Grandma’s Italian Walnut Cake

Grandma’s Italian Walnut Cake looks simple and spartan, but the flavors are bold and complex, with the fragrance of toasted walnuts, citrus zest, and rum. It’s a single-layer, round cake decorated with a simple sprinkling of powdered sugar.  Grandma often had this walnut cake in the freezer, ready to serve guests stopping by.  

Years ago, when I called Grandma Willa to ask for the recipe, she told me the list of ingredients, then jumped to to the finale of dusting the cake with powdered sugar at the end.  When I asked about the cake batter process, she scolded me, “Don’t you know how to bake a cake?”  Touché. This essentially means it’s an easy cake to whip up. Basically combine wet ingredients then add the dry ingredients.

I have changed Grandma’s recipe by toasting the walnuts and adding salt.  Many old fashioned cake recipes omit salt, but I like a little salt in my dessert to bring out the rest of the flavors. I also increased the amount of citrus zest, and sometimes I play around with the liquor option. The original calls for rum, but last time I used Italian amaro.

Also, I often make the cake with whole-wheat pastry flour instead of white flour.  Both types of flours work beautifully, but the whole-wheat flour makes it a little more healthful.  This is a comparatively nutritious cake because it’s roughly half walnuts, with the batter essentially holding the cake together.

Serve with strong coffee, or small glass of limoncello or sherry.

Grandma’s italian walnut cake

2 1/2 cups walnuts

8 tablespoons butter

1 cup sugar or coconut sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum, sherry, limoncello, or Italian amaro

zest of 2 lemons or 2 small oranges (or a combination)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

1 cup flour (whole-wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour)

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt


Heat the oven to 350F. While the oven is warming up, toast the walnuts in the oven until fragrant.  Meanwhile prepare the cake batter.  

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a bowl with a hand mixer).  Add the rum, citrus zest, vanilla, and egg. Beat to combine.  Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.

When the walnuts come out of the oven, chop them fine.  Stir them into the cake batter.

Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.  Pour the batter in the pan, and bake at 350F for around 40 minutes (depending on your oven).  The top will be golden brown, and an inserted toothpick will come out clean.  

Invert the cake onto a cake plate by placing the plate upside down on the cake in the pan, then quickly flipping it over.  The cake should easily slip onto the cake plate.  Dust with powdered sugar, using a sifter or strainer.

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Vegan Hummingbird Cake
Fresh Cherry Upside Down Cake
Great-Great-Aunt Tillie’s Date Cake


    1. Kate Wentland

      You could increase the vanilla, but you might want to think about other kinds of alcohols that have nice complex flavors in desserts. You could think about substituting a citrus-based liqueur like Grand Marnier or limoncello, or some sherry. Good luck

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