You know, recipes are a funny thing. Like most everything else, recipes have evolved from a verbal description only to a brief and hasty rendition on a random piece of paper to a codified missive with precise measurements and techniques. Now, you may well wonder, all that is true but what could this possibly have to do with Passover? Well, quite a lot as it happens. Every Passover, after I have made the three block treck over to my mother’s kitchen, I make my grandmother’s nut cake. I have been making this cake for as long as I can remember. I can still recall the feeling of warmth being in my grandmother’s kitchen, the morning after the first seder, helping her shell and grind the nuts by hand, since of course in those days, there was no food processor or any such gadget to allow for shortcuts. Back then, my grandmother knew the recipe off by heart, guided by her own sense of touch and memory. She knew, as if by magic, just how many nuts to grind or how much sugar to add, or how many eggs to separate. The results were always spectacular. I can still recall the glow of pride I felt when my grandfather returned home to a freshly baked cake and the words of praise he had for his budding baker of a granddaughter.
Fast forward a couple of years when I finally asked my grandmother to write down her cake recipe. It’s a good thing that I had had the gift of being beside her in her kitchen or else I might have been a bit lost. You see, the recipe went something like this: 8 eggs, with no mention that they had to be separated and beaten separately. Eight tablespoons of ground nuts, with a cautionary word that they shouldn’t be ground too finely, 6 to 8 heaping tablespoons of sugar but probably more like 6 tablespoons since one didn’t really need to make it all that sweet and about 4 tablespoons of potato starch. Oh, and 1 lemon. She also stipulated that I should make it a couple of times so that it would come out in a good way.
Fast forward another couple of years. Now my own children shell the nuts for this Passover cake, I grind them in a food processor, all the while heeding my grandmother’s dictum to not grind them too finely, and I have devoted the necessary time to codifying the recipe so that it has precise and consistent measurements so that you can replicate it without fuss in your own kitchens. Or as my grandmother would say, so it always comes out in a good way.
One final word, I make this in a bundt cake in the oven although my grandmother always made it on top of the stove in a wonder baker, which is basically a bundt cake with a top. Due to the presence of a lid, her cake came out a bit moister and a bit higher than mine. I have been trying to locate this wonder baker for many years, all to no avail. Nonetheless, my cake, which comes out a bit lower and is a bit crisper on the exterior, is just as delicious and grand as I remember it from my childhood.
If you can, use raw organic cane sugar for the granulated sugar. Also, it’s helpful to keep in mind that eggs separate better when they’re cold, but beat up to greater volume when they’re at room temperature. So, remove your eggs from the refrigerator and separate them right away. Then, let them rest at room temperature, lightly covered, for at least 30 minutes, for optimal results.
1 cup walnuts, very finely chopped
2/3 cup potato starch
8 large eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Combine the walnuts and the potato starch in a bowl; set aside.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or using a hand held mixer, beat the egg yolks with ¼ cup of the sugar until very pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
4. In a clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a clean whisk attachment or using clean hand held beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining ½ cup of sugar in a thin stream, beating until the whites are shiny and stiff, but not dry. Beat in the lemon juice.
5. Fold 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the beaten egg yolks. Fold in the remaining egg whites. Fold in the walnut mixture.
6. Lightly grease a 10-inch tube pan. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tube pan, spreading it lightly and evenly.
7. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry and clean. Cool in pan on rack. Invert to unmold.
Yield: 1 cake