Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is a village nestled under a cliff alongside the Vézère River in the beautiful Dordogne region of southwestern France. The self-proclaimed “capitale mondiale de la préhistoire,” it boasts a supremely boring (but, I understand, newly revamped) museum of prehistory and a nameless café where I bought some Orangina and used the bathroom. Most importantly, however, it was in Les Eyzies that I had my first taste of a gâteau aux noix, a French walnut cake.
It was October 1999, and I was a month into my two-quarter stay in France as a student in the Stanford-in-Paris program. Thanks to Helen Bing, a truly worship-worthy Stanford donor, we students hopped a train down to Brive-la-Gaillarde and spent a weekend Dordogne-ing with luxury accommodations for a grand total of roughly $40 each. My friend Clare and I were assigned a ridiculously extravagant suite à la française and spent each evening marveling at our good fortune and happily yelling goodnight to each other from our bedrooms at opposite ends of a long, marble-lined hallway.
Other highlights of the trip included:
-a chilly late-night tour of the town of Sarlat, followed by much dancing in a tight, smoky bar to shameful hits such as “Mambo Number Five” and “Tomber la Chemise;”
-befriending Gui, my dear, gorgeous, long-lost Brazilian and one of the flakiest people I’ve ever adored;
-befriending my dear Keaton;
-watching Gui run frantically around the very old Château de Beynac, trying to stay warm on a nippy morning;
-the decadent multi-course feasts of this region known for its truffles, cèpes, and foie gras (the last of which I’m undecided on but strive to avoid);
-and a dinner of pain de son (bran bread) and Peanut M&Ms on the train-ride back to Paris.
But five years later, it’s the walnut cake that haunts me. It had been baked at our hotel and plastic-wrapped in individual wedges for us to take on our day’s sightseeing, and I ate it perched atop a large, sunny rock in a park in Les Eyzies. Nothing fancy, it was a dense-crumbed white cake flecked with brown, humble, nutty, and only faintly sweet. Nothing fancy, it was delicious.
Last July, I found a recipe for it in Gâteaux de Mamie, but an eager trial run resulted in an oddly rubbery, leaden cake that made it no further than the trashcan. After a sufficient hiatus, this week I tried again, turning instead to a Saveur recipe dug up online in a moment of reprieve from a tedious editing task. Calling for walnut oil and white wine, it intrigued me, but I was a bit unsure of the potent, fruity aroma of fermented grapes and toasted nuts that wafted from the oven.
I needn’t have worried.
It was nothing fancy; it was delicious; and I ate a quarter of it on the spot, thinking of Gui and Clare and Keaton and the autumnal colors of a river valley thousands of miles away.
Gâteau aux Noix, or French-Style Walnut Cake
Adapted slightly from Saveur Cooks Authentic French
½ cup chopped walnuts, or a touch more
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup walnut oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350. Place walnuts in a small dry saucepan and toast over medium heat, shaking pan, until nuts are fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Set aside.
Beat eggs in a medium bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is pale yellow, light, and fluffy. Add walnut oil and wine and mix well.
Generously grease a 9” cake pan (I used an 8-inch with no problem, by the way; your cake will just be a bit thicker). Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Gently fold in walnuts, and then pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake cake until a toothpick can be inserted and pulled out clean, about 40 minutes (mine took only 35, however, and required a bit of tenting with foil for the last five). Remove from oven, cool for ten minutes, and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely and serve in wedges. Loosely whipped cream would be a nice accompaniment, if possible.