Sometimes you freak yourself out, and you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re going along, doing all the right things, going for walks and doing yoga and eating vegetables and it’s all fine, and then you go into a crowded corner store (that WASN’T crowded when you went in but then like 8 people showed up out of nowhere and the owner guy isn’t wearing a mask and oh God) and your whole equilibrium is fucked.
Other times, there’s a violent insurrection/coup attempt in the city where your sister lives and works and which is also the seat of your government. Cool.
There is a particular cake I turn to when everything is fucked, when your plans aren’t going according to plan. When you need both a pick-me-up and a sit-me-down. Meet coffee walnut cake.
Britain has a standard repertoire of cakes that you’ll find in basically any café you walk into. A Spice Girls of cake, if you will: Victoria sponge, millionaire’s shortbread (basically a Twix), lemon drizzle cake, carrot cake, something chocolate, and maybe a Bakewell tart. And, of course, there will always be the star of my heart: coffee walnut cake.
Coffee is better as frosting or ice cream than as a drink, and this is a hill I will die on. Why deny yourself milk and sugar when they make an already good thing so much better? This is why I was crushed to discover as a young child that every American “coffee cake” I was eating hadn’t been made wrong – it was supposed to be cake to go with coffee rather than coffee-flavored cake. What kind of horse shit is this, I ask you.
Worse, many coffee-flavored desserts are dialed up to Mega Mudslide Mocha Madness levels. This is unnecessary. The beauty of the coffee walnut cake is that it’s as milky and sweet as a café au lait, rather than the grown-up one-two booze-punch of a tiramisu or an affogato. Coffee walnut cake is all about comfort and warmth – good butter, sweet coffee, and the gentle crunch of toasted walnuts.
I think there’s something of a cult of cake in the US right now – amateur bakers somehow think you have to make three kinds of icing and a caramel soak and shave every layer perfectly flat so that the cake can look like an old-timey hatbox for some reason. I blame Bake-Off. As the kids say, go off I guess, but to me cake should be fresh, tender, comforting, and not at all fussy.
The true joy of cake is to have one on hand whenever you need it (aka at all times). My granny used to make a cake at the start of every week, ostensibly so she’d have something to serve visitors, but really so there would be something nice to go with her tea every day.
And while there’s nothing wrong with box cake, I consider it a needless over-complication. Big Box Cake wants you to think cake is hard to make well. Don’t fall for it. They need you to need them, but you don’t. What you need is two eggs and the same weight in butter, sugar, and flour. Just enough for two people to eat for a few days, before it has time to go stale.
I can’t give you a small ivy-covered cottage by the sea, or a coop full of well-behaved chickens, or a beautiful pastoral landscape to look out on from your window as you clutch a steaming mug of your beverage of choice. What I can give you, and the people you live with, is a nice slice of fresh cake to go with said beverage every day for the next week or so, whether it’s your afternoon tea or your 2AM freakout cocoa or your first coffee of the day (it’s 2021, cake is for breakfast now).
You can even forego the electric beaters and beat the everloving hell out of it with a wooden spoon, old-school style, if that’s how you’re feeling. Granny would certainly approve. Either way, let’s make you a pillowy little cake to rest your cares on.
COFFEE WALNUT CAKE
Makes 1 layer that fits in an ancient 7-inch metal cake tin from the 20’s. If you want two layers for a sandwich cake, just double up the amounts. If your cake pan is bigger, like 8 or 9 inches, that’s fine, just watch it as it cooks because it’ll be thinner and cook more quickly.
Takes, like, an hour and a half including cooling?
Adapted from Felicity Cloake’s recipe – I halved everything except the toasted walnuts and the coffee, which I bumped up.
For the cake:
3tbsp coffee, cooled
100g/1 cup chopped walnut halves or pieces, plus a couple pretty ones saved to decorate the top if you want
112g/ ½ cup butter, at room temperature
112g/ ½ cup sugar (use soft, light brown sugar if you want a denser texture – I prefer this cake to be really light, but it’s an option)
2 eggs, beaten together
112g/ ½ cup plain flour (if you have cake flour, I recommend it. If not, no worries. Also, you could totally use self-raising flour and leave out the baking powder and salt)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
For the icing:
3tbsp coffee, cooled
165g/ ¾ cup butter, at room temperature
425g/ 1 ¾ cups icing sugar
4tbsp double cream or milk, if you need
- Preheat oven to 180C/350F.
- Make a small cup of strong coffee and leave to cool.
- Butter and line a small cake pan with parchment paper.
- If you have pretty walnut halves or some extra pieces for decorating, set them aside. Otherwise chop your walnuts if they’re not already in pieces.
- Toast walnut pieces in a small frying pan (dry, no oil or anything) over low-medium heat for 3-4 minutes, or just until they start smelling toasty. They’ll burn very quickly so watch them, and they’ll keep heating in the hot pan once it’s off the heat, so take them off a little earlier than you think you should. Leave in pan to cool.
- Beat your softened butter until creamy, add sugar, and then beat forever. I’m serious. At least like 5 minutes with a hand mixer, until it goes from being yellowish and creamy to being white and really fluffy. This makes the cake really light and delicate, and also might help you work out some feelings.
- Add your eggs one at a time, (or in two globs, because you’ve already broken them up with a fork) beating well after each addition.
- Add 3 tbsp of the cooled coffee and mix in – don’t worry if it looks like the batter breaks, it’s just a lot of liquid for the butter and sugar to try to absorb. When you add the flour it’ll all be fine.
- Speaking of which, sift in your flour, baking powder and salt and fold in with a metal spoon.
- Add your toasted walnut pieces and fold in, then gently pour batter into lined pan.
- Bake in the center of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until golden. Check on it after 20 minutes. Don’t worry if it sinks in the middle, no one cares and you’ll just fill it in with frosting. Just make sure a tester comes out cleanly.
- Let the cake cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack to cool completely before icing.
- For the icing, cream the butter and then sift in half of the icing sugar, beat well.
- Add 3 tbsp from your cooled coffee cup, and the salt, and beat – icing will be fairly runny but you can now add in the rest of the icing sugar gradually until it reaches the consistency and sweetness you want.
- If you add too much sugar, just add in some milk or cream a tablespoon at a time. If it seems too runny, chill it in the fridge for half an hour and then beat it again.
- When it tastes how you want it to taste and the cake is all the way cool, spoon frosting over the top and spread out to cover the sides. It’s the fashion here to leave the sides uncovered so that it looks ~rustic~, especially if you’re doing a double-layer cake, but I believe in full-coverage frosting. Follow your heart.
- Decorate with the pretty walnuts you saved (or not) and cut yourself a slice – have your cake and eat it, too.