You’ve likely heard the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. This cake is a true treasure traditionally made with “trash”. Well, kind of.
Once upon a time there was this tasty treat known as zwieback, a toasted and dried sweetened white bread. It was widely used as a “teething biscuit” for babies since it would dissolve easily, but be firm enough for them to gnaw on it with their gums. Mostly it made either a slobbery or crumbly mess, or both. This cake is made with the un-slobbered part.
Usually the bottom of the package of zwieback biscuits would be full of tasty crumbs (kind of like what happens with paximathia). It would seem such a waste to just toss them, so resourceful moms found a variety of ways to use them up. Karithopita (also spelled karidopita and pronounced “kah-ree-THO-pee-tah”) is one very tasty way in which those crumbs would be repurposed.
Karithopita loosely means “walnut pie” even though we would call this a cake. It’s basically a crud-ton of walnuts held together with just enough eggs and those zwieback crumbs, then drowned in a lemony syrup. It’s resourcefulness and seasonal eating at its best, since citrus and walnuts are ready to harvest in the fall and winter.
Here’s the problem: when was the last time you saw packages of zwieback biscuits for sale? The main companies that sold them don’t anymore. Fear not! I’ve got you covered. Since the biscuits are really just dried bread made with flour, flour can be used instead. There is already enough sweetness added that you won’t miss it from the crumbs. Trust me. You also don’t have to worry about whether or not you’ve saved up enough crumbs over time and just go straight to making the cake. That sounds like a good option to me!
Karithopita (Greek Walnut & Citrus Cake) Recipe
For the syrup:
- 3/4 cup honey
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cup water
- 3 – 4 allspice berries
- 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
For the cake:
- 6 eggs, separated (both yolks and whites will be used, see my how-to post here)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- zest of one lemon (orange is also commonly used, but I already had a lemon for juicing so I used that instead)
- 1 1/4 cup cake flour (fluff the flour with a whisk first, then scoop it into a measuring cup gently to not pack it)
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (I use the “pulse” button on my processor which chops without turning it into walnut butter)
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- Lemon peel “spoon sweet” for decorating (optional, but very tasty!)
Start by making the syrup so it has time to cool a little. The rule with cakes like this is to put the syrup on as soon as the cake is done. A hot cake will absorb the liquid much better than a cooled one, but if the syrup is also hot, it makes the cake mushy. You don’t want cold syrup, though, because it becomes too thick to be absorbed.
Put all the ingredients for the syrup into a pot and bring to a boil, stirring as needed to mix everything together. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook for about five minutes. Turn the heat off, cover and set aside someplace that it will cool but not get cold.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease either a 9 x 13 inch cake pan, OR two 8 x 8 inch square pans, OR two 9 inch round cake pans.
Using either a hand mixer or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff enough to hold their shape. Set aside.
In another bowl, beat the egg yolks until light yellow and foamy. Add the sugar and lemon zest and continue to mix until the sugar is nearly dissolved. Set aside.
In another bowl, combine all the remaining dry ingredients and mix together. Add this dry mixture to your egg yolk mixture and combine. The batter will be stiff.
Add a scoop of the egg whites to the walnut mixture and GENTLY fold in. The bubbles in the egg whites will be a big part of what makes your cake rise, so if you over mix, you will pop them all. Continue to gently add the egg whites a little at a time (I added mine in about five scoops). The mixture will loosen as the moisture from the egg whites is added.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. The top of the cake should be dark brown and a toothpick stuck in the middle should come out clean. Once the cake is out of the oven, slowly ladle the syrup over, making sure to evenly distribute it (the allspice berries should be removed and are fine to go in the compost or garden). Allow the cake to cool completely.
It is traditional to cut the cake into diamond shapes for serving. Cut straight lines in one direction, then cut diagonal lines in another to make the pattern (see the pictures). The pieces can either be placed on a plate for serving, or into little paper cups. I decorated mine with slivers of traditional Greek lemon peel “spoon sweets”, but this is optional. Enjoy!