There’s nothing more disappointing than finding out that a recipe you’ve posted hasn’t worked out for someone. Worse if multiple people have had the same problem. Luckily in this case, it’s not my recipe, but it is a recipe that I’ve written about for my Food52 column, Regional Italian Food. It’s for a torta di noci, a traditional walnut cake from Calabria in southern Italy. I was drawn to it because of it’s simplicity – there are only three main ingredients in this cake: eggs, sugar and walnuts. But it’s a delicate, very moist cake that relies entirely on the quality of its very few ingredients.
It’s always hard to know how to help (I find particularly in the case of baking, which has such a chemistry about it) when in the shoes of another cook. Where was the mistake? Was it in the instructions, was it in the whipping, the measuring or the cooking time? Was it the oven?
In my own experience, living in rented apartments for years (and changing apartments often), home ovens, I find, can be pretty unreliable when it comes to evenly distributed and correct temperatures, particularly if they happen to be old. Over the years I’ve had electric and gas ovens that don’t cook from the bottom, ones that don’t cook from the top, ones that only burn from the top (seriously, this one only burned anything I ever put in there, I had to practically give up baking for a year!). One was always slow, I had to cook things for double the time of any recipe. Needless to say, this makes for difficult testing and recipe writing.
Luckily now I have access to a kitchen with a new Miele oven and I even bought an oven thermometer to make sure inside is what it says it is outside (and it is), so I can be confident about the recipes I test and make now.
It would be easier to help if you could look over the shoulder of another cook that’s had problems with their cake and go through it again, step by step, cooking together.
Everyone has a different way of measuring ingredients, for example. I prefer weight because it is by far the easiest and most accurate way to cook. I have a simple, sleek digital scale that comes out for practically every recipe I make. But writing recipes for my American readers on Food52, I’ve realised there’s a lot of resistance to the weight measurements (one reader told me she didn’t have space in her kitchen for scales, which made me realise she had probably never even seen them, especially digital scales which are so slim and neat) and that only using weight in my recipes has been challenging for many — although I list ingredients in both grams and ounces, I still always get asked for the cup measurements too.
But the results for volume measurements can vary wildly, as Alice Medrich notes in this great article on how using a scale will change your life, “Every cook wields a measuring cup differently and even cookbook authors and pastry chefs use them differently from one another. If every recipe included reliable weights, and every one started using a scale, the overall quality of baking and desserts would improve overnight!”
What about the method? This particular recipe calls for yolks and whites to be separated, the yolks to be whipped with the sugar until fluffy and pale and the whites to be whipped to stiff peaks. This is such a simple recipe with few ingredients and no flour or butter to hold the mixture together, no baking powder to make it rise. So it is vital that these simple few steps be done properly.
It’s hard to know if they’ve been done with as much care by someone else. When I have to whip egg whites, I make sure to use a metal or glass mixing bowl rather than plastic as the whites whip better (fats stick more easily to the plastic, making it harder to whip to stiff peaks). I also give a little squeeze of lemon or a drop of vinegar, wiped with some paper towel down and around the sides of the bowl where I’m going to whip whites. This helps degrease the bowl to make sure there are no traces of fat, even clean bowls sometimes have them!
And then there is whipping to the right point. How to tell the peaks are stiff enough? I always tip the bowl upside down (or on its side, for a split second). If nothing falls or slides, you’re there! That’s not exactly how I would normally write the recipe though, so if that’s not part of the instruction, are there people attempting the recipe with slightly floppy egg whites? Am I assuming too much in thinking that everyone knows what stiff peaks look like?
Then there are the ingredients and this may actually be the most important factor, particularly with a recipe like this one, which is so simple. The quality of the walnuts is key, and it’s best to use caster sugar (superfine sugar) rather than regular sugar or raw sugar. Using freshly shelled walnuts makes a world of difference. I’ve tried it with both freshly shelled nuts bought directly from a walnut grower at the farmer’s market and with imported Californian walnuts from the supermarket. The best results, were, naturally with the first. By a mile.
Not only is quality a difference when it comes to ingredients but obtaining the right things to begin with can make or break a recipe. Something that comes up quite often for me is confusion due to language differences in US/UK/Australian English. Caster sugar and icing sugar are also known as superfine and powdered or confectioner’s sugar, respectively. Another recent recipe which caused quite a bit of confusion was a butternut pumpkin/squash risotto and although I try my hardest to use US English when writing for Food52, I kept stubbornly referring to the butternut squash as pumpkin (in Australia it’s a pumpkin to us, while squash is a flat, yellow cousin of the zucchini!). Needless to say, many US readers let me know my mistake in the comments — to them it’s a squash!
Then there are the expectations of the reader, which is the hardest to account for as the recipe writer. If it’s a dish that they have never tasted or seen, then it’s important to describe how it should appear (a photograph is all too important too). Perhaps I didn’t too this well enough in this particular recipe and this is actually something that doesn’t convey so well in a photograph. This walnut cake is a moist cake, but more than that, it’s a moist and crumbly cake (after all, it is flourless and butterless). It’s so moist that it may even appear to some as underdone. But leave it to settle (better if it’s even chilled in the fridge, and better the next day) and this unusual texture is not a flaw, but part of what makes this cake so delicious and unique.
In the end I retested the recipe, looking the whole time for the spots where difficulties might lie and I reposted my new notes from this new perspective, with a little additional test — a lemon buttercream frosting, suggested in the original recipe by Ada Boni to dress this cake. I didn’t try it in the first recipe as it didn’t seem very traditional to me, but then again it’s from Ada’s own recipe, which I was following after all. As it turns out, the buttercream — light, fluffy and lemony — is literally the icing on the cake with this cake. It holds the whole thing together, in terms of flavour, texture and physical structure. And the lemon flavour (I must admit, not what I would have immediately paired with walnuts) really lifts the whole cake.
It wasn’t part of the original Food52 post so I’ll post the entire recipe here. I looked at some of the buttercream recipes from Poires au Chocolat (whose instructional blog is my go-to when it comes to baking recipes), in particular this one, where I have simply replaced the rose water with lemon zest and juice.
I’m always really appreciative of the feedback that readers give in the comments, particularly on Food52, where the feedback is usually very much a discussion of what the results were, what variations or alterations were made – more so, I find, than what happens on my blog comments. It’s a valuable lesson as a recipe writer to get to have that immediate interaction. I realised as I was working on the manuscript for my cookbook that I won’t get this with a book. Not only do I have to wait until it’s out next year but then it will be in people’s homes, where anyone with an issue with a recipe will have to sort it out silently. I think I’ll miss that interaction and knowing whether the recipes went well or were enjoyed.
What are your experiences with following recipes or writing recipes for others? Have you come across issues like these?
Torta di noci (walnut cake)
Some notes: This cake recipe is taken from a 1960s volume of Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni, who suggests splitting the cake and sandwiching it with a light lemon butter icing. Alternatively, you can leave it plain and simply dust with powdered sugar. It remains moist for several days – if it isn’t eaten all by then.
Make sure to line your cake tin with baking paper. Remove from the oven when the top of the well-browned cake is firm to the touch. Let the cake cool in the tin before removing from the tin. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until chilled. This seems to give it a bit of time to settle and will be easier to handle. It will still crumble a little when slicing but if you are careful, you won’t have any problem getting pretty, nice slices.
This lemon buttercream is a great pairing for this cake and it also is wonderfully forgiving as it hides any flaws, including crumbling, splitting or even an inside that might seem too soft/moist! It also keeps very well for a few days and holds together very, very nicely.
For the walnut cake:
- 340 grams (¾ pound or about 3 cups) walnut kernels
- 4 eggs, separated
- 225 grams (1 cup) caster sugar (superfine sugar)
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- confectioner’s sugar for dusting or lemon buttercream frosting for decorating
For the buttercream (based on this one by Poires au chocolat):
- 75 grams (about 2) egg whites
- 110 grams sugar
- 125 grams butter, at room temperature
- zest of 1 lemon
- about 2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the walnut cake:
Prepare a round 9-inch (23cm) diameter cake pan by greasing and lining with baking paper.
Pulverise the walnuts in a food processor until you have a coarse meal the texture of sand. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest and walnut meal and stir to combine. Whisk the egg whites in a clean, separate metal or glass bowl until they form stiff peaks. Fold the whites bit by bit into the walnut mixture until well combined.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and bake at 350ºF (180ºC) for about 50 minutes or until the top is firm and browned nicely. (Note: Ada Boni says to cook at 190ºC/375F for 60 minutes but I found that at the higher temperature this cake tends to burn easily). Let cool completely in the tin before removing. To serve, either dust with confectioner’s sugar or fill with lemon buttercream. If filling, it is best to chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or overnight before cutting. Once cooled, wrap it tightly in glad wrap and place on a flat surface (a plate or board) in the fridge.
For the lemon buttercream:
Whip the whites with the sugar over a double broiler for a few minutes minutes or until the mixture is warm and you can no longer feel the sugar granules if you rub it between your fingers (if you have a candy thermometer, take the mixture to 70ºC). Remove from heat, beat 8 more minutes or until mixture has returned to room temperature. Slowly add the butter bit by bit, beating constantly until you have a glossy, smooth buttercream. Add zest and lemon juice and chill the mixture for at least 30 minutes.
To assemble the cake:
Carefully cut the cake in half so you have two thin discs (this is a little tricky with a crumbly cake but go slowly and don’t worry too much about it being perfect as this buttercream is very forgiving and will hide even splits! If the cake is well-chilled it is easier). Fill with about half of the buttercream mixture. Place the top disc on top and cover the rest of the cake with the rest of the icing (I covered the top and just did a “crumb coat” around the sides). I topped it with some diced candied fruit (some melt in the mouth artisan made candied melon that I bought in Florence!) for decoration but it’s lovely just as it is.