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Greece: Karithopita (Walnut Cake with Olive Oil)

Karithopita: Greek walnut cake with olive oil (and Greek yogurt on the side)

When talking about Greek sweet dishes from the beginning of recorded history through about 1800, the subject can be summed up in three words: "nuts and honey." Until a couple of centuries ago, wheat and other high-protein grains were scarce enough to be reserved almost exclusively for bread...

and no one would waste such precious commodities on sweets. Fortunately, nuts -- like olives -- prosper in even the most arid and unforgiving landscapes of Greece. Almonds and walnuts are everywhere, as well as sweet oil-bearing seeds like sesame. (One modern Greek dessert, pasteli, is a direct descendant of the very ancient toasted-sesame-and-honey confection called intrion and mentioned in Homer's Iliad: unmistakeably what we would recognize as an energy bar, which the fighting men brought into battle with them for when they needed a quick carb-and-sugar boost.)

The recipes native to the mountainous Greek uplands give us the first indications of how Greek people started using nuts in cooking, especially the plentiful walnut. They ground them down to near-flourlike consistency to make dense breads and cakes, in almost the same way Alpine peoples still deal with chestnuts. Later on, when wheat and other lighter grain-based flours like barley started to become more available, and other cultures' foodways started to trickle through Greek life -- particularly from the sophisticated pastry kitchens of the Byzantines, who also incidentally brought with them the earliest refined sugars and sugar syrups -- more of these grain flours started getting involved in sweet cakes, and the nuts began to be seen more as a flavoring. And olive oil, used from very ancient times in Greek baking, especially in wheat breads and some of the more traditional flat cakes, was still very much at the heart of the Greek kitchen and would have been seen as the preferred shortening. The most traditional karithopita recipes arise from this later baking tradition.

No recipe so old stays in its original form for long. These days, with the near-universal easy availability of butter, the use of olive oil in baking karathopida has fallen a little out of fashion -- especially since when creamed together with sugar, butter traps more air and allows for a higher rise. Baking powder, also a relatively recent development, has crept into the equation too as Greek tastes become increasingly influenced by more westerly dessert traditions.

But it's worth remembering that karithopita was always meant to be solid stuff -- not just because of the lack of raising agents in traditional recipes, but also due to the familiar eastern-Mediterranean tactic of soaking the newly baked cake, hot out of the oven, with boiling honey or sugar syrup. And the olive oil adds a deeper dimension of flavor to the cake that butter can't. Cut in the traditional long diamond or lozenge shapes, this dessert turns up all over Greece, and was felt by the locals to be so popular and representative of the national character that it was sent to the 50th birthday celebrations of the European Union as one of the fifty-four "national birthday cakes".

Our recipe goes back to the traditional olive oil for shortening, while also including the more modern baking powder to lighten the proceedings. Like more traditional versions, this recipe also uses fine semolina for half the basis of the cake. Making it this way produces a lighter finished product (though if you don't have access to semolina, simply swap in cake flour instead). Finally, our version of karithopita finishes with the traditional sweet syrup, flavored with cinnamon, clove and lemon rind. (The image above shows it as EuroCuisineGuy likes it, with a big dollop of Greek yogurt on the side to balance the dessert's sweetness.)

For the cake:

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup granulated sugar / caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup flour (cake flour if available)
  • 1 cup semolina (if you can't get it, use another 1/2 cup cake flour)
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped or ground walnuts
  • Small amount of butter for the baking pan

For the syrup:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 5 cm / 3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon or orange rind

Making the cake:

Preheat the oven to 350F / 175 C. (If you're using a convection oven, you may want to decrease the temperature by 10 degrees or so, as fan ovens do tend to run hot.) Grease a baking pan liberally with butter. (Oil seems not to work so well for this.) You can use a standard 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch pan if you like, but a deep 9x9 baking pan seems to work as well.

Chop the walnuts roughly in a food processor or by hand. If you wind up with some nuts chopped very small and others larger, this is just fine.

Beat the olive oil, lemon rind and caster sugar together until very well mixed and creamy. Add the egg yolks and beat again very thoroughly. Don't expect this mixture to behave the way butter and sugar act when you cream them together with eggs. Everything is going to remain very liquid, and this is perfectly normal.

Meanwhile, sift together the flour, semolina, baking powder and cinnamon at least twice (you can do it three times if you're feeling energetic or want the cinnamon completely evenly distributed).

Alternately stir the flour / semolina / baking powder / cinnamon mixture and 2 cups of the chopped walnuts gently into the mixture of eggs and oil. (The rest of the walnuts are for the cake's topping.) Don't overmix. Set this bowl aside for a little.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites to the stiff-peak stage. Scoop these into the bowl with the rest of the cake batter and fold them in carefully, trying to keep as much air in the whole mixture as possible.

Pour the batter into your prepared baking pan and put in the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top starts to scorch, put foil loosely over it for the last 10-20 minutes of baking.

Now make the syrup. Dissolve the 2 cups of sugar in the 2 cups of water and add the cloves, lemon zest and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and boil steadily for 10 minutes. At this point turn the heat down but keep the syrup quite warm while you wait for the cake to finish baking.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and use your testing skewer to poke at least twenty holes in it all over. Bring the syrup up to the boil again, remove from the heat and pour it all over the cake. Don't hurry this process too much: it works best to pour in about a third of the syrup, wait until it's mostly absorbed by the cake, and then pour in the second third: wait again, and pour in the remainder.

Leave the cake alone for half an hour or so and then sprinkle the remaining chopped walnuts over the top. Allow the cake to cool completely.

When it's cooled, cut it into diamond-shaped slices and serve with:

  • Créme fraiche
  • Yogurt
  • And / or a drizzle of honey
  • And / or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice


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