Wine & Food

    Coffee and walnut cake recipe

    27 March 2020

    Since the country has gone into lockdown, I find myself looking slightly askance at my list of planned dishes for this column: Black Forest gateau, Wiener Schnitzel, dressed crab. They suddenly seem… more of a reach than they did before. I look forward to the day that I can return to them without worrying that they are fantastical recipes, but for now, I am – like most people – concentrating on what I can reliably find in my store cupboard and hope that you too can in yours.

    I continue to find real solace and happiness in baking, and particularly in cooking dishes that are perhaps slightly old fashioned. In these uncertain times, there is a reassurance in being able to put a cake batter in the oven and see the familiar alchemy as individual ingredients become more than the sum of their parts, and trust and patience (and following the rules) is rewarded. So I’m starting with an old classic: coffee and walnut cake. You know where you are with a coffee and walnut cake. The staple of cafés up and down the country: a simple sponge mix, tempered by the bitter combination of strong coffee and a rubble of walnuts through the batter , with a pleasingly vintage clock face arrangement of walnut halves.

    I’ve decided not to muck about too much with this one – and kept it almost entirely classic. I’ve replaced caster sugar with light brown sugar, for caramel tones and tastes, but this is far from essential. Re-making this cake recently, I realised I had run out of instant coffee, but at the back of the cupboard, found a bottle of Camp Coffee. The concentrated coffee-flavoured syrup with chicory extract, with notes of chocolate and hazelnuts, that looks like it should be poured over cheap vanilla ice cream, is the perfect substitute if you don’t have instant coffee or espresso.

    My only addition is the optional candying of the obligatory walnut halves gracing the top of the cake. I’ve always felt that that bald walnut found on each slice feels a little removed from the rest of the cake, but they are so traditional that it seemed silly to do away with them. I came across a coffee and walnut cake recipe by Stephen Harris, chef and owner of the wonderful Sportsman restaurant in Seasalter, which candies the walnut topping (and opts for a far more modern rubble decoration in favour of the old-fashioned clock face walnut halves). Anyway, I couldn’t get this candying idea out of my head, but balked, I confess at the required day-long kahlua-soaking process followed by slowly drying out the nuts in a low oven. Instead, I’ve gone for a far simpler, speedier, and perhaps cheating, way of candying, by tossing the nuts in a melted sugar and butter mixture before turning out onto baking paper. I then allow the sweet coating to set before placing the halves around my cake. You do not, of course, have to candy your walnuts – of course you do not – but they do make a lovely addition should you choose to do so.

    Coffee and Walnut cake

    Makes: 1 8 inch cake (serves 8-10

    Takes: 30 minutes

    Bakes: 30 minutes


    For the sponge

    225g butter, softened

    225g light brown sugar

    4 eggs

    225g self-raising flour

    100g walnuts, chopped

    50ml espresso or a tablespoon of instant coffee made up with a splash of boiling water


    For the icing

    250g icing sugar

    125g butter

    50ml espresso or a tablespoon of instant coffee made up with a splash of boiling water


    For decoration

    10 walnut halves

    15g butter (optional)

    30g caster sugar (optional)

    ⅛ teaspoon coarse salt (optional)


    1. Preheat the oven to 160°C and line two 8 inch sandwich tins with baking paper. Cream together the light brown sugar and butter for the sponge until it is light, fluffy, and noticeably paler than before.
    2. Alternately add the eggs (one by one) and the self-raising flour, stirring thoroughly after each addition.
    3. Stir in the coffee, and fold through the walnuts. Divide the mixture between two the two cake tins and bake for 30 minutes, until the sponges are risen and, when pressed gently with a forefinger, spring back. Leave to cool in their tins for ten minutes, then remove from the tins and cool completely on a rack.
    4. While the sponges are cooling, you can make your buttercream: Cream together the icing sugar and butter until they are light and fluffy. Slowly drizzle in the coffee until it is completely combined into the mixture.
    5. Once the sponges are completely cool, remove the baking paper, and set the first sponge on a board or a plate. Spoon half of the coffee icing onto the sponge, and spread evenly with a knife. Top with the second sponge and, on top of that, the remaining half of the icing.
    6. If you’d like to candy your walnuts, melt the butter and sugar together in a small pan. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the walnut halves and swirl to completely coat the nuts; cook, stirring and swirling, for 3-4 minutes, before turning onto a non-stick surface and leaving to cool. Decorate the cake with walnut halves.