Walnut Sponge Cake

While racking my brain for a light, summery dessert to bring to a dinner last week, I turned to one of my trusted baking books: Pure Dessert. The author, Alice Medrich, divides up the chapters based on different flavors, such as the flavors of honey and sugar, the flavors of chocolate, the flavors of nuts and grains, etc. It’s genius. Instead of poring over the index, I just turn to a chapter of a flavor I’m feeling. I knew I did not want to do chocolate, since it was so hot outside and chocolate can be a little rich. Cream and butter would have been nice with the right kind of fruit, but I did not have the right kind of fruit. My eye fell upon this walnut sponge cake that I had been wanting to make since buying this book. 

Generally, I am not a fan of sponge cake. They can be a little like Styrofoam without much taste. I had a feeling, though, that this cake would be different. The ground walnuts add moisture and flavor in a way that creates a light yet indulgent dessert. When topped with freshly whipped cream and blackberries, it becomes more special. For a dairy free version, you can also just dust with powdered sugar, or eat it as is. The cake will keep for three days, or longer if it is sealed well in the refrigerator. 

 Walnut Sponge Cake
From Pure Dessert
Serves 8-10

By the way, I tagged this as dairy-free because the whipped cream on top is optional. You can eat the cake plain, dust with powdered sugar, or serve with fruit. However, the whipped cream makes it decadent if you would like to add it.

2 1/2 cups walnut or pecan halves
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and position the rack in the lower third of the oven. Line the bottom of a springform pan with parchment paper. By hand or with a food processor, coarsely chop 1/2 cup of the nuts. Pulse remaining 2 cups of nuts in a food processor until finely ground. Combine together and set aside.

5 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1 tablespoon brandy or rum
1/3 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or you can use a handheld mixer), combine egg yolks and remaining ingredients (through salt). Beat at high speed with a whisk attachment until thick and pale yellow. Unless you have second mixer bowl, scrape the yolks into a separate bowl and set aside. Wash and dry mixer bowl.

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
egg whites (from the 5 separated eggs)
1/4 cup sugar
In a clean mixer bowl using a clean whisk attachment, beat egg whites and cream of tartar at medium high speed until soft peaks form when the beater is lifted. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, and continue to beat at high speed until stiff, but not dry, peaks form. 

Scrape half of the egg whites over the yolks, pour half of the nuts on top, and use a large rubber spatula to fold them in until almost completely incorporated. Repeat with remaining egg whites and nuts, fold just until mixed. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread it evenly. 

Pour into springform pan. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven until the cake springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick comes out clean, about 50-55 minutes. Cool 5-10 minutes in the pan on a rack, then run a knife around the edge and detach the sides of the pan. Let cool completely on rack. 

*Optional toppings: 1 pint berries, powdered sugar, and/or 1 cup lightly sweetened whipped cream. 

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