Recipes for the traditional version of Greek walnut cake (karithopita) abound. Greeks serve it on special occasions year round, most commonly at Christmas. This version is definitely a “Helen” recipe! She loves to incorporate locally-grown food in her dishes. The Papas family live in the Berkshires region in Massachusetts. Farmers’ stalls overflow with pie pumpkins in October. This fall bounty inspired Helen to create a pumpkin-infused adaptation. The result is a moist, crumbly, not-too sweet, honey-kissed cake that will delight everyone. (Excluding Sia, of course!) This recipe makes nine servings.
Syrup: 3/4 cup water; 1/2 cup honey; 1 cinnamon stick
Cake: 1 1/2 cups ground walnuts (pulverized to a bread-crumb size); 1 cup finely ground wheat biscuits or rusks (they’re a bit grainier than flour, which helps this cake achieve a crumbly texture); 1/2 cup all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 tsps baking powder; 1 1/2 tsps baking soda; 1/2 tsp salt; 1 tsp ground cinnamon; 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg; 1/4 tsp ground cloves; 1/2 cup unsalted butter; 4 eggs; 1/4 cup sugar; 3/4 cup canned pumpkin; 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt or yogurt; 1/4 cup milk
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Celsius. Butter a nine by nine inch square or round pan and put aside.
2. Bring water and cinnamon stick to a boil, and then lower the temperature, simmering for five minutes. Add the honey and simmer for another five minutes. Remove from the heat to cool.
3. Combine the walnuts, ground biscuits/rusks, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.
4. Separate the egg yolks and egg whites. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
5. Cream the butter with the egg yolks and sugar. Beat in the pumpkin, yogurt and milk.
6. Blend the dry ingredients with the wet ones, adding one-third of the dry mix at a time. The cake batter will look too thick to you. Stay calm!
7. Fold in the egg whites. You’ll see that the batter becomes looser, although it’s still thicker than that of most cakes. The stiffened egg whites added in this separate stage help this heavy batter become a bit fluffier. It’s also the reason for what might seem to you to be a relatively high amount of baking powder and baking soda.
8. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan. The batter will still be thick, so you’ll need to spread it out with the flatter side of the spoon.
9. Bake for around forty-five minutes. When a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, it’s done.
10. Remove the cake from the oven. Take the cinnamon stick out of the cooled syrup and immediately pour it evenly over the entire cake. Allow the cake to absorb the syrup (minimum two hours) before serving. Note: This cake freezes quite well.
*Alternative Ingredients: Try it with maple syrup instead of honey. Switch out the white sugar with brown (it pairs better with the syrup). If you like citrus notes, add a three-inch orange peel (pith removed) to the syrup at the water and cinnamon stage, as well as some grated orange zest to the cake batter (mix it with the dry ingredients).
Serving Suggestions: Like many Greek sweets, this cake is a mite heavy to serve immediately following a meal. Instead, live like a Greek (!), and serve it an hour or so later or as a mid-day or evening treat.
This cake is delicious as is or add some more culinary oomph by drizzling it with a dark chocolate sauce. If you’re serving it exclusively to grown-ups, a bit of Metaxa brandy in that sauce provides a zesty kick! Garnish with whipped cream.
For those unfamiliar with Greek Metaxa brandy, it’s a heady mixture of brandy and wine. The rich flavors include citrus notes and anise. It pairs beautifully with Greek desserts. Many Greek cooks will add a tablespoon or so to their syrups and/or cake batters. It can also be served as part of a speciality coffee accompanying the sweet.