Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Going to Grandma's - Maple Walnut Cake

It was a small house, with wooded slats and a porch painted in creams and browns. As you walked through the heavy burnished door and stood in the center hall, you left the world behind you on the threshold, not three feet away yet a thousand miles from care. A curved staircase led to a motley square of stained glass, a glimpse of the music room through the double French doors, and the unmistakable aroma of a perked pot of coffee always at the ready. This was Grandma’s house, Hertha’s house. This was gemütlichkeit.

A uniquely German abstract, gemütlichkeit, is virtually impossible to accurately translate, though the Dutch, Russians and Danish have words that convey a similar meaning. It is a place of coziness, comfort and camaraderie, where one minute slips effortless into the next, yet you are forever in the moment. The feeling, though typically defined as “home,” knows no exact boundaries; it could be a garden, a glade, or a table tucked away in a café. The only guidepost is that you know it, feel it in your fiber, exactly when you get there.

It was many a Saturday afternoon, so long ago, that I was there. My mother, brother and I would arrive to the last notes of Chopin, Bach and Ravel dancing through the doorways, as my grandmother gave her final student of the day a lesson on the piano. We would sit and wait for her on a comfy sofa with a collection of lazing cats stretched over the cushions.

When the lesson was over, we would immediately be welcomed into the dining room, a small inner sanctum of tall, glossy cabinets. Thick slashes of sunlight would cross the table and converge on a solitary white box bound in striped twine. We all knew what was inside, a lavishly frosted layer cake, which was bought that morning at the local bakery.

As we assembled around the table to the clinking of china and utensils, and the arrival of the coffee pot, all eyes were focused on the box, waiting for the mystery inside to be revealed. Could it be coconut, black-and-white ganache, or maple walnut? Maple walnut was always my favorite, a pile of fawn-colored buttercream cresting walnut-crusted curves of cake, a mile high to a child’s eye. Despite its dazzling decor, it always seemed less sophisticated and more friendly than the other cakes in the rotation. Coffee was poured for the adults and milk for us children. The twine was snipped from the box, thick wedges of cake were cut, and there we would be, spending hours caught up in conversation beyond my ken. To this day, I do not remember a word of it, but it doesn’t matter.

My grandmother has been gone some years now, and the house has long since been sold and gutted several times to accommodate a string of businesses. Memory, though, can hardly be quelled by progress. I sometimes pass by and imagine the door is opening, just wide enough for a small girl to step inside.

Maple Walnut Layer Cake

Chiffon Layer Cake
- Adapted from the Crisco recipe.
[This is an excellent, moist, all-purpose cake recipe, particularly good when you don't want to fuss with the extra steps and tube pan needed for a traditional foam batter. I've made it several times, and it has never failed to perform.]


2 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flavorless oil (I used safflower)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks


Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites with 1/3 cup sugar until thick and glossy but not stiff. Set aside. Combine flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add milk, oil, vanilla and egg yolks to the dry ingredients. Beat with electric mixer at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl and beaters frequently (not continually). Fold or stir egg whites into batter until, about 1 minute. Pour into two greased and floured 8-inch layer cake pans. [I used 6-inch X 3-inch round pans.]

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10-20 minutes before removing from pans.

American Buttercream Frosting (Maple)
[This is a standard recipe, using all butter and no trans-fat shortening. If you are not fond of the metallic gritty sweetness of confectioners sugar, you can use glazing sugar, a powdered sugar without cornstarch. King Arthur carries it.]


½ pound butter, softened to room temperature
1 pound confectioners sugar (or more)
¼ cup milk (or more)
1 Tablespoon natural maple extract (much more highly concentrated than maple syrup)


In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy and fluffy. Add sugar one cup at a time, beating well between additions. Keep beating until all the sugar is absorbed. Add extract and milk, and resume beating until frosting is smooth and light. Frosting consistency is a matter of taste. You can easily add more sugar to thicken. You can also stretch your ingredients by adding more sugar and milk incrementally until you have doubled the volume. This is especially useful if you have a large cake to frost and don’t want to increase an already high fat content. Keep frosting tightly covered until ready to use to prevent sugar crust. Buttercream does not have to be refrigerated, but should be kept in a cool place so it doesn’t melt.

After filling and decorating the assembled layers, gently press approximately 1 1/2 cups of chopped walnuts into the sides of cake. Cake will develop a natural sugar crust while standing; this is perfectly harmless and adds to its character. Cover with a large inverted plastic bowl to keep it fresh.

Yield – The original recipe without additional sugar and milk will lightly fill and frost an 8-inch, 2-layer cake or two 6-inch cakes split into 2 layers. The cake shown is a 6-inch split into 3 layers. It is lightly filled, but generously decorated. It is very sweet and rich.

Serves 8 - 12 depending on size of wedges cut.

This post is my submission for this month's Sugar High Friday, hosted by Jennifer of Domestic Goddess, the creator of the long-running monthly sweet blogging event. This month's theme is Favorite, Most Craved Desserts.


Glenna said...

OH. MY. GAWD. That looks devine. Maple is one of my favorite flavors. It's just beautiful. And love the memories associated with it.

Lydia said...

Wonderful how your memory of your grandmother is intertwined with this particular food memory. The cake looks lovely, old-fashioned and delicious.

Johanna said...

that is such a lovely evocative piece of writing with such beautiful photos - thanks! I felt like I was in a fairytale as i read it. And the icing looks so stylish - what a wonderful memory-filled cake!

Cynthia said...

That memory is written with such poetry and eloquence. I saw the house through your eyes, your memories.

The cake - I love love a slice with a cup of tea thank you.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

That cake looks gorgeous! I'm sure it also tastes awesome...

Patricia Scarpin said...

Susan, this post is wonderful. Your description of grandma's house is perfect - I could picture it. It reminds of one of our great writers, Jose de Alencar, who would describe things so perfectly it seemed that you had a photograph in your hands instead of plain text. Beautiful.
My grandmother (my mom's side) was German but we never saw each other much. She died 16 years ago. I still remember her Apfelstrudel and the delicious cookies she used to make for us sometimes.

This cake is a winner, definitely - I'd love to give it a try sometime, maybe when for someone I hold dear's next birthday. Thank you so much for sharing, both the recipe and the lovely story.

(sorry for the long comment, I couldn't help myself)

bee said...

glorious. just beautiful. your grandma will be beaming with pride wherever she is. that sponge cake is relatively guilt-free. i will use it for another recipe. thanks, susan.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

the cake looks delicious n the post brings back nostalgic memories!sure to give it a try!

Susan said...

Thanks, Glenna. You know how much fun cake decorating is. At first I combed the sides and was going to put the nuts on top, but that wasn't exactly the look of the cakes I had as a kid.
Lydia - Double thanks to you! I've been thinking about maple ever since your recent post about syrup.
Johanna - I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you. Sometimes it even feels like a fairy tale to me, but then I go to the old neighborhood and see the house...
Cynthia - Thank you so much. There's plenty of cake left. I wish I could cut you a nice wedge and get the tea kettle on.
Welcome, Rosa! Thanks for your kind words and visit.
My dear Patricia, what a supreme compliment. Thank you very much. I've looked up Alencar; I didn't know who he was. Sounds like a very interesting fellow. I wonder if his work is available in English.

Never worry that a comment is too long. You have a lot to say, and I was happy to read it, learn and enjoy. I'm sorry you lost your grandmother. We all need to live to at least 100.
Thank you, Bee. I know you don't use refined sugar, but perhaps some minor adjustments would provoke even less guilt - just stay clear of that frosting! It's killa!

sra said...

Your description of your grandmother's home - very evocative, Susan! And needless to say, the cake looks terrific!

Stephanie said...

Beautiful writing ... I'm checking my pantry now for maple extract!

Sandeepa said...

A very very touching post Susan. The line
"I sometimes pass by and imagine the door is opening, just wide enough for a small girl to step inside" brought tears to my eyes. I could feel the warmth of her home.

The cake is absolutely fantastic but I have many miles to go before I can come up with some thing like that

Lucy said...

Might just have to appropriate the word gemütlichkeit if you don't mind! So many meanings, but a sense of place like no other. An eloquent piece of writing Susan, and a joy to read.

The cake is a very beautiful thing. She would look rather nice dressed in autumn leaves too. So here I am, pre-breakfast, dreaming of maple extract and longing for some of that butter cream frosting...

Susan said...

Naditha - Thank you and welcome. Memories can have real magic in them. Thanks for coming to visit.
Thanks, Sra. - The cake is holding up well, despite several reductions in its size. : )
Welcome, Stephanie - Thank you very much. The maple extract sure is potent. It's good to see you here.
Dear Sandeepa - I was fine until I wrote the last sentence. Thank you so very much for knowing the feeling.

I didn't learn to bake or decorate a cake overnight. These things take time. I'm sure you can create whatever you want, if you set your mind and heart to it.
Lucy - Anyone who can pronounce an umlaut can appropriate any German word she likes!

I love the idea of autumn leaves, perhaps arranged on a minimal coat of marchpane. How does that sound?

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Susan your writing transports me to childhood and the photos of billowing buttercream are totally glorious.
This is an exceptional post!

Shaun said...

Susan, lovie - I thought this was going to lead us down the path of the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood! I much prefer your lovely memories of grandma's house. Your beautifully evocative writing is heartily supported with your chosen subject, a gorgeous walnut cake. I, too, love cakes that use oil, knowing of the moist result, and walnuts are the quintessential cake nut. The buttercream, too, is beautifully piped. Any leftovers for "guests"?Glorious again, darling!

Susan said...

Thank you, Tanna. Hope you are enjoying your travels. I'm sure there are many splendid desserts for you to sample along the way.
Shaun - So, you can tell I grew up with the Brothers Grimm? Oil-based cakes are so easy, no butter to cream. Saved all that for the frosting! It's held up well in the heat, but I think it's the ideal cake for cooler weather. Walnuts are all about the fall. Thanks so much for your very kind words.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

OH MY GOD SUSAN! That ooks like my new favorite! :)

Christina said...

One word: beautiful.

Nora B. said...

That was very well written, Susan. I could picture it all clearly in my head. I love reading about the memories or history of different foods. And this cake looks gorgeous!

Susan said...

Hi, Jenn. This cake just might tempt a few from their chocolate loyalty.
Christina - Thank you very much.
Nora - Thank you so for your kind words. I'm very glad you enjoyed it. The past should be celebrated with cake as well as the present and future.

Sandeepa said...

Just saw your comment on Panch Phoran. I think it would be best if you try to make a Red Masoor Dal using the "panch Phoron" for tempering, that takes the advantage of the flavor of the spices.
For dry veggie dishes, use very little of it for tempering. If the veggie dishes have potatoes, it helps I think the smoothnesss of the potatoes blances out the crunchiness of the spices

Susan said...

What a powerfully imagistic post this is, Susan. I adore stories about grandmothers. Maple walnut actually reminds me of my grandmother--it was always her favorite flavored ice cream, and I've inherited it from her. She and I would love to sit down and savor a piece of your lovely cake.

Rosa said...

A beautiful post and a beautiful cake! I'm so glad to have found your blog.

Susan said...

Welcome, Rosa! Thank you so much. Hope to see you again.

Susan said...

Sandeepa - A hearty thanks for your cooking tips!

Hi, Susan. Thanks for the special compliment. There is something old fashioned about maple walnut, that and butter pecan. I don't remember maple walnut ice cream, but definitely butter pecan, though I haven't seen it in the freezer case in many years. Alas, it's out of favor. Too much cookie dough.

Pelicano said...

Hey Susan- great story that you related around the cake; it is sad that time doesn't stop...I never imagined life without my grandmothers when I was young. Back then, things just went on forever...

Thanks for sharing a great cake recipe- it's actually a bit like my carrot-cake recipe! Both of which I must avoid right now after a recent, late-spring, sweet-making frenzy... but I shall book-mark it for later, as my own grandmother made black walnut cakes, though nowhere near as lovely as yours!

Susan said...

Thank you, Pel. I'm crazy about black walnuts. Haven't had them in ages. Almost impossible to crack the shells...and the stained fingers! Those are good memories, too. It does take you up short, doesn't it, that forever is finite afterall?

claudia said...

i love this post and i look forward to making this cake this coming fall. it's so so beautiful. and it'll be a huge hit in my household.

Susan said...

Welcome, Claudia! Thank you very much. This is probably my favorite post so far. I'm glad others have enjoyed it, too. The frosting was fairly easy to pipe. I used a very large star pastry tip and worked one wavy ribbon at a time. Good to have you visit.

Eva said...

What a wonderful memory of your childhood! And a picture-perfect cake to go with it!

Susan said...

Thank you, Eva. The cake was a very good photographer's model. Welcome and thanks for visiting!

The Cooking Ninja said...

That cake looks absolutely divine. Yum yum

Susan said...

Thank you, Cooking Ninja. Yum yum is the ideal compliment. : )

Cookie baker Lynn said...

What a perfect cake! I love how you frosted the top - it's just gorgeous, and I'm sure delicious, too.

Indranee Batabyal said...

Hello Susan, first time visitor to your blog and I'm glad that I visited it.You have amazing recipes and I simply love this cake.Looks very yummy!

Indranee Batabyal said...

This cake looks irresistible! I'm glad that I visited your blog:)

Indranee Batabyal said...

Susan, thanks a lot for your comment! I'm glad that you liked the recipe. Looking forward for some more yummy recipes!

Snooky doodle said...

this cake looks so yummy. I like how you decorated it too :)

Anthony said...

How have I not seen this post in all the years of looking for new cake & pie recipes online? Well, better late than never! I have the two cakes cooling right now and my spatula is ready to starting applying the frosting!

There's just something magical about maple. Sure syrup is great, but nothing beats a Canadian maple cookie or surely, this pie. Heck, maple in beer is one of my favorite ingredients!

Aysha said...

Wow!!!The cake looks delicious..Wish I could have a slice now!!!Yummy yummy yummy...The pic looks so tempting!!!