Cooking class: Baking's best nut

Toast walnuts to add sensational flavor to your cakes, cookies and pastries.

Profiteroles 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Profiteroles 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whenever we’re toasting walnuts for a dish, the aroma and flavor are so tempting that we have to prepare extra for on-the-spot snacking. Toasting not only enhances the nuts’ taste; it also gives them a crisper texture. Toasted walnuts do wonders for simple foods, like a bowl of oatmeal or plain yogurt drizzled with a little honey, especially if the nuts are served when still warm. And walnuts add a sensational flavor to cakes, cookies and pastries. Helene Siegel, author of The Totally Nuts Cookbook, considers walnuts “the most versatile nut for baking.”
One of the oldest tree foods, walnuts are estimated to have been known for 9,000 years. Recipes for Austro-Hungarian walnut tortes may be the most famous formulas for using them in European desserts.
Among Americans, walnut-studded oatmeal cookies and brownies are very popular.
According to the California Walnut Board, common walnuts, which are often referred to as English walnuts, actually came from ancient Persia. They were traded along the Silk Road between Asia and the Middle East, and later were brought by English ships to ports around the world.
Thus they became known as English walnuts, although England never grew walnuts commercially.
Iran is still a major producer of walnuts, following China and the US; other important growers are Turkey, Ukraine and Romania. Naturally, people in all these areas use the nuts to make sweet treats.
Chinese cooks make candied walnuts by cooking them in a light sugar syrup, and then frying the drained nuts until brown.
Persian bakers make flourless, light -textured walnut cookies that we like with a cup of tea. In Ukraine, lightly fried walnuts are used as a stuffing for cooked prunes, which are then topped with sweetened whipped cream and grated chocolate. A Romanian-Serbian friend of ours, Angelina Zuber, makes a delicious layer cake composed of chocolate walnut layers filled and frosted with chocolate butter cream.
In the Balkans walnuts are popular in baklava, but also are loved as an enticing, exotic sweet – preserved young walnuts in clove syrup. Last month our friend Yonca Colakoglu from Antakya, Turkey, who first introduced us to this specialty when we visited her city near the Syrian border, brought us a jar from a local producer when she came to visit us. Making them is an elaborate process, and besides, it’s not easy to find the required green, immature walnuts at exactly the right stage of development.
When we finish the preserved walnuts, we’ll purchase more; they are available in jars from Armenia, Greece, Azerbaijan, Iran and France.
An easier way to preserve walnuts is one we learned in Paris – simply soaking them in sweetened brandy. We added walnuts to a solution of brandy and sugar and let them sit in a jar for two months. The brandied walnuts make a tempting party treat on their own and a terrific topping for ice cream.
We were not surprised that our friend Susan Hermann Loomis recently came out with a book called Nuts in the Kitchen. Years ago, when we were at cooking school together in France, she liked to use nuts to create tasty variations of classic recipes.
Toasted walnuts and other nuts crown her golden pound cake, which gets a finishing glaze of apricot jam. Her spice cookies are enhanced by walnuts, almond paste, honey and candied orange peel. She makes walnut waffles and tops them with walnut whipped creme fraiche.
TIPS:Before using walnuts, taste them to be sure they are fresh. They are more perishable than other nuts and therefore we keep them in an airtight container in the freezer, where they can keep as long as a year.
When you grind walnuts for desserts in a food processor, do not overprocess them, or they will turn into nut butter; add a little of the sugar from the recipe to the walnuts when you are grinding them to help keep their texture dry. Stop the machine often to check if the nuts are ground finely enough. If you are not using ground walnuts immediately, store them in the freezer and use them promptly.
To toast walnuts, bake them in the oven at 175ºC for 5 to 10 minutes or until they smell toasted and their color turns slightly darker. Small walnut pieces brown faster than walnut halves; be careful not to burn them.
LEMON ANGEL FOOD CAKE WITH WALNUTS This easy-to-prepare French cake is made with egg whites and not yolks, but is richer than American angel food cake because it contains butter. You can serve it with vanilla whipped cream and tender sweet fruit such as fresh persimmons.
The cake can be kept, wrapped, 3 days in refrigerator; or it can be frozen.
Makes 8 servings ✔ 100 gr. (7 Tbsp.) unsalted butter ✔ 12 walnut halves ✔ 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour ✔ 6 Tbsp. cornstarch ✔ grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 tsp.) ✔ 6 large egg whites ✔ 3⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
Preheat oven to 175ºC. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat. Let cool but do not let it harden.
Butter and flour a 20-cm. cake pan, about 5 cm. deep, with nonstick surface; if surface is not nonstick, lightly butter its base, line it with a round of foil or parchment paper, and then butter and flour foil and sides of pan. Put walnuts in pan at equal intervals. Sift flour with cornstarch into bowl. Add grated lemon.
Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add sugar while beating, and then beat at high speed about 30 seconds or until whites are stiff and shiny. Fold in flour mixture in 2 batches. Before mixture is entirely blended, lightly fold in butter.
Carefully spoon a little of the batter over the nuts without moving them. Then spoon remaining batter into pan. Gently smooth top. Bake about 35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out dry. Run knife around cake. Turn out onto a rack and cool.
WALNUT PROFITEROLES WITH CHOCOLATE SAUCE These small cream puffs are filled with toasted walnut whipped cream and served with a shiny warm chocolate sauce and toasted walnut halves. Instead of walnut liqueur, you can use fruit, chocolate or coffee liqueur, or substitute 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract.
The pastries taste best on the day they are baked but the sauce can be made up to a week ahead; reheat it in a pan above hot water, stirring constantly.
If you can, toast the walnuts used for garnish at the last moment, so you can serve them while they are still warm.
Makes 15 to 20 small pastries ✔ Choux Pastry (see recipe below) ✔ 1 cup walnut halves or pieces (for filling), plus 15 to 20 additional ones (optional, for garnish) ✔ 2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar ✔ 1⁄2 cup whipping cream, well-chilled ✔ 2 to 3 Tbsp. walnut liqueur ✔ Rich Chocolate Sauce (see recipe below)
To make Pastry: Prepare choux pastry (see recipe below). Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 200ºC. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. Using a pastry bag and medium-sized plain tip, shape mounds of Choux Pastry dough about 3 cm. in diameter, spacing them about 5 cm. apart on buttered baking sheets. Brush them with beaten egg left from making dough, gently pushing down any points. Bake about 28 minutes or until dough is puffed and browned; cracks that form during baking should also be brown. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut off top third of each puff; set aside as a “hat.” Cool puffs on a rack.
To make toasted walnut whipped cream: Preheat oven to 175ºC . Toast walnuts for 5 to 7 minutes or until fragrant; transfer to a plate and let nuts cool completely. If desired, set aside 15 to 20 walnut halves or pieces for garnish. Grind remaining walnuts with 1 tablespoon sugar in a food processor to a fine powder. Transfer to a medium bowl. In a large chilled bowl whip cream with remaining 4 teaspoons sugar until stiff. Fold in ground nuts in 2 batches.
Gradually fold in liqueur. Spoon into cream puffs. Set reserved “hats” on top.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Prepare sauce (see recipe below). Warm it over hot water before serving. Serve pastries coated with sauce and garnished with toasted walnuts.
Choux Pastry
Makes enough for 15 to 20 small cream puffs.
✔ 1⁄2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour ✔ 1⁄2 cup water ✔ 1⁄4 tsp. salt ✔ 1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, cut in pieces ✔ 3 large eggs Sift flour onto a piece of waxed paper. In a small heavy saucepan combine water, salt and butter. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until butter melts. Bring to a boil; remove from heat. Immediately add flour all at once; stir quickly with a wooden spoon until mixture is smooth. Set pan over low heat; beat mixture about 30 seconds.
Remove from heat; cool about 3 minutes. Add 1 egg; beat thoroughly into mixture. Add second egg; beat mixture until smooth. Beat third egg in a small bowl. Gradually beat 1 or 2 tablespoons of this egg into dough, adding enough so dough becomes very shiny and is soft enough so it just falls from the wooden spoon. Add a pinch of salt to remaining egg; beat until blended. Reserve as glaze and refrigerate until ready to use.
Rich Chocolate Sauce
Makes enough for 15 to 20 profiteroles
✔ 140 gr. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
✔ 4 large egg yolks
✔ 1 Tbsp. sugar
✔ 1⁄4 cup whipping cream
✔ 1⁄4 cup milk
Melt chocolate in a medium bowl set above nearly simmering water. Stir until smooth. Remove from water.
Whisk yolks with sugar and cream in a small metal bowl. Set in a pan of nearly simmering water. Heat, whisking, until mixture reaches 70ºC on an instant-read or candy thermometer, about 1 minute.
Immediately remove from water and whisk 1 minute to cool. Whisk in chocolate.
Gradually whisk in milk. Return to pan of water and heat, stirring, 3 minutes or until warm.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and of the award-winning book Chocolate Sensations, which was published in Hebrew as Shokolad!