New Recipe: This Coffee and Walnut Cake Has a Chocolaty, Nutty Kick

Nearly two decades ago, British food writer Nigel Slater took it upon himself to determine his ideal last supper. His humble yet admirable pick: A coffee and walnut cake. “As homemade cakes go, I am not sure anything comes close to this one,” Slater wrote in an oft-cited column, rhapsodizing, “There is no cake so tender.”

A far cry from American coffee cake, British coffee and walnut cake isn’t something you’d typically enjoy alongside your morning cup. Rather, it’s a fluffy layer cake enriched with coffee and ground walnuts, sandwiched with coffee buttercream, and adorned with more walnuts. While its precise origin remains somewhat murky, the dessert has evidently been around for quite some time. In 1934, British flour brand McDougalls highlighted a “new recipe” in an ad for its self-raising flour—and that recipe was none other than coffee and walnut cake. These days the cake is ubiquitous across the pond, regularly appearing at bake sales and tearooms alike. The dessert was even featured as a technical challenge in the first-ever episode of The Great British Bake Off and then again in the second season, when host Mary Berry challenged contestants to make a Battenberg-inspired variation.

Though I was raised in Canada, not England, the iconic British cake made frequent appearances on my childhood kitchen table. My mother had a sizable collection of English cookbooks, and owing to her fondness for coffee in all forms, she often made the coffee and walnut cake recipe published in the 1974 edition of The Cookery Year by Reader’s Digest. From a young age, I shared her taste for coffee, even though I wasn’t technically allowed to drink it—and coffee and walnut cake, I adored. With its nut-freckled sponges and coffee-infused buttercream, the cake seemed chic, far more interesting than plain old vanilla.

Over the years, I’ve made the cake many times myself, tweaking and fiddling with recipes from various food writers and publications: Nigella Lawson, the BBC, and Felicity Cloake, who chronicled her search for the perfect coffee and walnut cake. And now, at last, I have my own ideal version of the classic.

While most recipes call for creaming softened butter and sugar before adding in ground raw walnuts, I wanted to amplify the nuttiness of the classic cake. In my version, I brown the butter, use more walnuts than is standard, and deeply toast the nuts before pulverizing them in a food processor. Next, I borrow a technique from Nigella Lawson (as I so often do), who tackles the cake in her cookbook, Nigella Kitchen. In her recipe, the batter is prepared in a food processor, and it comes together in a flash. After removing the ground walnuts, simply cream the butter and sugar together. Then, add the eggs, dry ingredients (including instant espresso powder), and pulverized nuts. This method yields a cake so fluffy, even a high proportion of walnuts doesn’t weigh the sponge down.

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