Our recipe of the month is Karydopita (Καρυδόπιτα) or Greek Walnut Cake. Kardopita is a delicious concoction of walnuts, cinnamon, and a hint of orange which is baked and then suffused with a sugary syrup. It is enjoyed around Christmas time and other special occasions. It is a very good dish to make ahead of time and take to a potluck party.
Enjoyed throughout Greece on birthdays, anniversaries, name days and particularly Christmas, Karydopita has withstood the test of time. The word Karydopita is a compound word derived from karýdia meaning "Walnut" and pita which means "pie". As Karydopita is crust-less and often made with flour and eggs, it is more similar to a cake than a pie. The syrup it is infused with either a sugar syrup (simple syrup) or spiced rum, brandy or cognac. Greek desserts infused with syrup, such as Baklava, Galaktoboureko, Saragli, Kataifi and Karydopita belong to a category of desserts known as "syropiasta" (lit. with syrup). Unlike Baklava, Karydopita is lighter and more cake-like. The recipe calls for crushed walnuts (not too fine!). For best taste it is generally preferred to shell the nuts yourself, but pre-shelled nuts are acceptable. While still in the baking pan, Karydopita is cut diagonally to create diamond-shaped pieces.
Karydopita is often served with Greek yogurt or Kaimaki ice cream, aka "Mastic ice cream", a "stretchy" ice cream flavored with mastiha and the stretchy texture is from Salep powder. Kaimaki is a resin from the mastic bush/tree (pistacia lentiscus) related to the pistachio tree. According to the New York Times, Jim Botsacos, head chef of the Manhattan restaurant Molyvos, likens the taste to a subtle blend of fennel, anise and mint. It is most famously grown on the Greek Island of Chios. You can buy 20 grams of Chios Mastihi on Amazon here (paid link). Salep powder is derived the roots of a variety of wild orchids that grow in Turkey. Unfortunately, the plants are over-harvested, and this has led to various export bans for Salep powder. Fear not, vanilla ice cream will do fine!
Interesting variations: Some recipes omit flour and use more eggs that are whipped into a meringue. While cinnamon is common to all recipes, additional ingredients such as ginger, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, vanilla and raisins are also found in recipes. I imagine cardamom would also taste great. Some recipes call for the addition of cognac or brandy. All recipes call for citrus, some suggest lemon, others use orange. Oils used in making the cake also vary, including; butter, vegetable or olive oil. Lastly, typically walnuts are either chopped and festooned evenly on top of the finished cake or, for a different presentation, after slicing the cake in a diamond pattern, a half of walnut can be placed on each individual piece of Karydopita.
Personal note: My wife (Shari) and I are not fans of overly sweet foods, which is probably why we don't have many dessert recipes in the Participant Observer collection. As an experiment, I used half the recommended amount of syrup the recipe normally calls for. For us, the results were absolutely fantastic. The walnut taste, spices and level of sweetness came out (at least, for us) perfectly balanced and the lingering aftertaste was light and very pleasant. So if you love super-sweet desserts, go for it and use the entire amount. If, like us, you have a limit of sweetness you'd rather not exceed, use less syrup.
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated white sugar
- 1 cup whole milk
- 6 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg (optional)
- 1/3 cup brandy or cognac (we used pear cognac) (optional)
- 2 cups of coarsely chopped/crushed shelled walnuts
- 24 walnut halves (for decoration, optional)
- Vanilla ice cream (optional)
- 2 cups water
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- Outer peel of an orange (may use lemon zest instead)
- Add all ingredients to a small pot and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350*F.
- Grease a 9x13 inch (or 12" round) baking pan.
- In an electric mixer, combine all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, spices and walnuts) and mix well.
- In a separate bowl, thoroughly mix all the wet ingredients (oil, milk, eggs, cognac).
- With the mixer on low, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and continue mixing for 2 minutes.
- Pour the batter into the baking pan and place the pan in the preheated oven.
- Bake for about 35 - 40 minutes. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick into the cake; if it comes out clean, the cake is done.
- When done, remove cake pan from oven and let it cool.
- Cut the cake in a criss-cross diagonal pattern.
- For decorative effect, place a walnut half on each piece of cake.
- Evenly pour the entire amount of syrup over the cake.
- Before serving, let the cake sit until all the syrup is completely absorbed.
- Serve with vanilla ice cream (optional).
Καλή όρεξη! [Kalí óreksi!] (Bon Appétit)
Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photos by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill