Walnut Cake or Gâteau aux Noix

I first ate this cake many moons ago in Sarlat in the Dordogne (or the Périgord Noir if you prefer). It's a town with an abundant supply of walnuts, as well as a truly excellent market. In my selfless struggle to make as many French cakes as possible I decided to recreate this little treat. I soon realised that there were almost as many variants of this cake as there are geese around Sarlat (and that's a lot of geese). At long last this is the version that I think comes closest to that original cake and happily it's also just about the simplest.

This really is a cake, honest, but I think of it mostly as a dessert. Small pieces are really good with an espresso or some classic, strong tea but I think it comes into its own when served warm or cold as a dessert with apple or rhubarb compote or poached pear and crème fraîche. It’s also very pleasing when drizzled with dark chocolate.

It's possible to buy ground walnuts and that's the easiest way to make this cake but I usually make my own just to be sure that they're fresh. Walnuts don't seem to keep well once ground and can start to taste bitter. The walnuts in this recipe don't need to be very finely ground, in fact they can be quite coarse as long as you get rid of any serious chunks. It's easiest to pulse the nuts in a food processor but don't overdo it or you'll end up with an oily mess. The slightly more traditional method involves grinding them in a classic mouli-légumes but it's also a lot slower so allow a bit of time if you try it. Whatever method you use I think it's best to prepare the walnuts shortly before using.
Walnut Cake or Gâteau aux Noix
150 g ground walnuts
80 g plain flour
4 eggs
100 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus a bit extra for the tin)
120 g golden caster sugar

You'll need a tin of around 23 cm diameter for this cake. I find a springform tin easiest if you have one but it's not critical. It doesn't need to be a deep tin since this gâteau really doesn't rise as much as a classic cake. Butter the tin and line the base. Preheat the oven to 180⁰C.

Stir the ground walnuts and the flour together. Separate the eggs and whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until they're pale and doubled in volume. Whisk the cool, melted butter into the eggs and sugar mixture, lower the speed of the mixer and add the flour and walnuts gradually until well combined (don't overmix at this stage).

In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites to the firm peak stage. Stir a spoonful or two of the egg whites into the cake mixture to loosen it, then fold the rest in gently.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, even out the top and bake for around 20 minutes. When done the cake should have a nice light brown colour and a knife point should come out clean. The cake will remain relatively dense - remember that this is more dessert than cake.

Allow the gâteau to cool for 5 minutes before removing from the tin and leaving to cool completely on a rack.
In A Sarlat Garden


  1. Phil, this sounds wonderful! And I love the tip on preparing the walnuts just before you need them. Walnuts DO go bitter. I just posted the Gateau Nantais (with a link to you, of course) this morning. Your Sarlat garden photo looks like a travel poster!

    1. I've never been a fan of ready-ground walnuts - they just don't seem to store well. I'm not sure that my picture would work as a travel poster - usually people avoid all places where they might come across me.

  2. This looks lovely! We get a good supply of windfall walnuts every year, they just fall off the trees around the village and we pick them up when walking our dog. Several pocketfuls every day soon add up to enough to last until the next year. Having fresh, unshelled walnuts on hand means they are always freshly chopped or ground so thanks for the tip for this recipe.

    1. I've been told (on dodgy authority) that there's an unofficial tradition in the Périgord that if you have excess walnuts from the trees in your garden, then you take them to your neighbours as a present. Your neighbours will also have an excess of walnuts but will be too polite to refuse your gift. Walnuts then spend many months passing from person to person until someone without a walnut tree is happy to accept them or they just get buried and forgotten. Personally, I'd always be happy to get free walnuts.

  3. Just my kind of cake! I agree that walnuts seem to get bitter after you've ground them, and need using up. Love the photo.

    1. I know that there are carefully packed, ground walnuts for sale which claim to taste fresh but I'd be very uneasy about using them based on past experience. I suppose that the difficulty in storing walnuts might be the reason why pickled walnuts became a popular delicacy in this country in the past.


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