Walnut Torte

I lived in Louisiana for three and a half years and ate my share of pecan pies while there. I’ve made quite a few of them too, from plain ones to chocolate and Bourbon variations—nut and caramel flavors go well with dessert wines. But no matter how good the pie, all these baking and eating efforts never replaced the walnut torte I grew up on in Switzerland. Tarte aux noix des Grisons (Graubünder Nusstorte/walnut torte) is a specialty of the Grisons (Graubünden), the canton in eastern Switzerland where our fourth language, Romansh, is spoken, but it is found throughout the country. It features a shortbread-like dough and a caramely walnut filling sweetened—and flavored—with honey. No corn syrup here, which gives the torte a smoother, creamier filling than its pecan cousin. The tartelette version is open faced, the family-size topped with more dough, which completely encases the filling. Something a very thin layer of chocolate is brushed over the top. It’s the type of tart we buy in pastry and gourmet shops, not so much something we make at home, at least not in my region. Because it is so rich and dense, we cut it in small slivers, to enjoy as dessert or with coffee or tea in the afternoon. It gets better after a day or two, as the flavors mellow together.

Tarte aux noix des Grisons
Tarte aux noix des Grisons, Thanksgiving 2012 (with vanilla buttercream-filled hazelnut macarons and a ginger-molasses cake)

Unfortunately it’s not something I can find commercially here, even in the best New York pastry shops. And I’ve grown tired of pecan pies, which are too often much too sweet. So in recent years, I’ve started making my own tarte aux noix, trying each time to perfect it a little more. I don’t like very sweet desserts but yet I want the honey in the torte to come through, so I use a one with a strong flavor, and not too much of it. A local wildflower honey made at the height of the summer is perfect. Something like buckwheat is a bit too strong and doesn’t taste very “Swiss.” Clover is too mild. I make both open and closed tortes—the open-faced version gives me quicker access to the filling, so I don’t always bother eating even the bottom crust. That’s the craving version. The ratio of dough to filling can easily be off in a closed torte, since the typical dough can be thick, so make sure to roll it thinly enough. An open-faced torte will not have that problem but I like the aesthetic of a closed one; it’s also easier to transport.

Nearly all my Swiss baking books have a recipe, and I’ve tinkered with them all. But when American friends ask me for a recipe, I point them to Nick Malgieri’s. It’s adapted for U.S. ingredients and kitchens, so easy to follow, especially if you’ve never made it before. It also tastes very much like the tartes aux noix I eat when I go home—essential taste tests to keep my palate well informed of all the nuances of this truly special dessert.

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