julia’s walnut cake with french butter icing

This cake. It is probably the most requested cake in the history of my family. I do not say that lightly. It’s the one that would be devoured at countless celebrations. The tale of my history with this recipe is a bit long but definitely worth telling.

My first sampling of this deliciousness was offered to me back in 1972. I was a newlywed and my mother-in-law served this treat after one of her amazing dinners. My first reaction was to express my sincere praise …then to request the recipe. I assumed it was one that she had originated since she and my father-in-law had owned and operated a very successful bakery in their younger years. She explained that the recipe actually came from a good friend some years prior. She said that she had a typewritten sheet from her friend, Julia, and that she would be happy to make a copy for me.

Fast forward to 2015. My husband, John, and I were planning a trip to coastal California and would be flying into San Francisco. After some casual Facebook conversations with John’s childhood friends, we decided to meet up at Fisherman’s Wharf to catch up and spend a fun-filled day in our favorite city. John and Diane have lived in that region for most of their adult life and my husband hadn’t spent time with them for about fifty years!! I won’t make this long story longer with the details of the day but you can be assured that we had a wonderful time. We travel to California very often (particularly to San Francisco) so we do our best to get together with them during each visit. Back to that recipe…

Not long after that ‘reunion’ visit with the Smugeresky’s, I was planning to make the infamous walnut cake. I pulled out the recipe and, for the first time, noticed the name printed under the heading. It was Julia Smugeresky! What were the odds that this was the same family? I immediately sent a message to our friend….

John, take a look at the attached recipe. This is our family’s favorite cake…. I got the recipe from my mother-in-law, Mary Bish, many years ago. I recently made this cake for a family gathering and, for the first time, noticed the name under the title. Could that possibly be your mom or one of your relatives? If so…. such a small world!!”

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

It wasn’t long before I heard back from him… “That’s my Mom and the recipe that she was most proud of! She made many a cake for our family and friends for their special occasions! She would be beaming today and maybe is, knowing that Mary Bish was one of her fans for the recipe! “

I was so glad to learn that this was his mom’s recipe. And how awesome is this? John shared a picture of himself as a toddler sitting on his mom’s lap? Isn’t it great to be reminded that our folks are always with us? Now let’s get back to that amazing cake…

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

The instructions for making this cake are similar to most …with a few minor additions. The walnuts are roughly chopped before adding them to the batter. It’s best to coarsely chop them by hand so that you end up with some larger pieces. They will add wonderful texture to the cake.

The flour is sifted together with the baking powder so that they are well incorporated. This can also be achieved by mixing them with a whisk.

Also, before mixing the batter, the eggs are separated so that the whites can be stiffly beaten. They will be folded in as the final addition.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

The butter and sugar are beaten until creamy, followed by the egg yolks. With the mixer set on low to medium, the flour mixture is then added in small amounts alternately with the milk and vanilla extract. Once the mixture is well blended, the chopped walnuts are folded in followed by the beaten egg whites. Be careful to not over-mix. 

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

Once the egg whites are folded into the mix, you’re ready to transfer the batter to your prepared baking pans. The original recipe for this cake instructs you to bake it in a “greased tube pan in a 350°F oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes.” For many years, I followed that written word and it always baked perfectly. The only complaint I heard was that they wished they had some of that wonderful icing on every single bite. 

My solution is that I bake it in two 8” layer cake pans. Then I take it a step further. Keep reading …you’ll see what I mean.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

While the cake is baking and then cooling, start working on the French Butter Icing. This really is the best buttercream frosting I’ve ever had. In my entire life. You know how good the icing is at Cinnabon? Well this is better!

You start off by cooking the milk and flour over low heat until it is thick and pasty. It will need to cool off so just cover it with plastic wrap or waxed paper and place it in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

While that is cooling, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar until creamy. Add the vanilla extract and continue beating until well incorporated. The cooled milk & flour sauce is then added to the mix.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

Continue beating until the mixture just about doubles in bulk and is very fluffy.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

Now onto maximizing that icing experience. I turn my two layers of cake into four layers. It just takes a few extra minutes to guarantee that your layers are level. Insert toothpicks around the perimeter of each cake …carefully placed halfway up all around. Using a very sharp large knife, use the toothpicks as your guide and cut each cake in half horizontally. Voila! You now have four layers.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

Using a pastry brush, gently remove any excess crumbs. And, of course, remove and discard the toothpicks. Choose your cake plate or stand. Cut four strips of parchment paper and place them around the edges of the plate, as shown here. This will minimize the amount of overflow icing and crumbs that will end up on your serving dish. Then place just a dab of prepared icing to the center of the plate so that the cake will be less likely to shift as you frost it.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icingjulia's walnut cake with french butter icing

I find that it is easier to spread the frosting on each layer if it has been placed cut-side-down on the plate. Way less crumbs that way. Spread the frosting from the center out to the edges where you may need a little extra to fill in any gaps. Once the stack is complete, pile the remaining frosting on the top of the cake. Spread it out to the edges then using an offset spatula, smooth out the sides of the cake all the way around. If you need a bit more frosting here and there to fill in gaps, just grab some from the top of the cake. I love the new look that’s featured on layer cakes these days with the almost bare sides with just a smear here and there.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

If you want to fancy things up a bit, add some whole walnuts here and there along with some greens. An alternate way to finish off your work of art is to sprinkle additional chopped walnuts all over the top of the cake. Either way, this one is delicious.

Thank you, Julia. ❤️

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

Compliments of the Smugeresky Family

For that special occasion.

Servings 16 to 20 servings
Author Rosemary Stelmach

Ingredients

Julia's Walnut Cake

  • 1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (preferrably chopped by hand, not too fine)

French Butter Icing

  • 1 cup milk
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Instructions

Julia's Walnut Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans generously with butter or shortening.

  2. In a large bowl, Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg yolks and continue beating until incorporated. With the mixer set on low to medium, the flour and baking powder is then added in small amounts alternately with the milk and vanilla extract.

  3. Fold in the chopped walnuts. Beat the egg whites on high speed until peaks form. Gently fold the stiff egg whites into the batter. Be careful to not over-mix. 

  4. Pour batter evenly into the prepared cake pans. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. * See Recipe Notes for alternate method.

  5. Transfer the cake pans to a cooling rack. Once cool enough to handle, run a sharp knife around the outer edge of each pan. Invert over the rack to release the cakes. Allow to cool thoroughly before frosting.

French Butter Icing

  1. Cook the milk and flour over low heat until it is thick and pasty. Cover it with plastic wrap or waxed paper and place it in the fridge until cool for 20 to 30 minutes.

  2. Beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar until creamy in a medium sized bowl. Add the vanilla extract and continue beating until well incorporated. The cooled milk & flour sauce is then added to the mix. Continue beating until the mixture just about doubles in bulk and is very fluffy.

Cake Assembly

  1. Insert toothpicks around the perimeter of each cake carefully placed halfway up all around. Using a very sharp large knife, use the toothpicks as your guide and cut each cake in half horizontally. You now have four layers.

  2. Using a pastry brush, gently remove any excess crumbs. Remove and discard the toothpicks. Choose your cake plate or stand. Cut four strips of parchment paper and place them around the edges of the plate. This will minimize the amount of overflow icing and crumbs that will end up on your serving dish. Then place just a dab of prepared icing to the center of the plate so that the cake will be less likely to shift as you frost it.

  3. It is easier to spread the frosting on each layer if it has been placed cut-side-down on the plate. Way less crumbs that way. Spread the frosting from the center out to the edges where you may need a little extra to fill in any gaps. Once the stack is complete, pile the remaining frosting on the top of the cake. Spread it out to the edges then using an offset spatula, smooth out the sides of the cake all the way around. If you need a bit more frosting here and there to fill in gaps, just grab some from the top of the cake.

  4. Sprinkle additional chopped walnuts all over the top of the cake. Or top it off with a handful of whole walnuts and some fresh greens.

Recipe Notes

* Alternatively, bake the cake in a greased tube pan in a 350°F oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes.

julia's walnut cake with french butter icing

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