Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Walnut and halva cake

I set a dangerous precedent. A few years ago, when flying down to see friends in Victoria, I brought a cake in my carry-on luggage. Now, it's not possible to visit without one. The rules of carry-on cake are as follows: no delicate sponges, or sticky icing, no layers or fancy shapes. And by fancy, even round counts here. Loaf cakes only need apply, and sturdy ones at that - the sort I can wrap tightly in tinfoil, stow in a tote bag and slide under the seat in front of me. The sort that will survive take-off, landing and turbulence. The original carry-on cake, lemon yoghurt, fits this brief beautifully, as does the superlative pear, pistachio and chocolate. And now another one to add to my repertoire courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi: walnut and halva cake.

Halva is a dense yet crumbly confection made with tahini, a mainstay of many cultures from the Middle-east to eastern Europe. My mother used to buy it for us when we were kids to satisfy our craving for something sweet after school. I don't remember having much of an opinion on it then. I'm sure I liked it fine but it was never coveted, more something that would do when we couldn't have what we actually wanted (chocolate! ice-cream! chips!). As an adult, I like it rather a lot. So much in fact that I will only buy small amounts at a time as if it is in my fridge, I will eat it: with coffee, crumbled over vanilla ice-cream, and now, in cake...

This is a beautifully light sour cream cake, embellished with caramelised walnuts and a layer of smooth, sweet halva. It's simple but a little bit special. Easy to carry on, and to carry off.

Walnut and halva cake
Adapted from a recipe in Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

The original recipe calls for sesame halva. My deli didn't have it so I used pistachio halva and it was lovely. I think as long as you stick to a pretty plain halva, you'll be fine. Steer clear of the sort with dominant flavours like chocolate, as it would detract from the walnuts. You can find halva in good delis or middle-eastern or Mediterranean grocery stores.

85g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the tin
100g caster (superfine) sugar
2 eggs, lightly whisked
200g flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon bicarb (baking) soda
130g sour cream

60g unsalted butter
120g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
25g brown sugar
170g halva (sesame/pistachio/vanilla), crumbled

Preheat the oven to 180 deg C. Grease a 900g loaf tin (25 x 12cm) with a little butter and line with baking paper so that it comes above the sides.

Start with the topping: put the butter in a small saucepan and put on a low-medium heat. Melt and then allow it to sizzle for about 3 minutes til light brown and smelling slightly nutty. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Once cool, mix the butter, walnuts and cinnamon together. Divide the mixture in two and stir the brown sugar into one of the portions: you may need to use your hands to ensure the sugar breaks up and spreads evenly through the nuts. 

Now for the cake batter. Cream butter and sugar til the mixture is light and fluffy. Add eggs, a little at a time, til they are incorporated.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarb (baking) soda and a pinch of salt. Add this to the batter, alternating with the sour cream, in a couple of additions: be sure not to over-mix.

Spread half the batter on to the bottom of the loaf tin and scatter the sugarless nut mix evenly over, then the halva on top of that. Spread the remaining batter over it. Finish by topping with the sugary nuts.

Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes or til a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then gently remove from the tin by lifting the baking paper. Remove the paper and leave the cake to cool completely on a wire rack. 

Wrapped in foil, the cake will keep for a day or two.

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