like this are rarely served after dinner; instead people eat a slice at a Konditorei (from candire, to candy fruit), a cafe that serves sweets, in the late afternoon. Yes, in the U.S. have coffee shops, but not many bake their own delicious cakes and offer elegant table service. Elisabeth was breaking custom by serving torten after dinner, but I can see why she might want to. How else would people know one of the best things about the Austro-Hungarian empire? For my next post, in a few days, I will have baked the cake.

Elisabeth Hölscher Day and Doug Day divorced shortly after I graduated from college. I cannot find Elisabeth (or her son Patrick Day) to thank her for this recipe (and the lesson in false modesty), but I welcome any leads, and of course, any comments.