This Gluten-Free Dessert Will Put Your Name in Lights
Need to make dessert for an important dinner? (Hint: Mother’s Day is just around the corner!) One that looks great and tastes even better?
Enter this Walnut Roll Cake. It’s a time-tested recipe (dating back at least to the 1950s) and it’s not hard to make (though it does take time). Your guests will rave about the flavor. And it’s gluten free!
This drop-dead delicious recipe is so good it helped Paula Wolfert shine at one of her first big catering jobs — more about that later — and it will make you a star among your friends. It will also become the dessert that everyone asks you to make.
Indulge their requests if you can. After all, we were all little people at one time, weren’t we?
Recipe: Walnut Roll Cake
Although this recipe has several steps — and does dirty some cooking utensils — it’s pretty straightforward. First you make a cake in a half-sheet or jelly roll pan (11 x 17 inches). Once made, the cake needs to chill for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, you make the filling. Then spread the filling on the chilled cake, roll it, and chill again. Dust with confectioner’s sugar (and garnish if you like) right before serving.
Because this recipe has a few steps, things will go smoother if you read through the Procedure and Notes a couple of times before you begin.
Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is the baker in our household, and this cake is hers. She slightly adapted it from a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s World of Food. So when you see “I” in the Procedure and most of the Notes, that’s Mrs K R talking.
This recipe takes about an hour and half from the time you begin until you’ve finished the last step, but part of that time is baking and resting time. Actual hands-on time is 45 minutes to an hour. This recipe serves 8 to 12 (it’s quite rich, so most people will be happy with 1/12). You can make this ahead and freeze for up to 2 weeks before serving.
For the cake:
- 5 or 6 eggs, separated, preferably at room temperature (consider using pasteurized eggs; see Notes)
- 5½ ounces (~1½ cups) ground walnuts
- ½ cup sugar
- pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ~1 tablespoon butter for greasing baking pan
- 6½ ounces (~1¾ cups) ground walnuts
- ½ cup warm milk
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons Cognac
- 1 cup heavy cream, whipped
- confectioner’s (powdered) sugar (½ cup or so)
- sprigs of mint and/or berries (optional; strawberries and blackberries both work well)
For the cake:
- Set the eggs out to warm to room temperate (not strictly necessary, and a step we often skip, but the whites beat better if they’re not cold; see Notes for what to do if you haven’t let the eggs warm before starting).
- When ready to proceed, preheat oven to 375 degree F.
- Butter a half-sheet pan or jelly roll pan (11 x 17 inches), then line the pan with parchment paper or waxed paper. Be sure to leave about 2 inches of paper hanging over at each end. Butter the paper.
- Grind the walnuts finely (it’s easiest to do this using a food processor). I usually grind 12 ounces of walnuts at one time, use 5½ ounces in this step, and then set aside 6½ ounces for the filling.
- Separate the eggs (see Notes).
- Place egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium bowl if beating by hand). Beat the egg yolks, and after a minute gradually begin to add the sugar and a pinch of salt. In a few minutes (perhaps 5) the eggs will become light and creamy. Add baking powder and then ground walnuts, beating to mix.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff (you can add a pinch of cream of tartar if necessary). Using a rubber spatula, fold into the egg whites into the walnut mixture.
- Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared baking pan. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Cover the cake with a damp cloth or dishtowel and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- I usually wait about 10 or 15 minutes before beginning this step (while waiting, I generally hand wash some utensils; see Notes). If you haven’t done so in Step 4 above, grind 6½ ounces of walnuts.
- Heat the milk until it's warm (the microwave works well for this), then add it to the ground walnuts. Set aside to cool.
- In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium bowl if doing this by hand), cream the butter, gradually adding the sugar. Continue beating until the butter/sugar mixture is light and fluffy.
- Beat in the Cognac and then the walnut/milk mixture.
- In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it becomes whipped cream.
- Fold the whipped cream into the walnut mixture.
- Remove the cake from the refrigerator (make sure it’s been chilling for at least 30 minutes), and sprinkle the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar.
- Put a piece of waxed or parchment paper (at least 20 inches long) over the cake.
- Keeping the waxed/parchment paper on top of the cake, grip the baking pan at both ends and quickly turn it 180 degrees (upside down).
- Remove the pan, and peel the paper off the cake.
- Using a spatula, spread the filling evenly over the top of the cake.
- Roll the cake, using the remaining waxed paper to help roll it up into a jelly roll shape.
- Cover the cake roll with foil, and refrigerate until firm (at least an hour or two).
- Dust the top of the cake roll with confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Add additional garnish (such as mint or berries) if desired.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? I don’t know about you, but I find it’s impossible to make a dish like this without tasting as I’m preparing it!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- When separating eggs, it’s important that not a speck of yolk be included with the egg white, otherwise you’ll have beating problems.
- Here’s the easiest and fastest way to separate egg whites from their yolks: First wash your hands thoroughly. Then crack an egg, open the shell into the palm of your hand, and let the egg white run through your slightly open fingers. I find that it’s fastest if I transfer the egg from one hand to the other once or twice during this process. Lately I’ve been using disposable food service gloves, which work quite well for this.
- I always separate eggs one at a time into a small bowl, and then transfer each egg white into a mixer bowl (and the yolk into another bowl). That way, if I accidentally get some egg yolk mixed in with its white, I ruin only one egg, not the whole batch.
- When I bring eggs to room temperature before separating, I always put out an extra egg or two just in case I have an accident with one of the eggs I’m separating. That way, I’ll have a spare.
- Speaking of which, you’ll notice that this recipe calls for 5 or 6 eggs. The original recipe specifies 5, but I often break one of the yolks while separating them. I generally just add the broken-yolked egg (white and all) to the cake batter in Step 6 of the cake procedure. It works fine!
- If you haven’t warmed the eggs to room temperature before starting, no worries — the egg whites will be fine. Just rinse your mixing bowl with hot water and dry it off — the heat from the bowl will warm the egg whites to “beating” temperature.
- Step 3 of the cake procedure instructs you to butter both the baking pan and the waxed/parchment paper. Do this — seriously. You want to make sure the paper peels away cleanly after baking (see Step 4 of the final assembly procedure).
- You’ll need four separate mixing bowls for this recipe: one for beating the egg yolks, another for beating the egg whites (both for the cake), then another for creaming the butter, and, finally, one for whipping the cream (both for the filling). I generally use my KitchenAid stand mixer for all these tasks, but I have only two mixing bowls and two sets of beaters/wire whisks that fit the mixer. So I hand wash my mixing bowls and other utensils while waiting to begin Step 1 of the filling procedure. If your kitchen is stocked with four sets of mixing utensils, you can skip hand washing. Or you can use a hand mixer for some of the tasks.
- You’ll also need to make room in your fridge to chill an 11 x 17-inch sheet pan for 30 minutes. If your refrigerator looks anything like ours, you’ll find this gives you a great opportunity to pitch out some of the weeks-old odds and ends that are accumulating at the back.
Fit for a Queen (or at Least a Queen Bee)
“Great cake!” I enthused to Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “You don’t make this often enough.”
“I’m only making this one when we have guests,” she replied. “Or to take to a dinner party. It makes way too much — and it’s too rich — for just the two of us.”
“It is a big cake,” I admitted. “Say, remind me of how this helped Paula Wolfert with that catering job. I’ve read it, but it’s been awhile.”
“She writes about it in the headnote to this recipe in her book, World of Food,” Mrs K R replied. “It was 1959 and she was fresh off a one-year apprenticeship with Dione Lucas . . . .”
“That’s a name you don’t hear much anymore,” I interrupted. “She was the first woman to have her own cooking show, I believe.”
“Yes indeed,” said Mrs K R. “Anyway, after finishing the apprenticeship, Wolfert got in touch with the great James Beard — another name we don’t hear so much anymore — because she was looking for work. And Beard recommended her for a catering gig.”
“Some rich dowager in Connecticut,” I remembered. “Wasn’t this a luncheon for like 150 people?”
“Yup,” said Mrs K R. “And the hostess specified that for dessert she wanted a ‘delicious cake.’ Wolfert wasn’t sure what kind of cake to make, so James Beard gave her this recipe. She whipped up 15 of these beauties for the luncheon.”
“Right, and took them with her on the train from New York to Stamford,” I said. “It’s coming back to me. And wasn’t the dowager shocked at how young Wolfert was?”
“Correct,” said Mrs K R. “Because Paula Wolfert wasn’t yet, well, Paula Wolfert. The hostess was so horrified that she dramatically ‘took to her bed,’ wailing ‘Why have they done this to me? Sent a child to cook the lunch!’”
“And then Wolfert sent a piece of cake up to the hostess,” I prompted.
“Yes, and after tasting it, the lady decided that maybe Wolfert knew her stuff after all,” said Mrs K R. “And the luncheon was a big success.”
“How could it not be, with this cake?” I said, looking wistfully at the leftovers. “<Cough, cough> – I think I’m coming down with something! Maybe I should take to my bed.”
Mrs K R rolled her eyes heavenward, and cut me another slice.
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