Walnut trees do well in the thin, stony soil of Périgord, leading to walnut pastries and cakes including this moist, rich gâteau with a topping of crisp caramel. Like most nut cakes, the Gâteau improves when kept a day or two in an airtight container, but the topping should be added only a short time before serving as caramel softens after a few hours in the open air.
Makes a 9-inch/23-centimeter cake to serve 6 to 8
- 2 slices day old white bread
- 1 cup/150 grams/5 1/2 ounces walnut pieces
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons/140 grams/5 ounces butter, more for the pan
- 2/3 cup/140 grams/5 ounces sugar
- 4 eggs, separated
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/3 cup/75 grams/2 1/2 ounces sugar
- 1/4 cup/60 milliliters/2 fluid ounces water
- 8 walnut halves
- 9-inch/23-centimeter cake pan
Heat the oven to 325˚F/160˚C/Gas 3. Toast the bread in the oven until very dry, 6 to 8 minutes. Let it cool, leaving the oven on. Break the bread in pieces and grind it to crumbs in the food processor. Add the walnut pieces and salt and grind to a coarse powder (the dry bread helps keep the walnuts light). Butter the cake pan, line it with a round of parchment paper, and butter the paper.
Cream the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk tachment. Add half of the sugar and continue beating until light and soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl to be sure all the ingredients are mixed. Beat in the lemon zest. With a spoon, stir in the ground walnut mixture.
Using the mixer with another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. With the whisk turning, gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating until this meringue is stiff and glossy, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Fold about a quarter of the meringue into the walnut mixture to lighten it, then add all the mixture to the remaining meringue. Fold the two together as lightly as possible. Spoon the batter into the cake pan and bake until the cake pulls from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean when withdrawn, 40 to 50 minutes. If the cake browns too quickly, cover it loosely with aluminum foil. Let the cake cool 5 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack covered with a sheet of parchment paper. Strip the lining paper from the cake and leave it upside down (so it has a flat top) to cool completely, at least an hour.
For the topping, put the sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat gently without stirring until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat and boil until the sugar cooks to a golden brown caramel. Turn the cake top upwards and set it back on the rack. Take the caramel from the heat, let the bubbles subside and at once pour it over the cake, spreading with a metal spatula to make a very thin layer, letting it drip down the sides. Take care as caramel can burn badly. Decorate the cake at once with walnut halves so they stick to the caramel. The caramel will become crisp as it cools. When starting to set, mark portions in the caramel with a knife so the cake is easy to cut in wedges.
photo by France Ruffenach
Excerpted from THE COUNTRY COOKING OF FRANCE
by Anne Willan, Chronicle Books, 2007.