Ever since I laid my eyes on this cake recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi´s „Plenty More“, I knew that I should be baking it. It is a delicious looking moist yellow sponge cake, with a layer of freshly cracked walnuts, coated in beurre noisette (brown butter) and cinnamon, then covered with chunks of vanilla halva, then another layer of sponge, and finally a topping of more walnuts, beurre noisette, dark muscovada sugar and cinnamon.
Unlike other Ottolenghi recipes, this recipe has a rather short list of ingredients and is not complicated at all. The only real "prep work" involves the browning of the butter which the nuts and cinnamon are stirred into. The flavor that this adds to the cake, is very definitely worth that little bit of extra effort. Beurre noisette (also called brown butter), adds a nutty, toasted flavor to sweet and savory dishes and makes this cake recipe even more irrestible.
For those of you unfamiliar with halva, it is a Middle Eastern confection typically made from tahini paste, nut butters and sugar. You may have to go to a specific shop to get this particular ingredient but generally, it is available at larger grocery stores and at Middle Eastern markets. While there are many different varieties of halva available, such as the chocolate-marbled one, you should try to use plain or vanilla Arab-style sesame halva for this rich cake. Arab-style halva is said to be the best tasting.
Lately, being inspired by many different and talented bakers and cooks, I have taken to baking different sweet treats with halva and have come to the conclusion that it truly is a baker’s best friend. Its salty, melt-in-the-mouth quality lends itself beautifully to this paticular cake and many other baked goods. Feel free to experiment with this lovely ingredient and make sure to stock up one one or more tubs if you enjoy its distinct nutty, sesame-infused taste.
Walnut and Halva Cake
(inspired by a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi)
Ingredients for the Cake Batter
- 85 grams unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
- 100 grams caster (superfine baking) sugar
- 2 eggs, (M), organic or free range, lightly whisked
- 200 grams plain (AP) flour (I used white spelt flour instead which I truly enjoy in my cakes)
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- ¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- a pinch of fine sea salt
- 130 grams sour cream (I used natural 3.8 % yogurt instead)
Ingredients for the Topping
- 60 grams unsalted butter
- 120 grams walnuts, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon
- 25 grams dark muscovado sugar
- 170 grams plain sesame halva, broken into large, 3 cm pieces
- Heat the oven to 160° C (320° F).
- Grease a 12 cm x 25 cm loaf pan with some butter, and line the base and sides with parchment paper.
- For the topping: put the butter in a small saucepan on a low to medium heat. Leave to melt, then let it sizzle for a few minutes until it is light brown and smells slightly nutty. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.
- Once cool, mix the butter, walnuts and cinnamon, divide the mixture in two and stir the sugar into one of the portions.
- For the cake batter: in an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on a medium speed until light and fluffy, then add the eggs a little at a time.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt, and bit by bit add this and the cream alternately, making sure not to over-mix.
- Spread half the batter on the base of the cake pan and evenly scatter over the sugarless nut mix. Dot the halva on top, and spread the remaining batter over this.
- Finally, sprinkle the sugary nuts on top.
- Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a wooden skewer comes out clean (mine took about 45 minutes).
- Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then gently remove from the pan by lifting the greaseproof paper. Take off the paper and leave the cake to cool on a wire rack. NOTE: If you attempt to cut into this cake before it has had a chance to cool completely, it will crumble and you will not get neat slices.
And while we wait for spring produce to arrive at our farmers´ markets and in stores around us. And while we wait to finally bake all those fruit pies and berry tarts and crumbles and so much more, is it worth taking the time to bake this lovely Walnut and Halva Cake. You will be rewarded by a rich, spicy aroma during baking, but if you want to dive right in, you will need to hold off as this cake needs to be left to cool, in order to cut easily and nicely.
This cake is truly a sensation. The sugary walnut pieces add great texture with the sweet smell and warmth of the cinnamon coming through and the vanilla halva, which melts in the oven and creates caramelized pockets of nutty, sweet-salty goodness running through the center of the cake. Truly, it is the kind of cake you want to reach for in the afternoon when you need a pick-me-up. So very tempting and moreish.